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A deliberate paradigm shift – Frontline

Interview with Dr. M. Anandakrishnan, former Vice-Chancellor of Anna University.

M. Anandakrishnan, educationist and former Vice-Chancellor of Anna University, Chennai, spoke to S. Viswanathan on the impact of the Supreme Court order on rights of unaided educational institutions on the professional education scene in Tamil Nadu. Excerpts from the interview:

N. BALAJI

How will you assess the post-judgment situation in the realm of professional education, particularly in Tamil Nadu?

My reading of the situation is that there is a deliberate paradigm shift. First of all, in any society there must be a reasonable balance between conflicting interests, with checks and controls. More so in our society where there is need for a system of social monitoring, not so much to control but to ensure that there are no malpractices, that there is no exploitation, particularly where large sections of the population are illiterate and ignorant, so that their interests are not unduly jeopardised. This is why social monitoring or some sort of a social auditing is necessary.

Now when we talk of education, particularly higher education, we have been drifting aimlessly for decades. Except where we have managed to fortify a system for special purposes such as the IITs and the IIMs, the rest of the education system has been drifting aimlessly. In the last few years there has been a high degree of disorder that has come into the system because of expansion. The expansion has been at such a pace and in such directions that there has been a very noticeable degree of disorder. What has happened now is that we have made the disorder compounded.

How to get out of it?

If the governments are not capable of exercising their monitoring functions, we will be always dependant on the judicial system to provide a degree of empowerment to the people to be able to do the social monitoring work. That was what happened in the case of the environment judgment. But here, in the case of education, what has happened is surprising. I am looking at the phenomenon from a larger angle, leaving the nitty-gritty of fee structure and so on. They (the Judges in the minorities case) have reversed the Supreme Court’s earlier judgment (Unnikrishnan), in which Justice Jeevan Reddy says that the right to education has the same connotation as the right to life. “No,” says the recent judgment. The court now says that beyond the age of 14 you have no right to education, because education is a non-merit good, it is meant only for private gain and not for social gain. Beyond a certain level you do not have the fundamental right to education.

Basically, I think, there is this paradigm shift. This only reflects the philosophy of liberalisation, of market forces capturing the judicial attention. The first aspect (of the judgment) is that they have more or less said that the government is incompetent to handle education, not only in terms of money. They have also more or less said that any operation conducted by the government is not good. But there are good government institutions such as the IITs and the IIMs and a number of universities. There are also excellent government-run schools. So, to say that the government is incapable of running quality institutions looks odd.

The judiciary has even gone to the other extreme of saying that only the private investors in education can give quality education. But, facts do not stand up to this observation. The next point made out is that these private education-providers are “educationists, philanthropists” and so on. But, there are tonnes of data about the culpability of and the malpractices associated with these institutions. And so, this assumption also does not reflect the ground reality. A large proportion of the investors who have established private institutions are either politicians or beneficiaries of political cronyism or people who indulge in money-laundering. Seldom are there educated people among them. Many of the institutions are family-controlled ventures.

And, the judgment says that education is an occupation with charity as motive. But rarely you find among them people motivated by charity. Very clearly, they are there to make money. There may be exceptions.

How do they go about it?

They have rarely fulfilled the requirements in terms of the infrastructure, the faculty and so on. And they have one hundred excuses as to why they are not able to do it. If they cannot do this they should not have, in the first place, entered this field. Yet they do come forward. There is, in fact, a political stampede to start these colleges. Chief Ministers used to frequent Delhi to get 50 colleges, 75 colleges and even 100 colleges at a stretch. Once they start these colleges they never bother to fulfil the norms laid down to run them. Then, they indulge in financial malpractices on almost a massive scale. They collect large amounts of illegitimate fees. Many of them, if not all, do not use the money to improve the institutions, but divert it to political parties, launch gambling dens and so on. They mostly invest the earnings in businesses not related to education. This has been well established. And, instead of tightening the system through legitimate supervision, what we have done is to let them continue such misdeeds. This is the most bothersome aspect of all. Because the system is known to be so full of malpractices – this is what I call as disorder – you push it to a greater degree of disorder without any kind of checks and balances.

Where do the unaided private institutions stand post-judgment?

The judgment has given them full authority to admit students. They (the Judges) say that these institutions can have their admissions done either by the university or by the government, through entrance examinations and all that. Once they are given these alternatives, many say that they will only like to use the options. However, some of them say, “We do not want to get bothered with this admission process, entrance examination and all that. Let somebody conduct the entrance examination. We will go along.” There are others who say, “No, this is our prerogative.” So, I think, using the alternatives given by the Supreme Court, the State government should have immediately come forward to say that there could be only one entrance examination that would determine the student’s eligibility. Just as the government conducts the higher secondary examination, which is the qualifying examination for professional courses, it can also hold the entrance examination for determining the calibre of the students seeking to join professional colleges. Private institutions may be asked to admit students on the basis of these marks.

But many of the self-financing colleges insist that they will conduct their own entrance examinations. This is going to create chaos. There may be hundreds of entrance examinations, all at almost the same time or within a short period. The students will be totally confused in choosing the colleges and courses. This may create enormous tension and stress for both candidates and parents. And also, when many examinations are held simultaneously, equal opportunity to choose the entrance examination is denied to the students.

And the worst part of it is that the judgment says that even if one secures a rank and merit – they insist on merit – whether based on marks in the higher secondary examination or in entrance examination, the private colleges have the authority to reject the candidate after an interview. Granting such powers to the managements will affect the interests of a large number of people whose appearance may not be to their liking, whose language skill may not be that right, whose confidence level may not be that high.

What will happen to the fee structure?

The judgment says that though these institutions are run for charitable purposes, they are free to prescribe fees that can give them a “reasonable margin” for building the infrastructure and so on. This is a fair statement. But if you look at their past and current practices, these institutions are not run for charity. They have adopted innumerable ways to make unauthorised collections from the students. This is in spite of a ceiling fixed by the government on the amount they can collect. So, the government, when I say government I mean any authorised public organisation, should have the authority to prescribe the norms for fixing the fees taking into account several aspects such as payment of teachers’ salaries and, development of facilities such as laboratories and so on. However, now the private colleges have been told that they are free to charge whatever fees they like, and no norms have also been fixed. This brings in the operation of market forces. Based on the law of supply and demand, the fee will get fixed. If the demand is even marginally more than the supply, there will be exploitation. And the price structure will have nothing to do with “reasonable margin” and will always be unrelated to the cost of education. I also fear that the fee structure will be frequently altered in tune with the change in demand for specific courses.

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