Medical schools fight over merger

  • 2000-10-26
  • Elina Cerpa
Last May Latvia's Constitutional Court approved a measure to merge the Medical Academy of Latvia with the University of Latvia. Neither school consented and now a row has developed between the two that includes charges of corruption and shoddy educations.

Stradini Medical Academy of Latvia (SMAL) Rector Janis Vetra recently said in a public letter that he had noticed an alarming practice at Latvia's University Faculty of Medicine (LUFM) - that students who failed out of SMAL have been enrolled in LUFM at suspiciously high levels. Since LUFM opened in 1998 and ended SMAL's monopoly on medical education in Latvia Vetra says that some 86 Latvian and 19 foreign students who failed out of SMAL went on to continue their studies at LUFM.

"One, two or even three semesters later they graduate from LUFM," he said in the letter.

Vetra worries that these graduates are going on to practice medicine without proper training.

But officials at LUFM deny Vetra's claims and doctors say new graduates from both schools are well trained.

"Both schools are graduating good specialists and we try not to get caught in the rivalry between them," said Janis Ozols, director of Riga First Hospital.

That rivalry has been exacerbated and led to sharp reproaches since the Constitutional Court ordered the two schools to merge, a measure aimed at improving the country's medical education.

"Each school has its own strategy and development plan. Merging from the outside is not realistic," said Viesturs Boka, president of the Latvian doctors' union. "Their relationship is cold and parallel.

"The government decision has resulted in an opposite reaction of [pushing them further apart]."

More than 100 students reportedly transferred from SMAL to LUFM last year.

One, who agreed to talk to The Baltic Times with the promise of anonymity, said he left SMAL because he was charged mysterious fees he believes went into the pockets of SMAL administrators.

"We had no big problems with SMAL before," said a former SMAL student, a foreigner, who transferred to LUFM. "It started when our professors left and we found where they moved - to LUFM."

The student said professors advised students that their SMAL tuition and fees - $3,500 for foreigners and $1,626 for Latvians - were being funneled directly to administrators.

The student, who attended SMAL for five years, said the tuition payment scheme inexplicably changed in recent years and that he even had to pay two santims to use the bathroom.

"Beginning in my third year we started the year and they put two contracts in front of us, saying that $1,129 is the tuition and the rest, we were told, was a 'donation,'" he said. "We were surprised and said that we want to pay $3500 and to have only one contract as it was before. They told us to sign both contracts otherwise we would be expelled."

"We were afraid of them. For the first time in my life I saw corruption in front of my eyes."

In his fifth year the student said his entire $3,500 tuition would go to a "fund".

"There was no contract that said the money was going toward tuition," he said.

Vetra strongly denied the accusations.

"It's not true," he said. "The students know very well what they have paid for every year. One part of the amount goes toward tuition and the other part goes to the development of the academy - furniture, renovations, etc."

But students say the only renovation they have seen in recent years is the replacement of some of SMAL's toilets.

When students continued to transfer, the student says SMAL began retaliating.

"In the end, the academy's authorities started to send letters to our homes saying things like 'your son has made a mistake and has left this recognized academy and now goes to an illegal medical academy which has only twelve students," he said.

Janis Cakste, director of the Ministry of Education's department of higher education and science, said that he has heard the allegations before.

"We could not do anything because we can't react to rumors and anonymous allegations," he said. "In order for us to get involved we must have someone sign a report but so far we haven't received anything."

Other say the row at least demonstrates the need to reform medical education in Latvia, exactly what some feel the proposed merger would do.

When asked about the quality of medical education in Latvia Cakste takes a long pause.

"As a [Ministry of Education] employee I can not comment because I don't understand medicine," he said "I trust the judgment of Latvian and foreign experts and to all appearances the educational quality is good at both institutions.

"LUMF is more based on academically program but SMAL really trains future doctors. Vetra's letter proves that the University and the Academy must be united and that will raise the quality of education."

The Parliament is expected to review the proposed merger this fall.