It is admission time and the great medical education bazaar is in full swing. Parents are running around like headless chickens ready to mobilise bundles of cash trying to get their children into the best medical colleges. In a society that has come to accept that paying illegal capitation fees is an effective way to get good education it is little surprise that parents have no compunction in violating the law and in acceding to the demands of the colleges by paying up whatever is asked.
Officially, the collection of capitation fee is banned. However, it is an open secret that many colleges continue to charge this fee with impunity. Many private medical colleges are believed to be charging between Rs.30 lakh and Rs.60 lakh as the capitation fee per candidate for an MBBS seat this year. On top of this, is the official annual fees which is between Rs.5 lakh and Rs.7 lakh a year. Thus a medico joining a private college this year under the management quota is likely to be spending anywhere between Rs.50 lakh and Rs.80 lakh or even more for just the undergraduate degree. The capitation fee for a post-graduate seat in a prized specialty like obstetrics & gynaecology or orthopaedics or radiology is now rumoured to be well over Rs.1.5 crore. The colleges have tightened their security systems to keep away the media who are always on the lookout for their hidden camera scoops.
One step of the farcical admission process is the “entrance or admission test” conducted by many of these private colleges. In most of them, the result/merit list is ready even before the candidates appear for the exam. Thousands of gullible students are spending time preparing for and paying entrance fees to appear for these bogus tests where the candidates who have already “booked” their seats months or even years in advance get the top ranks.
The present system needs urgent reform for several reasons. There is a massive fraud being played on students who are actually preparing for the entrance tests in these colleges thinking them to be genuine. If they knew that these are rigged exams, it will enable them to save their time and money. Private colleges would do their best to try to scuttle the National Entrance-cum-Eligibility Test (NEET) exam administered by the MCI, which would be transparent and where the merit list can be the basis of admission (though this is not the case at present), as there is no guarantee that the selected merit list candidate will be willing to pay anything more than the official fees.
Capitation fee or its equivalent which is widely prevalent needs to be brought above the table. If the governments cannot or will not enforce the law and stop the colleges from collecting this fee then they must consider some method of legalising it. The colleges claim (not without some merit) that with today’s cost structure it is simply not financially viable to run a private medical college without collecting capitation fee. The present system also leaves the colleges open to blackmail by politicians, bureaucrats, Income-tax officials, police, etc., all of whom know very well what’s going on. In fact, the corrupt among these groups are the major beneficiaries of the present system. Many of the more established colleges may actually welcome an opportunity to go legitimate if they are legally allowed to collect the capitation fee component.
All over the world, including the best private universities in the U.S., one is permitted to pay his or her way in once the college is satisfied that the student meets the eligibility criteria. The education fairs being held all over the country by foreign universities are essentially aimed at attracting buyers for the seats. So why can private colleges in India not do the same? If there are more colleges the cost would automatically come down as has happened with the engineering colleges and the courses would become affordable to a larger segment of the population.
Management quota seats can be at a hefty premium but the allotment of these too needs to go through a centralised, state-supervised process to ensure that candidates without the minimum qualifications are not selected and that capitation fee is not charged. Private medical colleges have made huge investments and the system evolved must protect their interests too as the fate of thousands of students is involved.
While the principle that education must not be a commodity that can be purchased without merit is a sound one, burying our heads in the sand without acknowledging the stark reality of the medical education bazaar in India will have dangerous repercussions.
In a situation where the parents and the colleges collude and neither has a problem it becomes difficult for the government to act against the collection of capitation fees as there is no complaint made by anyone. The ones who lose out are often the weakest students (no money/no influence) whose only asset may be merit. In the India of today, that does not count for much.
(The writer is a consultant in internal medicine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)