Educationist and activist of the Kerala Sasthra Sahitya Parishad R.V.G. Menon has been a vocal critic of the seat-fee agreement arrived at between managements of self-financing professional colleges and the government. He argues in this interview that the government should focus its energies and funds on the public sector institutions and empower the P.A. Mohammed Committee to manage the admission process and fee structure of private institutions. Excerpts from the interview:
The Kerala High Court has recently stayed the operation of a clause in the seat-fee pact signed by the State government and the association of managements of private self-financing engineering colleges that allows the latter to fill up vacancies in the government seats after one re-allotment. What is your take on this?
We have to see engineering and medical admissions separately. In my view Kerala has many more engineering seats than it needs. This year I am told there are even more engineering colleges. Last year’s engineering results however showed that the pass percentage is less than 40. It implies that out of the 25,000-odd students, 15,000 had failed to clear the B.Tech. course.
Some time ago when we [Kerala Sasthra Sahitya Parishad] did a study on the engineering entrance examinations we found that after ranks 10,000 or 12,000 most candidates scored less than five per cent in mathematics. These are the very people who fail the B.Tech. examination.
The government need not be concerned about giving an opportunity to anybody and everybody who wants to study engineering. There should be a screening based on the performance in the higher secondary examinations also. On that basis I feel that the whole State needs only about 12,000 engineering seats. This was the figure that the U.R. Rao Commission proposed for Kerala. And these seats are now available in government, aided and government-supported self-financing colleges.
We really do not need even a single private self-financing engineering college. The government can give scholarships on a merit-cum-means basis to those studying in the government, aided and government controlled self-financing colleges. The private self-financing colleges can be left to admit students and fix fee strictly in accordance with the Supreme Court guidelines.
You mean to say there need not be any seat-sharing talks between the government and the managements? No 50:50 formula?
Precisely. The irony is that when the 50:50 scheme came as part of the Unnikrishnan case, all the progressive elements in the State had opposed it as it gave constitutional validity to the concept of self-financing education, to the concept that the cost of instituting and running a college can be realised solely from the fee charged from students.
This is a principle never followed in any developed country; there only about 25 per cent of the recurring cost is recovered from student fee. The rest comes as endowments and other similar contributions. Only about 10 per cent of students in the higher education sector in the U.S. pay full fee. The rest get fee remissions or scholarships. Education is a public good and not a private good. This view is totally opposite to the current view of the Supreme Court and the Government of India. In the TMA Pai case, the apex court said education is a private good; those who want it should pay for it. This is not even the attitude of the private universities abroad. When we welcome private initiative in education we should not welcome those who see this as a business proposition. But then the court set apart 50 per cent seats for a reduced fee. But all seats were to be filled up on the basis of merit through a single-window system. The managements had no discretion. Down the line, however, the 11-member constitutional bench of the Supreme Court gave complete discretion of admission to the managements.
Of course here too the basis was merit. Even in the case of quotas for communities, the basis is inter-se merit. The managements have the freedom to prepare their own merit list. But this too should be done under the supervision of a high-power committee like the P.A. Mohammed Committee.
The committee should ensure that the admission process is transparent and based on merit. Then there is the question of fee. The SC has said that the fee should not be excessive or exploitative. In Kerala, the committee made a mistake of fixing a standard fee for all colleges.
The SC has said that each college can have a separate fee structure based on their infrastructure and quality of faculty and so on.
The second time on, the committee classified colleges into A, B and C. Even this was not reasonable. What is the role of the State in all this? Nothing, except to appoint a high-power committee and to ensure through that committee that social justice is realised.
Any progressive government would give importance to social justice. The ill-fated bill brought in by the State did have provision for scholarships. But then nothing was done for three years. I feel the government should mobilise a huge scholarship fund by collecting donations from alumni, from the industry and of course a budget provision.
So the student has the option of going to any college and the fee and other non-fee expenditure would be met from this fund. In other words the government need support only students up to rank 12,000 or so.
But fifty per cent of seats in self-financing colleges have a lower fee now?
What did the government bargain with? They had no trumps, no carrot to offer the managements except to say that the government would close its eyes to any other illegal practices of the managements if they agreed to a reduced fee in some seats. This is against the spirit of the Supreme Court verdicts and I don’t see how the government can conduct such negotiations at all.
So the Mohammed Committee should have done the talking?
Even the Mohammed committee need not do any negotiation. They should do an audit of all the colleges to see what they are spending. The managements should convince the committee that they are spending so much and that therefore the fee [charged] is justified.
Now the Mohammed Committee has been bypassed and their role is just to approve what the government and managements have decided upon.
The Mohammed Committee has a constitutional role to discharge and the government is now hampering that by entering into negotiations behind the committees back and making a mockery of the court judgements. The government should allow the Mohammed Committee to function by giving it more money and secretarial staff.
When the committee fixed the fee they assumed that everyone would be paying that fee. Now the government and the managements agreed to reduce fee for some seats and consequently increase fee in other seats.
This is precisely the cross-subsidy that the court stood against. The managements can offer lower fee than what the high-power committee fixed; they can’t go higher than that. But nobody is complaining. Why? My feeling is that those who get admission in management seats know that if merit had been the sole criteria, they would not have got admission.
And the alternative to such negotiations and agreement?
Ensure merit-based admission for all seats. Managements too can conduct admission test under the committee’s supervision. After the selection, some students are found to be poor. Either the managements or the government or both can offer scholarships.
How many would the government thus support? That depends on the capability of the society.
Here, remember that engineering and medicine are not the only streams of study.
What about medical admissions?
In medicine we have a genuine shortage of seats. I feel that for medicine and nursing we can do with 10 more colleges or so. We can designate leading district hospitals and institutions such as the general hospital Thiruvananthapuram as teaching hospitals.
They have all the hospital infrastructure; only a college needs to be put in place. Such a move would elevate the health standards in these institutions and also relieve pressure from the medical colleges.
These colleges can be set up using funds from the cooperative sector. In short, the government should focus its energies and funds on the public sector institutions. This would put pressure on private institutions to either shape up or shut shop.