The fear over fees

Print edition : September 10, 2004

The Supreme Court's interim order on the fee structure for professional colleges upsets many students in Kerala. Now there is widespread concern about the fate of the new State law on the matter, which has been challenged before the court.

in Thiruvananthapuram

In Tiruvananthapuram, police use water cannons on Left activists protesting against the imbroglio in professional education in the State.-C.RATHEESH KUMAR

THE crisis in professional education in Kerala spilled over to the streets following the suicide by a student in front of the office of the Entrance Commissioner in Thiruvananthapuram, allegedly because she could not afford to continue her engineering studies. The last weeks of July saw irate groups of students and youth attacking educational institutions, burning government vehicles, protesting against State Ministers and going on the rampage against commercial banks for their reluctance to disburse educational loans.

The recent interim order of the Supreme Court on the issue brought a temporary reprieve for the State government, but it also led to a hike in the fees for government quota seats in private, self-financing colleges, much to the chagrin of the students and their parents. A three-Judge Bench of the Supreme Court said, while hearing three petitions filed by private college managements, that for the current academic year the "uniform" fee structure recommended by the Justice K.T. Thomas Committee, constituted as per the court's directions, would apply for both government and management seats in all private, self-financing colleges (Frontline, July 16). The managements had gone to court against the Kerala Self-Financing Professional Colleges (Prohibition of Capitation Fees and Procedure for Admission and Fixation of Fees) Act, 2004, which insisted on a government-fixed fee structure in merit seats in private professional colleges.

Under the new law - which the United Democratic Front (UDF) government wants included in the Ninth Schedule of the Constitution so as to put it beyond judicial review - half the total number of seats in every private, self-financing college shall be set apart for students passing the Common Entrance Examination (CEE) conducted by the government. Also, the fee structure for these candidates shall be the same as the fee for the corresponding course in the government colleges. The private colleges shall have the freedom to fix the fees for seats in the management quota, which they can fill on the basis of the CEE or a separate common entrance test conducted by a consortium of colleges belonging to the same category.

The law also gives private colleges the option to admit dependents of non-resident Indians to 15 per cent of the management seats. Such `NRI candidates' do not have to take the entrance test and shall be admitted on the basis of their marks in the qualifying examinations.

However, the court shot down the provision that allows two types of fees - one for students from the management quota and another for students from the government quota. It said the questions raised about the constitutional validity of the law would be decided by a five-Judge Constitution Bench. The court turned down the petitioners' demand that seats in the management quota should be increased to 75 per cent, which was what the Kerala High Court had recommended for admissions during the academic year 2002-2003.

Until last year, students admitted under the government quota in private colleges paid the same fees as in the government colleges - for instance, Rs.11,500 in medical colleges and Rs.6,600 in engineering colleges. But the uniform fee structure recommended by the K.T. Thomas Committee would require them to pay higher fees - for instance, Rs.1,13,000 for the medical course and Rs.38,000 for the engineering course. The three-Judge Bench has, however, said that the fee fixed by the K.T. Thomas Committee should be collected only provisionally, until the court gives a final order.

SINCE the late 1980s, many students from Kerala have gone to colleges in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka for professional education. In 2001, for instance, 45 per cent of the students in the private professional colleges in these States were from Kerala. The A.K. Antony government's decision to sanction private, self-financing engineering and medical colleges on a large scale from the year 2002-03 was meant to stem the exodus of students and harness the huge demand in the State for professional education. The government claimed that "allowing two private, self-financing colleges would be the same as starting a government college" (because 50 per cent of the seats in the private college would be in the government quota).

But the new policy soon proved the government wrong. The majority of the private colleges, most of them run by minority community organisations, were clearly after profits and did not share the avowed social commitment of the government. As it turned out, in most cases two private colleges meant just that - two private colleges seeking to make as much profit as they could.

The Supreme Court's rulings in a series of cases to check commercialisation of education and to ensure social justice and quality in professional education eventually led to the appointment of the five-member K.T. Thomas Committee to recommend a fee structure. Its recommendations for a uniform fee structure for both government and management quota seats were in tune with the apex court's position (as explained in the Islamic Academy of Education case on August 14, 2003), but sharply at variance with the State government's policy directive requiring a low fee structure for government quota seats.

The uniform fee structure that the committee recommended "after nearly five months of inquiry and deliberations on the reasonable costs incurred by different groups of institutions" was also not acceptable to the private colleges. Private college managements filed nine petitions before the Kerala High Court against the K.T. Thomas Committee's recommendations.

Meanwhile, the government sought to override the committee's recommendations through the promulgation of an ordinance. But Governor R.L. Bhatia refused to sign it and the government was forced to place the proposed law before the State Assembly. The Governor eventually gave his assent to the Bill with the direction to the State government that it should take steps to get the Act included in the Ninth Schedule of the Constitution, and beyond the reach of the courts. Many of its provisions went against the directions of the Supreme Court and were bound to be challenged in the courts. Moreover, minority organisations, many of them with business interests in education, had alleged that provisions of the Act violated the constitutionally guaranteed rights of minorities.

The interim order of the Supreme Court has caused the rescheduling of the entire admission process in the State. The process for medical college admissions, which was in its final stages, had to be reworked, with counselling being held all over again from August 12. The centralised allotment process for engineering college admissions too was postponed to September 2.

On August 4, the Kerala High Court also invalidated the admissions made in the management quota by a small group of managements of self-financing medical, dental, Ayurveda and Siddha colleges on the basis of entrance examinations conducted by them privately. The court asked these managements to admit students from the list prepared on the basis of the CEE, as there was no time this year for them to conduct a test on their own as envisaged in the new Act. (The Act came into force on July 15 and though its validity has been challenged, the Supreme Court declined to invalidate Section 3 in it, which sets the norms for admission to the management quota.)

Meritorious students in the CEE, who had opted to study in private colleges, are now in a quandary, as they will have to pay the fees recommended by the K.T. Thomas Committee, which is higher than the fees in government colleges. Despite the State-level Bankers' Committee, chaired by A.K. Antony, deciding to make available loans up to Rs.4 lakhs without collateral security to students gaining admission to merit quota seats in private colleges, bank loans are not an easy option for students, especially those from the poorer sections of society.

The big question is whether the Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court will uphold the new law passed by the State Assembly.

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