An agonising wait

Print edition : July 30, 2004

Students aspiring to join professional courses in Tamil Nadu await decisions by the Madras High Court on a host of issues ranging from the nature of the common entrance test to the admission procedure to be followed by private colleges.

in Chennai

FOR the more than 65,000 students aspiring to join professional courses in Tamil Nadu and their anxious parents, this year's has been a long, hot summer. Nearly three months after having got through a gruelling admission test, the students find themselves caught in a quagmire of litigation. The counselling for admission to over 250 engineering colleges, both government-run and privately owned, which was to have normally started in the third week of June, was to have begun on July 8 this year, but was "indefinitely" postponed pending decisions by the Madras High Court on a host of writ petitions filed by different interest groups, including students, parents and the managements of self-financing institutions. The cases related to issues ranging from questions asked for the entrance test to the admission process stipulated for private colleges. In the case of medical colleges, counselling has almost been completed, but the follow-up has been held up as court orders are awaited.

Counselling for admissions under the Single Window System in progress at the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, Coimbatore.-K. ANANTHAN

All through, the State government has maintained a stoic silence. And, perhaps understandably so. It had to wait until March-end to get its position on the eligibility marks required for admission to professional courses endorsed by the Supreme Court because of prolonged litigation involving the government, Anna University, the All India Council of Technical Education and a number of self-financing engineering colleges, over the issue.

Thanks to the policy of successive governments in the State to withdraw gradually from the field of higher education, over the past 10 years Tamil Nadu has seen a phenomenal increase in the number of self-financing engineering and medical institutions, many of which charge huge fees but hand out education of low quality. Nevertheless, the State can boast of a time-tested admission process, perfected over the years with the help of the prestigious Anna University and numerous academics and experts associated with it. Notwithstanding controversies and litigation over the working of the process every now and then, the system has received acclaim from large sections of students and parents. Admissions to engineering and medical colleges are effected on the basis of a common entrance test (the Tamil Nadu Professional Colleges Entrance Examination) conducted by Anna University, the nodal agency, in April. The test is followed by counselling to fill the seats in State-run and government-aided private colleges - the "free seats" (50 per cent of the total) or "government quota seats" on the basis of merit, and the seats reserved for students belonging to the backward and most backward classes and the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes. The managements of self-financing colleges fill the rest of the seats in their colleges. Although capitation fee is not collected, the seat-seekers reportedly have to part with sums of money ranging from Rs.80,000 to Rs.8 lakhs for undergraduate studies in the self-financing engineering, medical and paramedical institutions.

In 2001, ten self-financing engineering colleges were raised to the status of deemed universities, and they announced that they would conduct examinations on their own. All other self-financing colleges got themselves affiliated to Anna University, which will conduct examinations for their students and issue certificates.

Last year admissions took place in the backdrop of the Supreme Court judgment in October 2002 in the T.M.A. Pai Foundation case (Frontline, March 26, 2003), which granted privately run unaided professional colleges the right to conduct their own entrance examinations for admission and ruled that the government would have no control over the right to fix the fee for the courses offered by these institutions. Although some of the self-financing colleges were assertive about their rights and adopted a confrontationist attitude towards the State government, almost all colleges fell in line and admissions went on as usual, although there was some hitch over the way the "payment seats" were sought to be filled. A protracted legal battle ensued.

UNLIKE last year, the admission process promised to be less problematic this year, given the guidelines provided by the five-member Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court in its judgment on August 14, 2003 in the Islamic Academy of Education case (Frontline, July 16, 2004), while clarifying certain doubts over the interpretation of the judgment in the T.M.A. Pai case. The 2002 judgment held as "unconstitutional" a practical scheme evolved by the Supreme Court in the Unnikrishnan case (1993) on the grounds that it forced students coming under the "payments seats" category to bear the additional burden of paying for the studies of those admitted under the merit quota. However, the judgment failed to provide an alternative and so last year only minor changes could be made in the admission process. This year, however, the State government initiated efforts to streamline the admission process on the lines of the judgment in the Islamic Academy of Education case. Two committees were constituted in March, one headed by Justice S.S. Subramani to oversee the entrance tests and the other headed by Justice A. Raman to fix the fees self-financing colleges can charge.

On June 8, the Permanent Committee for the Fixation of Fee for Private Professional Educational Institutions directed unaided engineering colleges in the State not to charge more than Rs.32,500 as annual fee for undergraduate engineering courses that have not been accredited by the National Board for Accreditation, and Rs.40,000 for accredited courses. The fee includes admission fee, tuition fee, special fee, laboratory/computer/Internet fee, development fee, maintenance and amenities fee, extra-curricular activities fee and so on. It does not include accommodation, transport and mess charges. The colleges have also been permitted to collect a refundable one-time caution deposit not exceeding Rs.5,000. The committee recommended a fee waiver or concession of Rs.5,000 to deserving meritorious students. The fee structure will be in force for three years. (The fee fixed by the State government for last year was Rs.30,000 for "management" quota seats and Rs.25,000 for seats allotted under the "single window" admission scheme.)

The Subramani Committee (the Permanent Committee for Common Entrance Test for Private Educational Institutions in Tamil Nadu) ordered on June 14 that admissions to engineering colleges under the management quota should be done under the Single Window System and that the Consortium of Self-Financing Professional, Arts and Science Colleges in Tamil Nadu should conduct the common entrance test for admission to all self-financing engineering colleges in the State. Referring to the specific conditions laid down by the Supreme Court, the committee said: "Merit has to be assessed only on the basis of one test." The managements of several self-financing engineering colleges have challenged the orders of the Subramani Committee. (Two renowned self-financing colleges have, however, opted to leave 40 per cent of their "management quota" seats to be filled by the government.)

When the admission process was set in motion with the conduct of the Tamil Nadu Professional Courses Entrance Eaminations - 2004 on April 24 and 25, things seemed normal. Over 1.5 lakh candidates, roughly one-third of them girls, appeared for the examinations in the first stage of the admission process, to fill about 70,000 seats in engineering colleges and about 8,000 seats in medical and para-medical colleges. (The MBBS course accounts for only 1,429 seats in 14 colleges, 10 of which are government-run.)

However, the first signs of crack in the system came up when the candidates, parents and teachers complained of wrong or ambiguous questions, numbering 22 in all, in the biology and physical sciences papers. Responding to the charges, E. Balagurusamy, Vice-Chancellor of Anna University, which conducted the examination, said an expert-committee would look into the complaints. "In case any complaint raised by the students over a specific question is found genuine, that question will not be valued," he said.

E. Balagurusamy, Anna University Vice-Chancellor.-N. SRIDHARAN

About 200 writ petitions challenging the ambiguity in the questions were filed in the Madras High Court. Partly allowing the petitions, Justice P.K. Mishra directed that the answers to seven questions in biology and physical sciences be revalued in view of the "avoidable errors". The Judge also directed that a particular question be deleted. The papers were revalued and fresh results were announced. Writ appeals, preferred by the petitioners against this judgment, are pending before a Bench headed by the Chief Justice. The appellants contend that the 22 questions concerned accounted for eight marks and their deletion would cost the candidates dearly.

This was followed by a batch of petitions before the High Court, which challenged the practice of treating "improvement candidates" (candidates who had improved their performance in the subsequent year's Plus-2 examination, the prescribed minimum qualifying examination held by the Board of Higher Secondary Education as provided by the rules) on a par with regular candidates, who had appeared for the Plus-2 examination in the current year. The aggrieved petitioners, numbering over 12, are among the candidates who aspire for medical seats. Justice R. Balasubramanian restrained the medical education selection committee from allotting seats to the "improvement candidates" pending orders. This has brought to a standstill the medical admission process. Any changes made will dislocate the engineering admissions also because of the drastic changes that are possible in the rank list. Further hearing of the petitions on "improvement candidates" saw some dramatic scenes. When the lawyers failed to turn up in view of a strike, many young petitioners and their guardians represented their own cases.

Interestingly, of the 945 seats available in the government colleges this year, only 493 have gone to regular candidates. The remaining have been earmarked for "improvement candidates'', whose allotment is subject to the court's decision. Speaking to Frontline, M.D. Raju Kumar, a former top official of Bharatiyar University in Coimbatore said the provision regarding admission of "improvement candidates" had created an anomalous situation. The candidates naturally had an advantage over those who had passed out in the current year because the former had improved their marks after one more year of study. "The two sets of students are not comparable and cannot be treated on a par," he said. A significant point to be noted was that a large number of the successful "improvement candidates" had undergone special coaching in three particular schools in the western region of Tamil Nadu, which are said to be collecting hefty fees from students, he said. Raju Kumar argued before the Court the case of his son, who is one of the petitioners.

YET another batch of petitions pending before the High Court challenges eight key clauses in a set of 25 directions laid down by the Subramani Committee while authorising the Consortium of Self-financing Professional, Arts and Science Colleges to conduct the entrance test for the management seats in its engineering colleges. The Subramani Committee has insisted on ensuring "merit-based admission" through the test, followed by counselling under a Single Window System, as envisaged by the Supreme Court. It has warned against admissions based on any other test or made in any other form. Apart from the Consortium, two other organisations representing self-financing engineering and medical institutions have sought intervention by the court. In its counter-affidavit, the Subramani Committee has accused the consortium of having approached the court "with unclean hands". It said that the consortium had agreed to the conditions attached to the conduct of the entrance test but was now going back on it.

If the Single Window System is not followed, experts say, the whole process of rank-based admissions will collapse. With money being the only criterion, self-financing colleges, it is feared, will have a free hand to admit students, throwing all norms to the winds. The purpose of putting an end to profiteering will be defeated. It will also help them regularise the admissions that have already been made, albeit temporarily. Already, many such attempts at regularising admissions that have been made by flouting rules and manipulating procedures have been successful. This is not surprising because political bigwigs, including former Ministers, parliamentarians and legislators, run many of these institutions.

Expressing concern over the agony of the students and parents, G. Ramakrishnan, member, State Secretariat of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), suggested that the State government initiate steps with a long-term perspective in order to evolve a more efficient and less complicated system that could ensure admission to professional colleges on the basis of merit, affordability and social justice. The fees fixed by the Committee for engineering colleges was very high and it should be brought down, he said.

Pattali Makkal Katchi founder Dr. S. Ramadoss has faulted the State government for allowing self-financing colleges to keep 50 per cent of their seats as "management quota" seats and pointed out that the Karnataka government had yielded only 25 per cent to the "management quota".

Students Federation of India (SFI) State president G. Selva said the State government should exercise greater control over self-financing educational institutions and take steps to enable meritorious candidates from the less-privileged sections to have greater access to higher education. He said the SFI had presented a memorandum to the Union Human Resource Development Minister pleading for Central legislation to correct the situation created by the Supreme Court judgment in the T.M.A. Pai case, which gave enormous scope for self-financing institutions to indulge in unfettered profiteering.

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