Classes for 120 Bhutanese medical students in Sri Lanka have been disrupted for more than five months following protests against the educational and medical standards of the only private medical university, South Asian Institute of Technology and Management (SAITM).

Department of Adult and Higher Education (DAHE) officials said that out of more than eight state medical universities in Sri Lanka, 35 Bhutanese students are studying medicine at the University of Colombo, 42 at University of Kelaniya, 43 at University of Peradeniya and 43 at Kotelawala Defense University (KDU).

Except for KDU, which is under the armed forces, all other medical colleges including Universities of Colombo, Kelaniya and Peradeniya have been affected by anti-SAITM campaigns.

Sri Lankan media reports state that since the establishment of SAITM in 2008, there have been minor protests questioning the educational and medical standards of SAITM. It is reported that the Government Medical Officers’ Association and other groups including the Inter University Students Federation protested against the Court of Appeal’s directives to the Medical Council, which mandated that provisional registration be provided to SAITM medical graduates.

Since the students studying in the medical colleges are involved in the protest, classes are suspended, affecting international students who are not part of the protest.

As of yesterday, 69 Bhutanese medical students have returned to the country while 51 chose to stay behind in Sri Lanka.

DAHE’s senior program officer, who did not want to be named, said that except for the final year students, all were affected by the protest. “The final year students were able to complete their studies in May and June this year.”

A fourth-year student at the University of Peradeniya, Karma, said she came to Bhutan in January for a break and was supposed to return in February. “I could not go back because it would be no use since the university is closed,” she said. “It’s prolonging our course duration.”

A final-year student at University of Peradeniya, who is still in Sri Lanka Jigme Norbu said that although they respect the views of both the parties, they are getting strangled in the row. “Things are difficult and six months is a long time to go without classes,” he said.

He said they are trying to make the best use of the college libraries and recreational areas that are open. “I am hoping that the government and law makers would look into our problems.”

Another student, Yeshi Choden, who is also in the fourth year, said her career will be affected because of the situation. “We are neither allowed to go for internships nor are there any lectures being conducted.”

The senior program officer said that the education, health and foreign ministries have been meeting frequently to discuss the situation.

He assured that the students are paid their regular stipend and are ready to leave for Sri Lanka whenever the universities resume their courses. “However, if the strike prolongs, it could create a human resource gap in the health sector.”

The official said that the ministries have looked into credit transfer, which was not possible.  “Let alone to other countries, even within Sri Lanka, credit transfer is not possible mainly because of the difference in university systems.”

He also said that besides the foreign ministry, DAHE officials are also in daily contact with the students in Sri Lanka via social media sites, e-mail and telephone.

Through the foreign ministry, an advisory was issued to Bhutanese students

Karma Cheki