ADMISSION IMPASSE: The tug of war in Karnataka

Print edition : July 16, 2004

There is serious uncertainty about admissions to private self-financing professional colleges in several States this year as the managements refuse to accept the positions of the State governments concerned and the latter take measures, often half-hearted, to restrain them. In Karnataka, the managements want more seats and higher fees, while in Maharashtra it is more about fees than seats. In Kerala, the government tries to slip in an ordinance to regulate the admission process and fee structure after the report of the committee it appointed draws angry responses from all concerned.

in Bangalore

At the office of the Murgode Committee in Bangalore on June 4, members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad protest against the increase in fees in private professional colleges.-K. GOPINATHAN

ADMISSIONS to the private professional colleges in Karnataka have come to a halt with the government and the managements deadlocked on the issues of sharing of seats in the colleges and the fees to be charged. The government has also postponed by 10 days, to July 8, the selection of candidates to all the professional colleges, including those run by it. And with both parties approaching the court, over 120,000 candidates face an uncertain future, as the impasse is unlikely to end soon. Many of them have even joined undergraduate courses in science or commerce, in many cases by paying the entire course fee, knowing that they will have to forfeit it if and when they secure admission in a professional college. Their parents, unwittingly dragged into the tug of war over the money-spinner that professional education has become, are left to shoulder the additional burden.

The crux of the problem is that while the State government wants a say in the allotment of 75 per cent of the seats, the managements, especially those of medical and dental colleges, say the government quota should be restricted to 50 per cent. The managements of 16 medical colleges, 26 dental colleges and 26 engineering colleges have formed the Consortium of Medical, Engineering and Dental Colleges of Karnataka (Comed-K) to press their case. Its chairman, senior Congress politician R.L. Jalappa, runs a medical college. Other managements, particularly those running engineering colleges, look to the government to allot seats. This is not surprising, considering the fact that around 5,000 seats in the many engineering colleges were not filled in the last two academic years.

Said Jalappa: "It is a question of our right. We have invested crores of rupees in our colleges and we are responsible for the quality of education. What business does the government have to insist on 75 per cent of our seats? In fact, they should only get 25 per cent." That the Justice S. Venkataraman Committee, appointed by the Karnataka government under the directions of the Supreme Court to oversee seat-sharing, has upheld the government's stand is of no consequence to these managements.

At the end of the allotment process the managements are usually left with a number of unfilled seats, especially in engineering and to a lesser extent in the dental stream, which they can hand out to applicants of their choice. Bookings for these `unfilled' seats have started. Also, a large number of candidates have passed the common entrance tests conducted by the government (on May 18-19) and the managements (on May 14-15) and many of them are likely to opt for government seats. The vacancies so created can also be utilised by the managements. (The common entrance test conducted by the government goes by the popular acronym CET.)

Some managements are willing to hand over their seats to the government after retaining a small portion. Explained D.P. Nagaraj, Assistant Secretary of the Rashtreya Sikshana Samithi: "We have given all our engineering seats to the government. But private managements must have a small discretionary quota to admit students of their choice: sportspersons, children of staff members, physically challenged candidates and so on. Otherwise philanthropists will not be prepared to enter the field of education."

While the managements may differ on the question of seat-sharing, on fees they are unanimous that they should be increased. The fee structure fixed by the committee constituted by the State government under the directions of the Supreme Court is not acceptable to the managements. The Committee for the Fixation of Fee Structure of Private Professional Colleges, headed by A.B. Murgod, a retired High Court Judge, has fixed fees varying between Rs.1,40,000 and Rs.1,65,000 for the medical stream and between Rs.90,000 and Rs.1,10,000 for the dental stream.

The M.S. Ramaiah Medical College challenged the new fee structure in the High Court. Its petition stated that it had fixed a fee of Rs.3,19,000 for the medical undergraduate course but the Murgod Committee revised it to Rs.2,55,000. "Only a veterinary college can be run with the fees fixed by the Murgod Committee," claimed Jalappa. Another Comed-K member told Frontline that the fees fixed by the Committee were unrealistic and that it was just playing to the gallery. This member said: "A member of the Committee got a seat for his son in our medical college under the management quota a few years ago without paying a rupee. Does he expect us to do the same with all our seats? Where is the money to fund our colleges? After the court rulings banning capitation fee-based education came, it is only fees that can sustain our institutions."

The Murgod Committee, which was set up nearly four months ago, is yet to complete the scrutiny of the statement of accounts of all the colleges since many of the colleges did not submit their accounts in time. Meanwhile, the managements of medical colleges have recommended to the Committee annual fees of between Rs.2,75,000 and Rs.5,00,000. They contend that if they are to run the colleges either the fees should be substantially increased or they should be given a percentage of seats they can `allot' on their own terms.

Higher Education Minister Manjunath announcing the CET results in Bangalore on June 10. On his right are Principal Secretary Shoba Nambisan and CET Cell Special Officer D.N. Nayak.-K. GOPINATHAN

As for engineering colleges, the Committee is likely to fix a fee of around Rs.30,000. The managements want a fee closer to Rs.60,000. Said Prof M.R .Doreswamy, chairman of PES Institutions: "My staff get salaries that match the pay scales of the All India Council of Technical Education (AICTE). This costs me Rs.1 crore a month. This is just one of my expenses. In my college, the annual cost of education per student works out to Rs.60,000."

Said Prof Y. Vrushabhendrappa, Principal of Babuji Institute of Technology, Davengere: "Just to meet our institution's recurring expenses such as salaries, maintenance and so on, we need to charge Rs.70,000 a year. What about upgrading our infrastructure? We need to charge a further Rs.35,000 a year for this. A fees of Rs.45,000 will mean a hand-to-mouth existence. The government is in no position to fund professional education. Even in the aided colleges they haven't appointed a single teacher since 1984. Teachers have been taken on contract and the principals have no control over them. Last year, the government could not fill up all the seats that we had given them. They surrendered 100 seats to me at the last moment. I had to fill them up. In some colleges, the managements were forced to give away seats at less than the prescribed fee."

According to Nagaraj, given the current rate of development, engineering fees should be pegged at around Rs.1,10,000 a year. "We have spent Rs.8 crores on new infrastructure and we can't run our colleges with the fees fixed by the Murgod Committee. Some of us are contemplating closing down our colleges. Or, let the government nationalise our colleges after paying us compensation for the land, buildings and other infrastructure."

Dr. R.R. Patil, an academic who has taken up cudgels on behalf of the students, disagrees that managements cannot run their colleges with the existing fees. "When they managed with 15 percent why can't they do so with 25?" he asked. He added: "The argument that they need astronomical fees if they are to adhere to the strict norms of statutory bodies such as the MCI is flawed. Yes, the report of the government's own Chandrashekar Shetty Committee on the admission issue said that it costs Rs.2,00,000 a student a year for the medical course and Rs.1,25,000 for the dental course. Also, a study commissioned in 1994 by the MCI and undertaken by A.F. Ferguson & Co said the cost of imparting medical education was Rs.3,18,000 a student a year. But the A.F. Ferguson & Co and the Shetty Committee studies were calculated with certain parameters factored into the cost per student.

"For example, the A.F. Ferguson report cited that the number of teaching doctors for a college with an annual intake of 100 should be 215. This is not maintained. A medical college near Bangalore, which has an intake of 150 students, has a teaching faculty of around 90. The same college produced a statement of accounts to the Karnataka High Court where the cost of medical education included such things as legal fees, which is Rs.2,00,000 in the case of one college, and garden maintenance. A leading engineering college in Bangalore prides itself as having the best computer science faculty but doesn't have teaching staff in adequate numbers in this very department."

Informed sources said that many colleges showed inflated expenses by claiming that they spent huge amounts of money in subscribing to numerous foreign journals and even by showing X-Ray and ECG equipment as consumables. Managements, especially those running dental and medical colleges, in a bid to meet the norms of statutory bodies, are also wont to show postgraduate students as part of the teaching faculty. The managements defend the inclusion of such items as legal fees by saying that somebody has to pay for it.

UNTIL 1993, Karnataka was a haven for capitation fee-based institutions, with almost all the seats handed out for a fee. However, the situation changed after the 1993 Supreme Court judgment in Unnikrishnan J.P. vs Andhra Pradesh and the starting of the CET for admissions and the distribution of seats under the free, payment and management categories. The CET was just a fig leaf to cover up the problems associated with the admission process. While the vast majority of students and parents were reconciled to the CET process, the managements were against it because it left them hardly 15 per cent of the seats to fill at their discretion. The managements went to court almost every year seeking a greater role in both the administration of their colleges (read fees they could charge) and the selection process (more number of management seats).

On October 31, 2002, a 11-Judge Constitutional Bench of the Supreme Court ruled in T.M.A. Pai Foundation vs State of Karnataka that merit should be the sole criteria for selection. It also ordered that the managements must be allowed to conduct their own entrance test; that the fees, while being uniform for all students, could be different from institution to institution depending on factors such as facilities, location and so on; and that the managements could budget for a "reasonable surplus", to be used for the future development of their colleges, and charge the students for it. The orders of the apex court came in the wake of cases in which the court went into issues such as the ban on capitation fees, the methodology to draw up a merit list, the fees to be charged from students and the sharing of seats (seat matrix) between the government and the managements.

But with the court's orders in the T.M.A. Pai case being interpreted variously, in August 2003 a five-Judge Bench of the Supreme Court in Islamic Academy of Education vs State of Karnataka, while interpreting the October 2002 judgment, ruled that for the academic year 2003-04, given the shortage of time, seats in privately managed institutions shall be shared equally by the government and the managements. The Bench also ruled that committees headed by retired Judges would prescribe the fees and the admission norms to these colleges until such time that the Union government enacted a law. The Karnataka government constituted the Murgod and Venkataraman Committees subsequently.

However, the 50:50 ratio for seat-sharing could not be adhered to for the 2003-04 academic year as the State government's CET Cell had, by August 2003, published a seat matrix for up to 75 per cent of the seats and had started counselling candidates. For their part, the managements had distributed their 25 per cent of the seats without conducting any entrance examination. Both sides were in violation of the Supreme Court's orders in the T.M.A. Pai case. But, in a cosy quid pro quo, the managements agreed to be `satisfied' with 25 per cent of the seats, while the government would turn a blind eye to the process that the managements had adopted in admitting students. Clearly, the managements had not conducted any entrance test, nor had they drawn up a merit list. Seats were handed out for considerations other than merit. Worse, most private managements had collected fees far in excess of the prescribed fees, with many institutions even taking the entire course fees in advance, which was a violation of the Supreme Court's orders in the T.M.A. Pai case (Frontline, October 10, 2003).

The managements apparently saw the Supreme Court's August 2003 directive as "a liberation and a restoring" of their right to fill up the seats in their colleges. They made it clear to the government that their sacrificing of 25 per cent of their seats was applicable only for the 2003-04 academic year and that for the next academic year they would have to be given 50 per cent of the seats.

This is something the new Congress-led coalition government of Dharam Singh is holding out against. Rather, it is vacillating between cajoling the managements to toe the 75:25 line and threatening court action, promulgation of an ordinance or enactment of a law. But legal experts point out that under Article 142 of the Constitution only Parliament has the power to annul a Supreme Court ruling. But can the State government supersede committees appointed under the direction of the apex court on fees and seat-sharing?

Given the number of politicians who own or are an integral part of private professional institutions, how long can the government take a tough line? According to many academics, the government's decision to postpone CET counselling by 10 days will favour the managements, giving them time to approach the court. They felt that if counselling had got under way it would have been difficult for the court to roll back the process.

Said P.G.R. Sindhia, Karnataka's Large and Medium Industries Minister and a member of the sub-committee constituted to go into the admission issue: "We cannot give away 50 per cent of the seats to the managements. We need to enhance our share to fulfil our commitment to social justice. We will file a review petition in the Supreme Court seeking 75 per cent of the seats." According to former Chief Minister M. Veerappa Moily, the "anarchy" over admissions can be solved only by enacting a law at the Centre on the lines of the Land Reforms Act and including it in the Ninth Schedule of the Constitution.

But the government's bid not only to allot 75 per cent of the seats but also to subsidise the fees of successful CET candidates belonging to the weaker sections could put a huge financial burden on the exchequer. According to Sindhia, the government will need Rs.800 crores for this.

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