Professional education can now be left to the private sector to provide education to those who can pay for it. Else, government scholarships can be provided

Both Satya Nadella, who succeeded Steve Ballmer at Microsoft in February, and Rajeev Suri, who was appointed as Nokia’s new Chief Executive Officer this month, are alumni of the Manipal Institute of Technology, now being called “the other MIT.”

While Indian engineers from institutes other than the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) are now going to places where no IITian has gone before, IITians like Arvind Kejriwal and Ashok Khemka, whose education was funded by Indian taxpayers, are redefining Indian politics and administration. Even IIT’s poster boy, Nandan Nilekani, is attempting to make a foray into politics, therefore proving that many from the institute, educated at the public’s expense, have abandoned their core training as engineers and doctors. On the other hand, engineers like Mr. Nadella and Mr. Suri, whose education did not burden the taxpayer, are attempting to redesign software and cloud computing on a global scale. Others whose education has been privately funded continue to remain true to the disciplines that they were trained for. They are the backbone of India’s technical prowess.

Privately funded institutions

India may have come to a stage where it needs to invest in upgrading its school education. Professional education could, on the other hand, be largely privatised, and public-funded higher education could be made available to the talented poor in the form of scholarships and monetary assistance. There may be no need to create new taxpayer-funded institutions.

Privately funded professional educational institutions started as an unintended consequence of two social evils: dowry and caste/community-based reservations. The home of capitation fee, Manipal, was earlier part of the Madras presidency. Madras’ caste/community-based reservations date back to the British period. Faced with a strong self-respect movement, British administrators decided that all communities should be represented in educational institutions.

At that time, the Brahmins and Bunts of South Canara were allocated only one medical seat per year. However, doctors in the Bunt community were highly valued in the dowry market and this demand and supply mismatch needed to be rectified. The solution to this problem was provided by Dr. T.M.A. Pai of the Academy of General Education. Rather than waiting for the government to create and fund more medical colleges in which seats could be increased for such communities, Dr. Pai said a college could be successfully founded and run if professional education could be paid for by parents of aspiring professionals.

In 1953, Dr. Pai placed an advertisement in leading newspapers inviting applications for admission to a medical college. He said these were to be accompanied by a bank draft for the then huge sum of Rs. 3,000. On June 30, 1953, Kasturba Medical College came into being with 100 students. There is anecdotal evidence that many of the bank drafts accompanying the applications were sent by prospective fathers-in-law. The medical college was a resounding success and is the foundation of a world class university today. The Manipal Institute of Technology followed in 1957 to replicate the same formula of creating privately funded students.

This brings me to the question of whether it is time for the government to seriously consider withdrawing from funding higher education at the professional level and leave it entirely to the private sector, except for a certain percentage of seats. In 2002, an 11-judge Bench of the Supreme Court, in the aptly titled TMA Pai Foundation case, opened the door to privatisation. Chief Justice Kirpal, who was speaking for the majority, wrote: “It is well established all over the world that those who seek professional education must pay for it. The number of seats available in government and government-aided colleges is very small compared to the number of persons seeking admission to the medical and engineering colleges. All those eligible and deserving candidates who could not be accommodated in government colleges would stand deprived of professional education. This void in the field of medical and technical education has been filled by institutions that are established in different places with the aid of donations and the active part taken by public-minded individuals.”

Subsequent benches of the Court have struggled to reconcile with this logic, with governments continuing to regulate the professional education sector. The broad consensus now is to give managements a free rein in admissions in the management quota, but insist on adherence to marks and transparent evaluations of merit at the exit stage. This consensus has, from time to time, been sought to be legislated upon by governments who use the “marks is merit” argument to control admissions into institutions where their financial contribution is zero. The concept of management quota and governmental control of admissions has now crept into primary education with the Right to Education Act. The problem with legislation is that courts then inevitably get dragged into questions of interpretation and constitutionality. Every academic year sees a frantic quest for workable interim orders during admission season. These end in relief for some, but are at the expense of others who cannot be represented in court.

Legislation at the central level

A new government may need to look at the issue afresh with a focus on maximum governance and minimal governmental control. A good beginning would be to reduce legislation on education at the central level and encourage States to follow suit. A uniform policy at the central level should focus on access to higher education and not on any “right” to education. The rights-based narrative should be confined to universal primary education alone, a fundamental right. Higher and professional education can now be left to the private sector to provide education to those who can pay for it. Else, government scholarships can be provided on a merit-cum-need criteria. Student loans at subsidised rates of interest will take care of those who do not have family resources or government funding. India’s path to economic development will be best achieved by creating policy incentives in education so that the middle class which can afford education need not rely on the government in this area.

(Sanjay Hegde is a Supreme Court lawyer.)

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