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Two ministers lock horns over SAITM approval

Social Empowerment and Welfare Minister S.B. Dissanayake yesterday lashed out at Sports Minister Dayasiri Jayasekera for blaming Higher Education Ministry for approving the South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine (SAITM) to conduct the Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS) programme in 2011 in violation of the recommended procedure.

Dissanayake was the Higher Education Minister in the Rajapaksa administration at the time.

Minister Dissanayake claimed that Minister Jayasekera did not know what he was talking about and didn’t even contact him before he made those observations at the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) media briefing on Thursday.

At the SLFP media briefing, Minister Jayasekera said that it was revealed at the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) meeting on Wednesday that the Higher Education Ministry had not followed the recommended procedure when it had given the approval for the SAITM to conduct the Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS) programme in 2011.

Jayasekera said that the power to give such approval was with the University Grant Commission(UGC) but it was revealed to the COPE that those powers had been taken over by the then Secretary to the Ministry of Higher Education through a circular approved by the then Minister of Higher Education.

Minister Dissanayake told The Island that Minister Jayasekara should have inquired from the then Secretary to the Ministry of Higher Education Dr Sunil Jayantha Navaratne or himself to find out the facts.

Former Higher Education Minister Dissanayake stressed that Minister Jayasekera had not bothered to find out the facts before speaking out at Thursday’s briefing.

Referring to the facts revealed at the COPE meeting, Minister Jayasekera said even though the UGC had given guidelines to SAITM to be completed before approval was granted, including the admission of patients and hospital facilities, the Secretary to the Ministry of Higher Education had granted the approval before such guidelines were fulfilled.

Explaining the procedure that was followed by the then Higher Education Ministry, Minister Dissanayake said Malabe SAITM private medical college was initially supposed to award degrees combining with a Russian University but due to several issues, the then Sri Lanka Medical Council (SLMC) Chairperson Prof. Lalitha Mendis had requested the Higher Education Ministry to take necessary steps to make SAITM available to offer local medical degrees.

After the SAITM submitted application to the UGC, it had sent around 18 groups to inspect the SAITM and a subcommittee was appointed by the UGC for SAITM, which included the Vice Chancellors of all universities and all of them had approved the application, Dissanayake said.

Only after the approval was received, the granting of SAITM’s degree-awarding status was gazetted, he said.

Dissanayake asserted that SLMC, Government Medical Officer’s Association (GMOA) and Government University students all were wrong about the SAITM.

Reiterating that the SAITM’s standard was even better than the medical colleges in Nepal, Bangladesh and India, Minister Dissanayake stressed there were 3301 private universities in India in 2014 even though the education level of the country was below that of Sri Lanka. In Nepal there were around 393 private universities while in Bangladesh there were around 59 as at 2014. Those statistics would have gone up during the last three years, Dissanayake noted.

However on Wednesday (22) COPE directed the UGC to submit a report on the process adopted when granting SAITM degree-awarding status and the UGC has been given a period of two weeks to hand over the report.

It was also reported that COPE would also question former UGC Chairperson Professor Kshanika Hirimburegama and former Higher Education Ministry Secretary Dr Sunil Jayantha Navaratne.

The two officials have been asked to appear before COPE on March 8 to respond to questions relating to the procedure adopted when granting SAITM degree-awarding status.