Fees and frustration

Published : Oct 10, 2003 00:00 IST

Maharashtra medical college admissions are stuck in a mess and all concerned wait for the Supreme Court's verdict on the revised fee structure submitted to it by the State government.

in Mumbai

SMITHA WAGLE has secured a seat in a medical college, having scored 89 per cent in the Common Entrance Test (CET) this year. But she has given up hope of becoming a doctor because her parents, both primary school teachers at Chandrapur in Nagpur district, cannot afford to pay the Rs.3.15-lakh annual fee charged by private medical colleges at the time of admission. "Even if they are able to raise the money, they definitely cannot do it in seven days," says Smitha, referring to the deadline she was given when she cleared the counselling at St. George's Hospital in Mumbai on September 6. "They told me that if I did not come with the entire fee amount I would lose my seat." She had no option but to head back to Chandrapur, her dream career wrecked by the reality of the moment.

But there may yet be hope for Smitha and the several hundred students like her, who were asked to either pay up or to lose the seat. The Maharashtra government has submitted to the Supreme Court for its approval a revised fee structure, scaling down the annual fee to Rs.1.50 lakhs. The government was forced to act after a major fracas by students, parents and activists against the steep fees announced by the private professional colleges. As the admission process has to be completed by September 30 under the guidelines of the Medical Council of India, the Supreme Court's judgment is expected by the end of the month. Until then admissions have been put on hold.

The new fee structure, approved by the State Cabinet, has been charted along the lines of the Karnataka formula. Under it 25 per cent of the seats will be for the management quota, with annual fees of Rs.7.5 lakhs. Another 25 per cent will be reserved for eligible students in the socially backward class category. They will be charged an annual fee of Rs. 25,000. The State government plans to foot this bill. The remaining seats will be allotted under the open merit category, where the annual fee will be Rs.1.50 lakhs. In this category, 13 per cent of the seats will be available on merit for socially backward students and 10 per cent for economically backward students whose annual family income does not exceed Rs.65,000. The fees for both these categories will be borne by the government. The rest of the seats will be allotted to students in the general category.

Private unaided professional colleges in Maharashtra were allowed to determine their own fees after a Supreme Court ruling (in T.M.A Pai and others vs State of Karnataka and others) in October 2002, which essentially freed them from government control on critical issues such as admissions and fees. The ramifications of the ruling are beginning to be felt only now, with the start of the new academic year. In late July, just as the admission process got under way, a national daily reported that some colleges were auctioning seats with bids beginning at Rs.27 lakhs for the five-year course. Following a furore, Chief Minister Sushilkumar Shinde ordered a probe into the fee structure.

The State government also decreed that the colleges would have to submit their fee proposals to the Bombay High Court for clearance. The colleges did so in August, hiking their annual fees from Rs.1.26 lakhs to anything between Rs.3.15 lakhs and Rs.3.80 lakhs. The High Court then directed the State to set up a committee headed by a retired High Court Judge, to approve the fees to be charged by individual colleges. The committee has not been set up so far. And until the enrolment process for medical college admissions got under way on September 6, students had little idea about what the fees would be. "We assumed that the government would arrive at a reasonable price," says Smitha.

Protests in Mumbai against the high fees demanded by private colleges.

The announcement of a Rs.3.80-lakh annual fee, therefore, came as a complete surprise. A bigger surprise was the one-week deadline to pay it. On the day of admissions, pent-up anger against the mess and the continuing uncertainty spilled on to the streets. Hundreds of students, parents and students union members blocked roads and staged demonstrations outside the Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus, which is near the St. George's Hospital - the medical college admission centre. The protesters threatened to go on an indefinite fast unless the issue was resolved.

With the threat of a severe agitation, particularly after the Shiv Sena and the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student's wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party, got involved, the State government left it to the apex court to decide. It also set a committee comprising three Cabinet Ministers, which is expected to "talk to managements of private medical colleges and persuade them to scale down their proposed fees." Ironically, all the Ministers on the committee own medical colleges in the State. Neither the Health Minister nor the Higher Education Minister is on the committee.

Political backing is perhaps one of the main reasons why private unaided professional colleges in the State flout rules and get away with arbitrary fees. Of the 131 private unaided professional colleges in Maharashtra, almost 100 are owned by politicians, including several Ministers. "Education, like sugar and cooperative banks, became a lucrative business thereby creating a merry band of education barons," says C.R. Sadasivan, national secretary of the All India Federation of University and College Teachers Organisations (AIFUCTO). "Although they profess to be charitable institutions, they have no interest in the academics of it all. It is more like running a company."

Some of the medical colleges do not even have basic facilities like laboratories and enough number of teachers. Others do not have a hospital attached, let alone a 500-bed facility, which is the minimum requirement to start a medical college, says Sadasivan. Besides, technically, these colleges are really not unaided. They get land dirt-cheap as a concession for establishing educational institutions, besides grants and other benefits. "What gives them the right to charge arbitrarily when they make use of government aid?" he asks. "Of course, it is another matter that those who dole out the aid are the beneficiaries of it as well."

He believes that the problem lies in the government's policies. "If you want people to get into higher education establishments why make it so difficult? Particularly for those with average income, who comprise the largest section of the population and who realise the importance of education but cannot afford to spend their lives' savings on their children's education only," says Sadasivan.

"The new provisional fee arrangement actually allows private colleges to continue to make substantial profits," says Maharudra Dake, president of the Student's Federation of India (SFI). According to him, if the average fee is calculated from the total amount of fees received under the new proposal, it will amount to Rs.2.70 lakh a student. Prior to the Supreme Court ruling, colleges were charging an average of Rs.1.45 lakhs. "When the agitation started gaining momentum, these colleges said they were willing to halve their fees. Can you imagine if they are prepared to come down so much what kind of profits they were planning to make," says Dake.

This was in spite of the Supreme Court warning them against "profiteering". The entire problem, says Dake, stems from the ruling. Its loosely worded statements and ambiguous directions allow colleges to operate as they please. For instance, while it maintains that colleges should not profit, in the same breath it says that the "surplus" gained from fees can be used for improving facilities. Prior to this ruling, the 1993 judgment in Unnikrishnan and others vs the State of Andhra Pradesh and others applied to private college admissions. Under this, colleges had to fill 85 per cent of their seats at government fixed rates and students could be admitted only via the CET route.

The new fee structure is not very fair, says Dake. The government is prepared to pay for students of the economically backward category whose family annual income is Rs.65,000 or lower. "What happens to those who earn Rs.70,000. It is marginally more, but they are in the same boat. The government's willingness to pay is not a complete solution. The government should come up with a slab system."

Maharashtra has 17 private unaided medical colleges and 17 government colleges. Together they absorb approximately 3,700 students every year. About 24 government and private dental colleges take in another 1,600 students and 37 private unaided, 16 private aided and four government Ayurvedic colleges admit 990 students. "This is a large number of people involved and the government is going to take a well-calculated decision," says Dake. "Elections are round the corner and obviously every number counts. Political parties will not want to jeopardise their popularity in any area at this crucial time." Dake believes private colleges will slash fees just for this year. They know they can make up many-fold, after the elections.

There is yet hope for Smitha Wagle and others like her but in the ever-changing education system, next year might bring another set of problems Typically, it will be tackled only then or after a crisis, or if there is a political agenda.

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