Deprived for a cause? of strikes and students

 

A few weeks ago, 23-year-old Shafeer Ahamed, a Jaffna University medical student celebrated his first year since the boycott of lectures at the faculty began. His union had warned him and other students not to attend lectures until the government made a decision on the status of the South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine (SAITM).

To commemorate the event, a reluctantly defiant Ahamed took to Facebook.

“I entered University in January 2015 on my first attempt. After our second year final exams, we got vacation and just two weeks into our lectures thereafter, we were asked to boycott them. All academic activities have been stopped since then,” said Ahamed.

“I am involved in social service activities at home in Kathankudy and at times I also teach science, biology and chemistry to O/L students in the area.

It has been over a year since I returned home and I was starting to get sick of it. So my friends and I decided that we would go back to our hostel at the University. Now, we just sit around here playing games and watching movies,” he added.

As an acceptable solution to the issue has been slow in coming, Ahamed said his initial resolve to continue with the strike no matter what, has started to wane. “Now I think that we should continue our strike but not let our studies be affected. It would be great if we can do both in parallel,” he said.

Ahamed is not alone in his struggle. According to the University Grants Commission (UGC), the 2015 intake for Medicine was at 6,226 students for all state universities. Today they all remain at home, adamant that they will only go back to University, once SAITM is abolished or taken over by the government.

Waiting to be called

Whilst Ahamed struggles to progress with his studies, 21-year-old Mahinda Senarath has not even started his. Having been chosen for Medicine at the Rajarata University this year, the UGC is yet to inform him of when he would need to report for his first lecture.

“I have been trying to get into medicine for the last two years. The seniors are on strike, so for the last seven months, we are at home, not knowing when we will get in,” he said.

In the meantime, he has taken to working as an intern in a private company. His seniors at the Rajarata Medical Faculty union however have already made contact with him and all those in his district of Matale through social media and ‘whatsapp groups’. They keep him up to date and aware of why he needs to oppose SAITM and constantly pressure him to join protests.

“They call for picketing but I have not been able to go because I am working,” said Senarath, but stressed that it was important that all keep the struggle going.

“I am not sure when this will end, it has been seven months and we have had no news. I have no faith that this would be resolved soon. If they decide to go back to lectures next year at least, I will be 22 when I enter University and by the time I complete the degree, I will be 27,” he added.

“In a country like ours, you cannot expect the private sector to maintain standards and for the regulators to do their job. So it is better that the government takes it over,” said Senarath echoing the stance followed by his union.

Shyamali Perera who is in a similar position as Senarath however, has started to run out of patience though she is quick to add that she understands that the struggle is for the benefit of all.

“No matter what the solution is, I hope it is given quickly. And every year it is going to affect more and more students. We cannot go for lectures until the batch before us completes theirs, so I can only think that it will be worse for those who come after us,” she said.

Keeping the fight going

SAITM which began in 2008 has been an issue of contention for state university students from the start. It not only goes against their belief of not privatising education but its questionable standards have fuelled the fire of union protests and it helps their leaders justify their cause to new recruits.

Sapumal Bandara (23) is technically in his third year of study at the Rajarata University Medical Faculty. The boycott of lectures at his faculty started when he had one and a half months of lectures to complete in his second year and was poised to sit for the end of year exams. If not for the boycott, he would be completing almost seven months into his third year. At present however, he occupies his time with campaign work for the Inter University Student Federation (IUSF) where he is an active member.

“All seven Medical Faculties in the country have now decided that we need to support this boycott. At present we are heavily involved in campaign work. Earlier it was faculty based, but now we are doing it district wise and we are joining together with other trade unions to widen our reach. We don’t have Faculties everywhere, but every district has students, so we are targeting them. If you take Matale, we bring together all students in the Matale district and use them to organize and launch our campaign,” said a highly motivated Bandara, who hails from Aluvihare, Matale and received his education at Dharmaraja College, Kandy.

One for all, all for one

As the campaign wears on however, it has become paramount that the unions keep the students who are in the struggle motivated and in line with the cause.

“I am fully committed to this. We cannot think of problems as separate individuals. This is all part of our collective responsibility. These things do affect us greatly in a personal sense; the girls suffer more because the older they get, the later every other decision in their life, like marriage, is going to get. But, the girls too have not been hesitant to join us because they have a good understanding of the problem,” said Bandara.

He added that the more committed all of them were to the cause, the sooner they would see results.

“The government does not have money for education because of corruption. The people work 365 days a year to pay taxes to the government and bring in revenue and if there is a problem in our government revenue, it is only the government to blame. Whether you take the Uma Oya problem or Meethotamulla, the government makes a mistake and then they have to pay compensation, but that too from our tax money. Education is a right and no matter whether you have money or not, you must have access to it,” explained Bandara further.

Where does the information come from?

The IUSF’s arguments on ‘equality’ are not hard to follow and for 24-year-old Hana Thowfeek, they have given her new found purpose.

“I entered university after my third attempt. I always wanted to become a doctor. Protests against SAITM were being carried out even before I entered university. On the very first day itself we were advised to participate in the protests and it was compulsory,” she explained.

“I do participate in the protests and I believe in what the 'union aiyas’ tell us,” she stressed.

Thowfeek along with others in her batch attend continuous workshops “to educate them on the state of private education in Sri Lanka and SAITM”.

“Once we were taken to Anuradhapura to stage protests, we were there for three days. They even provided us with accommodation. We had several awareness programmes and it was very useful for the students. We will not turn back until the government takes a proper decision on SAITM,” said a defiant Thowfeek.

While she was disappointed that it would take her an additional two years to complete her medical degree, Thowfeek said she was not worried about it too much. “We are fighting to protect the standard of education in Sri Lanka,” she added as she echoed Bandara’s statements.

Thowfeek’s main source of information on education and SAITM come from the union and she is not alone, as Senarath, Perera, Ahamed and Bandara too echo the same union rhetoric. And neither have anyone questioned or challenged the arguments of the ‘ayyas’.

Followers

Dr. Madushanka Halpewattage currently practices at the Mankulam Hospital and is part of the Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA) and explained that “everyone automatically joins the union at university”.

“The union handles all student welfare and everything has to go through the union welfare committee, so everyone is part of it. We only have one union and union heads are elected by your batch mates; all are friends,” said Dr. Halpewattage who was also a batch leader in his time at the University of Kelaniya.

The struggle against SAITM began when he was in his second year. “Our seniors discussed the issue, and they made us aware of it. Thereafter we discussed it as a batch and the decisions made by all were similar; we all were against SAITM,” he said; an active demonstrator against SAITM at the time.

“I feel that we could have stopped things then. I feel ashamed that we didn’t fight hard enough at the time to stop this, so the kids now wouldn’t have to go through this,” said Dr. Halpewattage.

Fighting to the end

Having been extensively involved in the struggle against SAITM, Bandara believed that they would soon see some positive results.

“In the late 80s, the students boycotted lectures for three years before the North Colombo Medical College was closed down but the situation today is different. Then they only had state media to mould opinion, but today we have several private media which support us and we also have social media- the government cannot supress information or students like they did before. So I believe that a solution will come soon, it won’t drag on for years,” he said.

He further explained that they were working according to a plan and that they have noticed several favourable changes in the recent past.

“The Specialist Doctors’ Union, all Deans, Professors, GMOA, Medical Students, Sri Lanka Medical Council (SLMC), Front line Socialist Party (FSP), Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), the Joint Opposition, JHU, some in the UNP and SLFP are with us. The President has also agreed that SAITM should be taken over by the government. Those who are against us are just Minister Rajitha Senaratne and a few others."

"A year ago, this was not the situation. At that time, we went on a foot march from Colombo to Kandy for five days, it was a tough journey but we didn’t get much media exposure for that. But today, no television programme or news programme is carried out without the mention of SAITM- this is because of our poster campaigns, protests and awareness programmes. We have created this level of awareness. In future too we have a plan on how to proceed and so we believe that in the near future they will have to make a decision on this,” said a confident Bandara.

Genuine concerns

Amidst the chaos and noise however, the struggle for SAITM has brought out some genuine fears within the medical student community.

Ahamed pointed out that there was a dearth of doctors in government hospitals due to a delay in providing medical students with clinical training.

“There are more than 5,000 medical students who have passed the EPRM exams who are still waiting to get clinical training. The government needs to increase the number of teaching hospitals. Even we have to wait for nearly a year for an internship after our final exam. All these need to be considered by the government to solve the issues regarding medical education in Sri Lanka,” he said.

Bandara in the meantime, is worried that if they let more private medical universities come in, all their professors would leave state universities for higher paying jobs in the private sector.

“SAITM already has got 21 of the best professors from state universities teaching there; two from Rajarata are there. We cannot stop them going because private universities will always pay more and they can get their kids into those, so they can have good professors there,” he said.

In addition, he pointed out that SAITM had started its operations with dubious means and the recent episode where its CEO staged a shooting was proof that it was a crooked entity.

More importantly, the students are adamant that they need to stop SAITM as they believe it is a harbinger of worse things to come.

“For the government, SAITM is its pilot project in its plan to privatise education. After SAITM, they say five more private medical universities want to come to Sri Lanka, Minister Lakshman Kiriella has said that in Parliament. Then they say SLMC has got 15 applications for private medical universities and if they sell the medical degree, all will be sold,” said Bandara.

Dr. Halpewattage in the meantime, saw the shutting down of SAITM as a means to protect the medical profession, “We cannot allow students who have not been trained properly or given proper clinical practice. Their medical faculty is not registered with the SLMC, standards cannot be adopted, and it has been crooked from the start. We have to stop this to protect our profession, we love our profession, we don’t want low quality doctors,” he said.

A higher cause

The students, all in their early 20s ultimately have also found the glamour in ‘fighting for a cause’ to be irresistible.

“Some people do point fingers at us and say since we receive free education, it’s with their money that we study to become doctors. They further say that we are wasting their money by delaying academic activities. The truth however, is that the people who blame us are not bothered about the billions of money that are being stolen by politicians. We are at least fighting for a good cause, for the betterment of our own country but what are those politicians doing?” questioned Thowfeek when asked why she continued with the protests.

Bandara in the meantime, said he could not go back to lectures, knowing that the problem had not been resolved. “The worst we can do is take advantage of the free education we have been given and not give our best for the fight. If we don’t fight, free education is at risk.

I will be going against my conscience if I were to go for lectures without being successful in this.”

Bandara also believed that all private education institutions should be shut down and that the government allocate six percent of GDP to education as a start to solve all problems. He hoped that those who engage in private education too will see how the government has been short-changing them of their own right to free education.

“At university, you think no private education at all and that was the best stance to take then. It is not that my ideas have changed since then, that was suited back then but now I think we can have standardized private medical education, but SAITM is not the best example of private medical education."

"For this, we need a national policy with the consultation of the eight state medical faculties, KDU, lecturers, GMOA and other trade unions, SLMC, UGC, health and higher education ministries,” said Dr. Halpewattage who insisted that neither the doctors nor the students will stand down until the gates of SAITM close once and for all.

(Names have been changed to protect the identity of the person.) 

 


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