The Centre must fulfil its obligation of bringing in a law on professional courses.
PERHAPS THE most unfortunate aspect of education being in the Concurrent List is that the Centre and the States seem to be playing politics with it. Caught in the middle are the students. The recent developments vis-à-vis a Common Entrance Test (CET) for admission to professional colleges are a clear example of how Governments can play to the galleries in such a vital sector.
Last year, the Centre even put out a draft Bill on regulation of private self-financing colleges. But, during the recent winter session of Parliament, it brought in a constitutional amendment to provide for reservation in these colleges for the educationally and socially backward classes - as in the case of government institutions. In other words, it was concerned about the basic need for reservation, not about the regulation of the colleges. The reservation issue is so politically sensitive that no government can afford to ignore it. Especially at a time when States such as Tamil Nadu and Kerala, where private colleges abound, go to the polls, the Centre can ill-afford to brush aside the demands for guaranteeing reservation in self-financing colleges. The amendment became necessary as the Supreme Court ruled that these colleges need not follow the quota system in admission but should admit students on the basis of a CET and on merit.
As a result of the apex court's ruling, students have been forced to write several entrance examinations. At the national level, there are separate All India entrance examinations for courses in engineering and medicine. In addition, State Governments, through designated agencies, conduct their own CETs. When private self-financing college managements challenged government control over admissions to their institutions, the Supreme Court even asked them to hold their own CET through an Association or a Federation. In Tamil Nadu for example, students seeking admissions to engineering colleges (anywhere in the country) had to take the AIEEE, the TNPCEE, and a CET conducted by an Association of private colleges. This situation sparked protests and political parties took it on themselves to champion the cause of the students. They also stood up for students from the rural areas and the backward sections, who had no access to the urban coaching centres.
Supreme Court verdicts
Three things that stand out in successive Supreme Court verdicts on the issue of admissions to professional courses are: (1) there has to be a CET and a transparent system of admission on the basis of merit; (2) private unaided colleges are not bound by the reservation policy of the government; and (3) there is no such thing as a government quota under which private colleges were surrendering between 30 and 50 per cent of seats for admission through the Government's Single Window System.
It was basically to address these core issues and the more serious problem of exorbitant fees charged by some of the institutions that a new Bill to regulate the private, self-financing colleges was promised by the Centre. Whether it chooses to introduce it during the Budget session of Parliament remains to be seen. It is surprising that most political parties, especially the regional allies of the Congress, have not raised their voice on this issue as much as they have on the quotas. Why blame only the State Governments when the Centre has an equal, if not greater, responsibility of regulating these professional colleges?
One of the reasons behind the mushrooming of private institutions is the All India Council for Technical Education, which has not fully regulated the process of according recognition and sanction to new engineering colleges the way the Medical Council of India has done. That is why there has been a proliferation of engineering colleges, over which the States have no control. The courts have even ruled that a no-objection certificate from the State Government is not essential if the AICTE has granted affiliation. This trend needs to be curbed. Why should Tamil Nadu or Andhra Pradesh alone have close to 250 colleges each, and that too when a few thousand seats have remained vacant in recent years?
Tamil Nadu has chosen to adopt a twin strategy for admission to the engineering colleges. In the Governor's address to the last session of this Assembly, the Government enunciated its policy thus: "This Government has decided to follow the basic principle, namely, the Plus Two marks of the State Board will be the common platform for evaluation... There will be a common entrance examination for students of all other Boards so that they are brought on a comparable basis to the State Board Plus Two marks." This is supposed to achieve the twin objectives of "less burden and trauma for the bulk of the students who take the State Board examination, as also the provision of a correct method to bring all other Board examinations on to a comparable platform." A law is expected to be enacted to give effect to this before the end of the month.
There have been mixed reactions to this move. State Board students are still not willing to believe there will be no TNPCEE, and many continue to prepare for one. Students and parents of other Boards are wondering if it does not involve a kind of discrimination? Which is why it becomes critical for the Centre to take the initiative and put in place a national aptitude test for admission to all professional courses. All universities and institutions could go about admissions on the basis of their own qualifying marks and the applications of students. After all, students will choose the best colleges based on their own evaluation. Such a test will do away with the many CETs and provide a single, common platform for all students and colleges.