The HRD Ministry announcement seems immaterial given the ground realities of professional education in many States.

An announcement made by the Union Government on Thursday heralds both good and bad news for the education scenario in the State. New colleges may be delighted with the fact that the Minister for Human Resource Development has announced that the intake in engineering and management colleges can be increased from 240 to 300 (in the context of colleges that have four branches, implying an increase of 15 seats in each branch or being able to offer an extra branch). However, this decision will only multiply the problem of plenty that exists in the professional education system in Karnataka and several other States across the country.

Here's why: In 2009, there were over 11,000 unfilled seats in engineering colleges in Karnataka. The situation was rather similar in Tamil Nadu, to take an example, where a whopping 31,210 seats were vacant at the end of the admission season.

That there are unfilled seats in engineering colleges has become the rule rather than the exception in several States where new colleges have sprung up in large, and often unregulated, numbers over the last decade.

Long-standing demand

The second half of the announcement deals with increasing the intake in newly opened or upcoming management colleges. Here, the intake has been upped from 60 to 120, meeting a long-standing demand of several MBA institutions. Their contention was that increasing the number of seats will help ease out logistics and cost pressures. This, in turn, is likely to see a reduction in the fees charged by management colleges, a figure that has been on the rise in recent years.

Managements had been asking the government to allow an increased intake in order to help new colleges to manage themselves better, and also to control the demand for increasing the fees to offset costs, says Jawahar D., CEO of the PES group of institutions. This is a good policy, as it will reduce the fee burden on students and allow more colleges to offer this much-in-demand course, he opines.

Engineering reforms

This announcement by the HRD Minister is part of ongoing education reforms that also aim at according sanction to such institutions a paperless and easy process, putting an end to inspection raj and putting in place a transparent self-disclosure regime in opening colleges, the Minister was reported to have said. So, institutions can reveal details on infrastructure, faculty etc., online and provide affidavits proving these claims. This eliminates red tape and is an attempt towards eliminating the briefcase culture, as some would say. AICTE sources say that there are plans to introduce identity numbers for each student and college, and provide a grievance redressal system on its portal. These new rules will apply to over 4,800 institutions that come under the AICTE, including management and engineering colleges.

However, educationists are not all impressed with this move. While welcoming the move towards more transparency, many argue that the Indian education system, particularly the professional one, that is often accused of rampant profiteering may run the risk of crumbling under a brave new regime of under-regulation. The contrary point of view, however, is supported by those who say that the market today is the greatest regulator, and that colleges that fail to deliver will simply perish. It must be noted that the recent Yashpal report on rejuvenation of the education sector also supported doing away with the current inspection-based system that allows for interference and increased bureaucratic and even political control.

Official sources say that other reforms that are mooted include relaxation of the land requirement criteria.

In Karnataka, however, there are plenty of engineering seats and no takers. So, like in other States, it makes little sense to increase the number of branches of engineering offered in newly-opened colleges, many of which are today running with less than 40 per cent of their class strength.

Huge losses

Predictably, a large number of colleges have incurred huge losses last year, even to the tune of Rs. 3 crore. Seats in many colleges remained unfilled. At a recent meeting of the Consortium of the Medical, Engineering and Dental Colleges of Karnataka (COMED-K), engineering college managements discussed this issue. Upon collating the statistics, they found that over one-fourth of the total colleges could not allot even one seat through the COMED-K, that is in the management seat category. Even colleges that were open to admitting students at Rs. 30,000 (compared to the upper cap of Rs 1.25 lakh, the general fee in the leading colleges in the State) found few takers.

How then does it make sense to talk about increasing the intake in such colleges? What are they going to do with an additional branch of engineering, when existing mainstream branches are not finding any takers, asks Mr. Jawahar.

Despite a growing and apparent divide between the haves and the have-nots, the tier-I and tier-II or III engineering colleges in this case, even small managements would agree with the questions that Mr. Jawahar poses. Grappling with increasing costs, the prospect of having to pay far larger salaries to their teachers once the AICTE pay scales are implemented, and lesser funds being pumped in because of the economic recession, colleges have nowhere to go. Increasing seats is obviously not part of the agenda of any college that has not been able to fill existing seats last year, points out K.B. Munivenkata Reddy of the Forum of Private Engineering Colleges.

The admission process in Karnataka will see private college managements and the government at loggerheads. With a High Court verdict that also stands in the way of implementing the usual differential fee system, the decision has already been delayed by a month. At this point, Mr. Reddy points out excess seats are the least of our troubles.

Prohibitive costs

In a State where over a lakh students appear for the Common Entrance Test, and lakhs of others come out of schools every year, filling up professional college seats should ideally not be an issue. However, the high costs involved in professional courses, with annual fees going up to Rs. 1.25 lakh in the management quota in private colleges (where the majority of the seats lie), is a prohibitive factor. Even the Rs. 25,000 per annum fee in the government quota will be beyond the means of several students, particularly those from rural areas.

In the past years, the government has worked on schemes to decrease interest rates for education loans and even provide subsidies to the marginalised. However, as a professor from a leading Bangalore engineering college points out, for the average middle-class family investing over Rs. 5 lakh in an engineering degree is not an easy decision.

“Those who take loans to study will be particular about what college or course they join, whether the course assures them a job at the end of four years or not, and whether the education offered there will put them in a position to be able to repay that loan,” the professor explains. States such as Andhra Pradesh have fee reimbursement schemes that are immensely popular, which is probably why even today there are very few unfilled seats in its 600-odd colleges.

Compare this whopping figure to the 140 colleges in Karnataka that are struggling to survive.

Last year, during the CET allotment process, student unions protested outside the premises of the Karnataka Examinations Authority. The issues raised there-in by the Students Federation of India probably lie at the crux of the situation.

“Governments are not meant to promote education loans and encourage students to start their lives in negative debt. Instead, if a larger number of seats can be offered at an affordable rate you will find there are more takers for all sorts of colleges.”

Mr. Reddy feels that it is time for the government to revamp its admission system, and that larger subsidies are the need of the hour.

“Colleges should be allowed to set shop on a need-basis. I am not sure which university's requirements were being catered to by the Union Minister in his announcement. But as far as our State and many others are concerned the solution to the current mess lies in doing a fair assessment of costs, both from the point of view of colleges that are taking educational facilities to the less developed pockets of the State, and that of students who are denied the opportunity of entering the field of technical education.”