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Merit above money

Print edition : Feb 02, 2002 T+T-

A significant judgment of the Karnataka High Court seeks to restore the primacy of merit in professional education and curb the "sale" of post-graduate medical and dental seats in the State.

IN a judgment reiterating the primacy of merit in professional education, a Division Bench of the Karnataka High Court ruled on December 20 that admission to post-graduate degree and diploma courses in privately managed medical and dental colleges in Karnataka should be governed by the norms laid down by the University Grants Commission (UGC), the Medical Council of India (MCI) or the Dental Council of India (DCI). The ruling, issued by Justices G.C. Bharuka and A.V. Srinivasa Reddy, means that private managements will no longer have the luxury of filling 80 per cent of the seats at their discretion.

Although the seats will be divided equally into free and payment categories, the criterion for admission in both will be merit. The only difference will be in the matter of fees. For a payment seat the fees will add up to Rs.200,000 a year and for a free seat, to between Rs.15,000 and Rs.20,000. The managements can fill only 5 per cent of the seats (from the payment category) under the non-resident Indian (NRI) category. NRI students will pay $45,000 (about Rs.20 lakh) for a three-year medical or dental course.

Dr. R.R. Patil, a former college Principal, and Dr. P.S. Nagarale, a retired surgeon, filed writ petitions in the High Court seeking directions to the Karnataka government to announce the seat matrix in respect of admissions to various post-graduate medical and dental courses for the academic year 2001-02 in accordance with guidelines issued by the MCI and the DCI and to ensure that not more than 50 per cent of the sanctioned intake was filled by the private managements at their discretion. The court allowed both the petitions.

What has hurt the private managements badly is the fact that the judgment has taken into consideration not only MCI and DCI regulations but also the more precise UGC Regulations of Admissions and Fees in Private Non-Aided Professional Institutions, 1997. The judgment said that it was appropriate to direct the Selection Committee constituted by the State government to complete the process of selection strictly in accordance with UGC regulations. Regulation 4 (8) of the UGC deals with the basis for the determination of the inter se merit of candidates seeking admission. It states: "In case the admission to a course of study is given on the basis of results of a common entrance examination, the competent authority shall prepare a merit list of candidates from amongst the successful candidates based on their merit position."

The Judges said that they fell back on the UGC regulations because the parent Act of neither the MCI nor the DCI permitted them to draw up a coordinated scheme for admission. The judgment said: "MCI regulations also provide that post-graduate seats can be offered only on the basis of inter se merits of the candidates. It also provides the method of determining merit. But these regulations have not made any provisions as to how and by whom the applications are to be invited from the desiring candidates." Similar is the case of DCI regulations. However, the parent Act of the UGC empowers it to provide for coordination and determination of standards in universities and the institutions affiliated to them. It was also the duty of the UGC to ensure absolute fairness in the working of the universities and in their conduct towards candidates and students. Given these requirements, the UGC had devised "a coordinated, transparent, rational and workable procedure for selection of candidates to the institutions of higher education (that) must be held applicable to all the courses of higher education, including medical and dental education," the Judges said.

UGC regulations, according to the judgment, are of the "widest import and most elaborate" as far as the admission procedure is concerned. These regulations, it said, applied to all colleges affiliated to a university and approved or recognised inter alia by the DCI and the MCI, and even to the deemed universities. The Judges said that Regulation 8 of the UGC was of great relevance. It specifies that "there shall be no quota of seats for the managements or for any family, caste or community which had established the professional institution".

The judgment said that institutions established and administered by minority linguistic or religious groups should abide by Regulation 8 of the UGC - that is, 50 per cent of the post-graduate seats would be filled by the university concerned, half of them under the free category and the other half under the payment category; the remaining 50 per cent would go to candidates of the minority group concerned and the admission would be strictly merit-based.

There are 1,376 post-graduate degree and diploma seats in the four government and 14 private medical colleges in Karnataka. The High Court judgment meant that 1,311 seats (1,027 in private colleges and 284 in government colleges) would have to be allocated on the basis of merit as determined by the entrance test conducted by the Rajiv Gandhi University of Health Sciences (RGUHS), Karnataka, in July 2001, and 65 seats would have to be earmarked for candidates who were successful in the all-India entrance examination. But with the High Court upholding on January 11 the State government's decision to reserve 30 per cent of the free post-graduate seats in medical and dental courses for doctors in government service, the seat matrix underwent another change. Seniority is the sole criterion for selection from this in-service category.

As per the latest figures, of the 1,376 post-graduate seats, 798 will be free seats (284 in government colleges and 514 in private colleges). Of these, 560 will be available for students taking the entrance examination (50 per cent for the general merit category and 50 per cent for categories such as the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes) and 238 will be reserved for in-service candidates. Candidates taking the entrance examination will also vie for the 487 payment seats in the private colleges. NRIs will be allocated 26 seats.

Of the 332 post-graduate seats in dental colleges (311 in 15 private colleges and 21 in the sole government college), 319 should have been available to candidates who are successful in the entrance examination conducted by the RGUHS. But with in-service candidates cornering 30 per cent of the 171 free seats, the number of seats for examination-based admission has come down to 125 (including five for those selected on the basis of the all-India entrance examination). There are 148 payment seats. Since very few doctors aspire for admission under the in-service category (there were just two during 2001-02), the seats that fall vacant thus will be distributed as free seats.

The judgment has by and large pleased the aspirants for post-graduate education and other people in the field. Said Dr. Philip Thomas, Head of the Department of Surgery at the St. John's Medical College and Hospital, Bangalore: "It is time that something like this happened. For too long we have also had a system where private colleges took too many PG candidates and did not do justice to them. What we have are ill-prepared doctors." Citing the example of obstetrics and gynaecology, he said that since the cases were spread among a large number of students, they did not learn what they should. Similar was the case of some other departments, he said.

Many doctors said that with post-graduate students unable to cope with the syllabus, corrupt practices had become common. Said a doctor: "When a student pays Rs.25 lakhs for a seat, he or she doesn't mind paying another Rs.30,000 to get a few more marks."

Private managements filed a special leave petition (SLP) in the Supreme Court on January 18 seeking a stay on the High Court verdict and a direction to protect the admissions that have already been made for the academic year 2001-02. The petition contends that the admission regulations issued by the Karnataka government in 1987 are superior to those of the MCI and the DCI and the regulations of the Central government. Insert in Karnataka medical admission story:

On January 25, a Division Bench of the Supreme Court consisting of Justices S.S. Quadri and S.N. Variava, stayed the operation of the High Court judgment and ordered the issue of notice to the respondents.

The High Court's ruling has affected about 1,000 students who have secured admissions through the managements for the academic year 2001-02. They allegedly paid sums ranging from Rs.5 lakhs to Rs.50 lakhs. Now their admissions stand null and void. N. Chaitra, who paid Rs.28 lakhs to a prominent college in Bangalore, told Frontline that she would demand a refund. Some candidates have decided to seek legal remedy on the grounds of "judicial sympathy". Some students have sued managements that collected money at the time of admission.

In several cases courts have ordered the regularisation of admissions made in excess of the prescribed limits. But the Karnataka High Court has, in Citizen of India versus State of Karnataka, held that even under their extraordinary writ jurisdiction under Article 226 of the Constitution, the High Courts cannot, on the grounds of judicial sympathy, direct, regularise or approve medical college admissions that are in excess of what is legally permissible.

The Karnataka government has, albeit reluctantly, agreed to adhere to the directions of the court. Said Dr. G. Parameswar, Minister for Medical Education: "We are not going to challenge the orders of the court. But we are seeking clarifications on the reservation of seats for internal (in-service) candidates." The Minister said that students who had secured admissions through the managements had done so "at their own risk".

The selection of students for post-graduate courses has not been an easy process this year. The first rank list put out by the RGUHS was scrapped after candidates who took the examinations for medicine and dentistry complained that many of the answers to the multiple-choice questions did not conform to prescribed textbooks. After a panel of experts looked into the complaints, the university agreed that over 20 answers in the medical entrance examination and 19 in the dental science entrance examination were wrong. It also announced a modified list.

Said a candidate who appeared for the entrance examination in the dental stream: "I wrote to the university that 13 questions were wrong. Nine of my suggestions were corrected and four were not corrected. Curiously, two questions that were originally right were changed and made wrong. In effect, I lost six marks for no fault of mine."

The affected candidates filed a writ petition. In its affidavit, the RGUHS admitted that six answers in the medical entrance examination were wrong but none of the answers in the entrance examination for the dental science course was wrong. Said the dejected candidate: "My petition was dismissed, with the Judge saying that there was a difference of opinion between the panel of experts who had signed on my (petitioner's) behalf and the panel of experts who represented the university. Which panel was right could have been easily verified from the textbooks. This was not done."

The second merit list was out by last October. But the RGUHS had to modify it again in the light of the December 20 verdict. According to Dr. K.M. Srinivasa Gowda, Registrar, RGUHS, after the court verdict the university decided to notify a rank list based on the MCI 2000 gazette notification (Post Graduate Medical Education Regulation). MCI rules state that the candidate has to obtain a minimum of 50 per cent of the marks in the entrance examination to become eligible for admission. Of the 4,722 candidates who took the entrance test this year, only 671 obtained 50 per cent or above. Thus, admission on the basis of the "50 per cent criterion" would have left a number of post-graduate medical seats unfilled. Said Srinivasa Gowda: "We had to take a decision that would benefit the maximum number of students and also from a national point of view. We could not let over 600 seats go vacant. So, after a university Syndicate meeting we decided that instead of using just Rule 9 (2) (i) of the MCI 2000 gazette notification (selection of PG students on the basis of merit as determined by a competitive test) we would use Rule 9 (2) (iv) (selecting candidates by taking into consideration their performance both during the academic years and in the entrance examination.)"

As a result, the merit list underwent a dramatic change, causing much heartburn among those who lost out. They felt that the decision to consider academic marks was not justified since almost 90 per cent of those who took the examinations came from different universities and the evaluation standards were not uniform - an argument that the RGUHS does not accept.

The aspirants for the dental science course are in a worse situation. Though over 400 candidates had obtained 50 per cent marks in the entrance test, the RGUHS took into consideration their academic course marks also. This resulted in changes in the merit list. Said Srinivasa Gowda: "The DCI has not formulated any admission rules. And we can't have two sets of admission rules for medical and dental courses. There has to be some uniformity."

Aspirants of the dental science course counter this argument by pointing to the Judges' observation in the "PG admissions case" that MCI regulations cannot be applied to dental courses. The RGUHS' decision to consider as eligible even candidates who did not secure 50 per cent marks in the entrance test violates MCI regulations, they argue, citing a ruling by the Supreme Court in The Government of Punjab vs Dayanand Medical College and Hospital in October 2001. The court held that "the prescription made by the respondents reducing the minimum marks to 40 per cent in the entrance examination for considering the eligibility of the candidates for admission to PG medical courses and in respect of the basic subjects fixing no minimum standard is plainly in contravention of the regulations framed by the MCI and that part of the notification will have to be ignored".

On January 16, Justice Vishwanatha Shetty of the High Court ruled in favour of the candidates. He directed the university to come up with a rank list based on the candidates' performance in the entrance examination. However, the Judge gave the RGUHS the liberty to use the impugned method while selecting candidates for seats that were brought under the University's purview after the Division Bench's ruling, that is, seats from private colleges. Any seats falling vacant in the in-service category would revert back to the free seats category for merit-based allotment, he said.

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