PUBLIC resentment against the Supreme Court judgment on admissions to unaided private professional colleges was perhaps more strident in Tamil Nadu than elsewhere because the political parties were quick to lead the protests. The apex court, by ruling out a government quota in these colleges, had struck at the root of the reservation system, a key component of the government's policy on admissions to professional colleges. All political parties saw in the verdict "a serious threat" to the efforts to ensure social justice to the marginalised sections.
While students staged demonstrations in Chennai and other places, Chief Minister Jayalalithaa and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) chief M. Karunanidhi, who is also the president of the Opposition Democratic Progressive Alliance (DPA), wrote to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh pressing for early corrective measures.
Jayalalithaa said in a statement that the principles outlined in the Supreme Court order "constitute a major upheaval in the admission policy framework followed by most States". "State governments," she said, "have to ensure that there is no slackening in the drive to create an egalitarian society." She said her government would file "immediately" a review petition in the Supreme Court. The Chief Minister said she had written to the Prime Minister explaining the serious implications of the order and calling for his urgent intervention.
She emphasised the need for Central legislation to end "the anomalous situation" caused by the order. "Such legislation has been under discussion for a long while and is definitely overdue," she said. She added that the legislation should empower States "to ensure that the managements of unaided private professional colleges follow the regulations set forth by the State government on issues relating to determination of merit, reservation and so on".
She cited Entry 66 in List I of the Constitution, which gives Parliament the power to legislate on issues relating to coordination and determination of standards in institutions of higher education or research and scientific and technical institutions, and Entry 25 of List III, which deals with education. "Given the huge importance of this matter to every State and the inability to find an enduring solution, it is probably high time that Education was restored to the List II (State List) of the Constitution of India so that a State can determine its own policy with clarity," she said.
The quashing of the government quota in private professional colleges left no scope for students to join such colleges under the State's reservation policy. "This is a total negation of the drive to establish an egalitarian society assisted by affirmative action, which I have always championed," Jayalalithaa said. Tamil Nadu, she said, had a long history of affirmative action intended to make available real opportunity to socially backward classes. "In fact, Tamil Nadu has been a pioneer in engineering this social revolution," she said.
Jayalalithaa referred to the 1994 enactment by her government to provide for 69 per cent reservation for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Backward Classes, Most Backward Classes and Denotified Communities. This law has been included in the Ninth Schedule. "With this protection in force, it is the commitment of my government to continue to insist on this reservation policy," she said. The Chief Minister also pressed her earlier plea for an amendment to the Constitution to empower State governments "to determine the percentage of reservation... according to their requirements".
The DPA urged the Centre to bring forward "suitable amendments to law" to ensure that self-financing colleges continued to follow the present reservation system. Karunanidhi said the DPA demanded Central legislation because it would be applicable to all States and help remove the threat posed to the social justice agenda.
The State Secretariat of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) said in a statement that unfettered freedom to the managements of self-financing colleges to admit students and fix fees would lead to a fall in the standard of education and its further commercialisation. An unregulated fee structure would bar the children of poor and middle-class families from having the benefit of professional education, it pointed out.
Tamil Nadu has witnessed a quantum jump in the number of private engineering, medical and paramedical colleges since the mid-1980s when the Central government headed by Rajiv Gandhi invited private investment in higher education under its new National Education Policy. Today the State has 254 engineering colleges offering over 80,000 seats in undergraduate courses and accounts for about 20 per cent of the 1,346 engineering institutions in the country. Only nine engineering colleges in the State are government-run or state-funded.
About 10 private engineering colleges even gained the status of "deemed university" some years back and recently the Regional Engineering College in Tiruchi became a deemed university with a new name, National Institute of Technology, Tiruchirappalli. Two hundred and twenty-five of the self-financing colleges were affiliated to Anna University, Chennai, in 2001. Private medical colleges are very few, but there are scores of paramedical self-financing colleges.
Significantly, around 170 private engineering colleges came up in the past eight years, apparently in the wake of the rising demand for qualified engineers in Information Technology and computer science. But studies have found that a substantial number of them are run on commercial lines with the prime motive being the amassing of wealth. Academics, students and teachers' organisations have often complained that most of these colleges are understaffed and lack infrastructure. They have alleged that these colleges take money, running into several thousand rupees and unaccounted for, from students during their four-year course over and above the high fees they charge.
Inspections by the All India Council of Technical Education (AICTE) have indicated several areas of concern, including shortage of teachers; questionable quality of the faculty; absence of qualified principals; poor remuneration to teachers; contractual and temporary appointments; overcrowding of colleges owing to the running of unapproved programmes and multiple programmes; inadequately equipped laboratories, workshops and libraries; lack of hostel facilities near the college; poor Internet connectivity; and even the absence of basic facilities such as drinking water and toilets.
In June the AICTE announced that it would cut about 4,000 seats in 50 engineering colleges in the State for 2005-06, on the grounds that they did not ensure the Council-fixed minimum teacher-student ratio (1:15). The IT branch alone accounted for about 1,500 of these seats. The AICTE, however, restored the sanction in the case of those who made good their shortage within a stipulated period.
Poor pay scales and bad working conditions are said to be the main reasons why many private colleges have not been able to attract good teachers. Not surprisingly, studies have found that many of these colleges fail to turn out good results, and even among those who pass out, a lot many land only low-end jobs. This says a lot about the standard of education many of these institutions claim to offer.
At present, unaided private engineering colleges allot 50 per cent of their seats to the government. These seats are allotted to candidates who take a common entrance examination and go through counselling under a Single Window System. Many colleges surrender more than 50 per cent of their seats to the government. In fact, this year, a fortnight through the counselling, there were no takers for seats in 42 engineering colleges, according to reports. Last year, about 20,000 engineering seats in self-financing colleges reportedly remained unfilled.
THE sections most affected by the Supreme Court order are the aspirants of higher education from the B.Cs, MBCs, S.Cs and S.Ts. With at least 20,000 seats available for them from about 30,000 seats in the government quota in more than 180 self-financing engineering colleges alone, the impact will be more severe on these sections than their counterparts in other States. Political parties see in this a serious threat to the future of the reservation system.
Senior Advocate K. Chandru told Frontline that the seven-Judge Bench had only reiterated the decision of the 11-Judge Bench in T.M.A. Pai Foundation v. State of Karnataka in 2002. He said: "If anyone closely studies the 11-Judge Bench's judgment, it is clear that education, especially higher education is privatised, the state control is minimal and in respect of private education there is a fundamental right to establish [educational] institutions. So, in the light of the 11-Judge Bench judgment, the present seven-Judge Bench has only reiterated the same concepts and has not delivered anything new because of two reasons: one is that during the interregnum the governments have not taken any policy decisions; two, the present Bench was bound by the 11-Judge Bench ratio."
The process of privatisation of higher education began in 1986 with the introduction of the National Education Policy and the government slowly started withdrawing from fulfilling its responsibilities in higher education. Chandru said that from 1986 to 2002, when the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government inserted Article 21-A in the Constitution providing for universal, free compulsory education up to the age of 14 years as part of an enforceable fundamental right, "it was only the policy-makers who were consistently calling the agenda for the future education policy of this country". To use subterfuges, the court interpretations have come in handy for them, he said. In the same way, after the Mandal judgment the Central government did not provide for any reservation for B.C. students in any of the Central government-funded educational institutions such as IITs, IIMs and NITs, besides Central universities. Even the 1994 legislation in Tamil Nadu, providing for 69 per cent reservation both in public employment and in educational institutions, did not provide for reservation in unaided institutions. In such circumstances, the courts were expected only to deal with the questions before them "in the light of the existing constitutional framework".
In Chandru's perception, "a fundamental constitutional change, not a mere constitutional change" would be needed to alter the situation. He said: "If the government is really interested in extending reservation, it has to open more colleges and provide for scholarships to such students studying in private colleges."
WHAT will happen to private professional colleges in future? M.V. Muthuramalingam, vice-president of the Tamil Nadu Self-Financing Engineering Colleges Association, told Frontline that only good colleges would be able to survive. "The principle of the survival of the fittest will soon operate and the weak and inefficient among the colleges would die a natural death. So it is the responsibility of the management. When they invest Rs.50 crores in a college, they have to take care of the quality of the education they offer." He said that other than the income-tax exemption, self-financing colleges did not receive any encouragement from the government. Apart from providing education to about 2,500 students, an engineering college gave direct and indirect employment to about 600 persons, he said. As for reservation, he said, in many colleges the managements had on their own followed reservation in admitting students. "We admit students without seeing colour or caste," he said.
Describing the Supreme Court judgment as "depressive", N.G.R. Prasad, a lawyer, said, "Any educational institution, whether it is private or state-run, should make provision for the constitutionally recognised underprivileged sections and also for the poor." He felt that merely because private education was unaided it did not mean that the state should have no control over it. "Education only for persons who can afford it will become counterproductive in the long run. It will lead to social distortions," he said. The judgment, in his view, was in violation of Article 14 of the Constitution, "because there is no provision for unequals". He said, "I think the solution lies only in fresh legislation at the earliest."