The education market

Published : Aug 01, 2003 00:00 IST

Maharashtra experiences the severe impact of the October 2002 Supreme Court order giving private unaided professional colleges the freedom to decide their fee structures and admission procedures, and the apex court now puts the admission process on hold.

in Mumbai

ON October 31, 2002, the Supreme Court ruled that privately run unaided professional colleges had the right to conduct entrance examinations and decide their own fee structures. However, the impact of the ruling began to be felt only when the admission season got under way this July. The ramifications of the order are beginning to be felt. Taking advantage of the order, private, unaided professional colleges in the State have upped the prices of seats to levels never heard of before. Lakhs of students are therefore left with just two options - either cough up the money or forgo a career in medicine or engineering.

A seat in a medical college in Maharashtra could cost upwards of Rs.27 lakhs this year. An expose by a national daily has revealed that this is just the starting price. As admissions draw to a close, the rate could go up to Rs.32 lakhs. Investigations reveal that these colleges drive a hard bargain. Seats are effectively on the auction block - and are ultimately given to the highest bidders.

Following the expose and the uproar that ensued, the Supreme Court has now put the admission process on hold. The court said that a five-Judge Bench would deal afresh with the questions of "management quota" and "capitation fees". In October 2002, an 11-Judge Bench, in T.M.A. Pai Foundation and Others vs State of Karnataka and Others, had delivered a judgment liberating private medical and engineering colleges from government control on critical issues such as admission and fees. Declaring the 1993 judgment in Unnikrishnan and Others vs the State of Andhra Pradesh and Others "unconstitutional", the Bench allowed colleges to do away with the Common Entrance Test (CET) and dispense with free and payment quota seats.

The 1993 judgment had forced private professional colleges to fill 85 per cent of their seats at government-fixed fee rates and admit students only through the CET route. While the new judgment does specify that admissions to the management quota should be "merit-based", it fails to lay down any objective criteria to ensure that students are selected in a transparent manner. Unfortunately, these loosely worded and ambiguous directions in the new judgment have enabled colleges to charge astronomically high fees or to grant admission arbitrarily. It has also raised fears of a larger issue: that of the commercialisation of higher education.

"Colleges are deliberately misinterpreting the court ruling to suit their interests," says C.R Sadasivan, national secretary, All India Federation of University and College Teachers Organisations (AIFUCTO). Although the Supreme Court has allowed professional colleges the flexibility to charge fees according to the requirements of the course, the order categorically warns them against "profiteering". Furthermore, these institutions have been banned from charging capitation fees. But in the name of providing better facilities, colleges charge amounts much higher than the regular fees and huge service fees, which essentially amount to charging capitation fee. "We have ample evidence to show that the colleges do have monetary surpluses," says Sadasivan. For instance, a medical college in New Mumbai charges approximately Rs.20 lakhs per seat. It does not even have a hospital attached to it, which is a stringent requirement to start a medical college. "How is the money being used and where is it going? Clearly, it is not used to provide better facilities for students," says Sadasivan.

The court judgment says that "a reasonable surplus for the furtherance of education is permissible". However, a fee structure designed by the Maharashtra Association of Professional Educational Institutes (MAPEI) allows colleges to increase their fees by almost 254 per cent. While the fee for a payment seat in a private medical college was approximately Rs.1.2 lakhs last year, this year it could be as high as Rs.5.6 lakhs. The MAPEI's new fee structure creates three slabs: while 10 per cent of the seats will be reserved for the economically backward, 70 per cent will be reserved for the middle income and 20 per cent for the higher income groups. This means that Rs. 60,000, Rs.1.9 lakhs and Rs.5.6 lakhs will be charged per seat per annum respectively. The Student Federation of India (SFI), in a study conducted on unaided colleges in Maharashtra, calculated by multiplying the number of students with the MAPEI's fee structure, that the colleges were going to gain much more than "reasonable" surpluses. For example, a college that earned Rs.10 crores last year, will now earn Rs.31 crores.

"No poor student will be able to afford these fees," says Sadasivan. With merit no longer being the criterion for admission, the lower income groups will be the most affected. There are only 20 government colleges in the State. Most often only the toppers in the merit list make it to these institutions.

The private institutions are paying scant regard to the Medical Education Regulatory Authority (MERA) and the Educational Institutions Regulatory Authority (EIRA) - two bodies set up to monitor the fee structures in professional colleges. Although the Supreme Court has given unaided colleges a free rein in the matter of fees, State governments feel that they should still exercise some control. Prior to the start of admissions, colleges are expected to get the fee structures approved by these bodies. The colleges appear to comply with the procedures but in actuality continue to operate in the way they please.

The large-scale political backing that most unaided colleges enjoy perhaps explains why they blatantly flout the rules. Of the 131 private unaided colleges in Maharashtra, almost 100 are owned by politicians, including Ministers. An informed source in the Bombay University and College Teachers' Union (BUCTU) says: "These people, due to their enormous power in the government, violate all the existing norms. And if they do set rules, it is for their convenience." The union feels that with this kind of political involvement in higher education in the State, there is very little that can be done to stem the rot.

It says State Industries Minister Patangrao Kadam, who owns the Bharatiya Vidyapeeth College of Engineering in New Mumbai, is a classic case. Kadam was on the sub-committee that drafted the policy on higher education after the Supreme Court judgment came. Ironically, his institution was among the four that figured in the media expose. Irrigation Minister Padamsinh Patil's Terna Public Charitable Trust also came under scrutiny. State Education Minister Ramkrishna More and Finance Minister Jayant Patil also own colleges.

Political control over institutions of higher education is not restricted to the ruling party. A list compiled by the BUCTU reveals that politicians from every major political party in the State are involved in the education business. The list, which is part of a petition filed against private professional unaided colleges for the late implementation of pay scales, discloses that some colleges are either owned by politicians or in some other way connected to them. According to the petition, ex-Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh owns an institution in Mumbai. Nationalist Congress Party leader Sharad Pawar owns three, while his son owns one, and Pawar's close associates own another five, it says. Former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao's son Rajeshwar Rao controls an education society in Nagpur, as per the list.

According to Sadasivan, the colleges can hardly be defined as "unaided". Several Ministers have misused their powers to buy land from the government at concessional prices to build colleges. Some have taken on nominal rent land belonging to the State government. One leader has gone one step further, and built an institution on land belonging to the Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation (MIDC), he claims.

Interestingly, several of these education barons also control sugar cooperatives and cooperative banks, says Sadasivan. "Clearly education is regarded as a lucrative business in this State rather than a way to make a contribution to society," he says.

"If the colleges provided state-of-the-art facilities, it could in some way justify the fees. But the majority of these institutions do not have even basic facilities such as laboratories," says a doctor who teaches in one of the colleges. D.Y. Patil Pratishthan in New Mumbai, for instance, does not have a hospital, let alone a 500-bed facility which is a minimum requirement to start a medical college. The students allegedly go to municipal hospitals for practicals. (Again, it is alleged that the municipality and the college have arrived at an arrangement whereby each student will pay Rs.5 for every patient he/she looks at.)

The BUCTU says professional colleges also ignore the norms laid by the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) such as the one on the number of teachers to be appointed. Apparently, the unaided colleges in the State should have 14,000 teachers. But only 7,200 have been appointed. "Staff salaries are a huge expense. These non-appointed teachers are a mechanism to build up a huge surplus," says Tapati Mukhopadhyay, general secretary, BUCTU.

The State government came down hard on these colleges after the fee expose. The colleges filed petitions in the Bombay High Court against the regulation in their fee structure. The court has, however, ruled that there would have to be a central examination process for admissions to these institutes. The colleges must also be "free from profiteering", it added. To avoid hurting students, an interim fee arrangement for the current year will be worked out by an independent agency.

The AICTE has also ordered a probe. An official AICTE statement says that most of these colleges cannot be classified as "unaided" because of the concessions their managements have sought while setting up the establishments. The AICTE regional officer told Frontline that the AICTE was "actually a quite powerful body. We can withdraw their approvals if we feel they have not followed regulations". He was unwilling to comment on why it had not taken action earlier. BUCTU says that it is unlikely that anyone can do anything when the entire system is controlled by powerful politicians.

Defending the increase in fees, counsel for the non-minority private unaided colleges told the media that the autonomy of private unaided colleges must be protected. "We should be allowed to submit our own fee structure proposals to a regulatory authority, which can examine it and fix a ceiling. But we don't want it or the courts to tell us what the fee structure should be. That is our prerogative."

Meanwhile, the colleges have declared that they would give receipts for the payments and that they are collecting fees in one go for five years of study. Some have even placed in the newspapers advertisements justifying their stand. Waking up to the crisis, EIRA and MERA said that once they approved the colleges' fee structure, students who had been overcharged would be refunded the extra money collected.

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