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The Karnataka conundrum – Frontline

Uncertainty over the process of admissions to unaided professional colleges looms large in Karnataka, leaving the State government in a fix.

in Bangalore

In Bangalore, (from left) Karnataka Chief Minister S.M. Krishna, Higher Education Minister G. Parameshwara and Minister for Primary and Secondary Education B.K. Chandrashekar at a meeting with representatives of managements of private educational institutions regarding the common entrance test .-K. GOPINATHAN

IN the matter of capitation fee-based, privately run colleges offering professional courses of study, Karnataka has been something of an early starter: the practice has prevailed here right from the 1950s in one form or the other.

The process of admissions to the large number of privately managed, professional colleges, however, came to have a semblance of order since 1993, in the wake of the Unnikrishnan case judgment delivered by the Supreme Court. The October 2002 judgment of the Supreme Court in the T.M.A. Pai case has changed the rules of the game again. The State government today ponders in the dark on the assumption that it no longer has the right to administer the admissions to the 96 engineering, 23 medical and 35 dental unaided minority and non-minority institutions, although it controlled the process of selection in the case of 85 per cent of the seats earlier.

Scrambling to tackle the crisis, the S.M. Krishna government on March 13 constituted yet another committee – this time a seven-member ministerial committee headed by Home Minister Mallikarjuna Kharge (he has since declined to accept the position) to study ways to implement the October order, while safeguarding the interests of meritorious students and those from the weaker sections of society. The committee, after its first sitting on March 17, asked Advocate-General A.N. Jayaram to suggest a solution, looking into the possibility of bringing forward legislation to regulate admissions, considering whether the decisions of the committee can stand legal scrutiny and examining how the government can ensure that managements follow its directions with regard to admissions and the fee structure.

The government’s response has satisfied neither the students and their parents nor the private managements. And the private managements are in no mood to accede to the government’s request to set aside for students chosen by it as many seats as the government wants them to. The managements are hedging their bets and waiting to see how the government – which is currently at sixes and sevens over the issue – handles the situation. They are prepared to part with “up to 70 per cent of the seats” in the engineering faculty (as many as 5,378 engineering seats had no takers last year), but their stand with regard to the financially lucrative medical and dental seats is different.

The Karnataka Private Medical Colleges Association has unilaterally announced through advertisements in newspapers, its own procedure for admissions to medical and dental colleges. The association is ready to set apart 70 per cent of the seats to those students chosen on the basis of marks obtained in the Common Entrance Test (CET) that is conducted by the government’s CET Cell and in the Class 12 examinations. But the association wants the CET Cell to be converted into an “independent autonomous organisation with representatives from the government, the private institutions and eminent educationists/informatics experts from the public.” Alternatively, the basis for admission should be the Class 12 marks. The association wants the government to engage an independent agency like the National Informatics Centre (NIC) to prepare the merit list based on the candidates’ performance in the qualifying examination.

Of the remaining 30 per cent of the seats, 20 per cent will be for meritorious students belonging to the economically poor and weaker sections of society, including Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and other eligible groups from the area where the college is located. The still remaining 10 per cent of seats would be utilised by the managements to “subserve the objectives of establishing the college”, for the children of employees, outstanding sportspersons, and children of eminent persons.

With regard to the fees to be charged, the association stated that it would be “below” Rs.3 lakhs a year for MBBS and Rs.2 lakhs for BDS. Students from the economically poor and otherwise weaker sections of society will pay Rs.60,000 and Rs.40,000 a year respectively for the medical and dental courses. Representatives of the association said that the fee structure was fixed on the basis of a 1994 study, conducted on the orders of the Supreme Court and the Medical Council of India, (MCI), by A.F. Ferguson & Co, the consulting firm. That study showed that the realistic cost of imparting medical education was Rs.3.18 lakhs a year per student. The Central government, in a reply furnished in Parliament last February, stated that the cost of imparting medical education was Rs.3.15 lakhs per student a year, and that the cost of education varied between Rs.3.4 lakhs and Rs.4 lakhs per student in government-run medical colleges.

The developments are bound to have an adverse impact on the government’s ability to fulfil the professional educational aspirations of a large number of students, the underprivileged and rural inhabitants in particular. Levels of fees are bound to increase considerably, making it impossible for a large number of students to access professional education. But proponents of the judgment, namely the private managements, argue that even today, in unaided professional colleges it is the economically better-off and urban and semi-urban students who corner most of the `free’ seats and get the advantage of lower fees. They also argue that they ought not to be saddled with the burden of paying for the government’s social justice commitments.

Prabhakar Kore, chairman, KLE Society, said: “Higher education is not the responsibility of the government. Nowhere in the world is higher education subsidised by one section of students to benefit the other. Let the government pay for its own social justice programmes. We have our own programmes for students from rural areas.”

Prof. M.R. Doreswamy, chairman, PES institutions, said: “The government can’t use private managements to foot the bill for its social responsibilities and populist measures.”

Managements interpret the latest judgment as one that has removed the mismatch with regard to admission rules between unaided minority and unaided non-minority institutions. They argue that “those who seek professional education must pay for it”, and that managements should be allowed to fix the fees for a particular course and be granted unfettered rights to admit students (though it should be based on merit). In the same breath, managements also talk about grand plans for the benefit of rural students.

But academics like Dr. R.R. Patil, a former college principal who has over the years taken up the cause of meritorious students vis-a-vis private managements, disagree. Patil said: “The judgment makes a difference between unaided minority and non-minority institutions. In fact, while the judgment says that the method of admissions in the case of minority institutions lies with managements, it does not give this same right to non-minority institutions. In the case of non-minority unaided institutions the judgment says that a `certain percentage of seats can be reserved for admission by the managements out of those students who have passed the Common Entrance Test (CET) held by itself, the state or university and have applied to the college concerned, while the rest of the seats (be allotted) by the state agency through counselling’. So the government still has a right to hold a CET, it should not give away this right to the managements. The government is not in a hopeless position.” (Karnataka has initiated the process of holding a CET this year, as in past years.)

R.R. Patil disagrees with the existing government norms for classifying institutions as aided and unaided ones. His contention is that there are many medical colleges that are unaided that use government hospitals for clinical facilities either because they do not have their own hospitals or because their hospital does not have a sufficient number of teaching beds. As per Medical Council of India (MCI) norms, the ratio of teaching beds to students is 5:1. Says R.R. Patil: “The only aid that (private) medical colleges anywhere in India get is in being allowed the use of government hospitals. When this is the case, why should these colleges not be classified as aided colleges? Without the government hospital the college will not be sanctioned the number of seats that it has.” According to him, out of the 2,069 MBBS seats in unaided institutions in Karnataka as many as half will fall in this category.

SEVERAL questions have cropped up and the government hopes that these will be answered by the Cabinet committee as it discusses the issues on its own and also with representatives of private managements. For example, what will be the basis to determine merit for the seats to be filled by the government and by the private managements? Will the CET Cell be reconstituted, or will choices be made on the basis of the Class 12 marks? To what percentage of seats will the managements let the government provide admissions to those selected through the CET? The dates for the CET, for which some 1.53 lakh students appeared last year, have been announced, but how many seats will be available for those selected through the process? How will the quantum of fees be fixed? Will the fees be uniform in all the centres? And, most important, how will the government ensure that managements do not collect a higher level of fees than is officially fixed?

Dr. G. Parameshwara, Minister for Higher Education, said: “We are trying to negotiate with the managements to fix the fees and admission norms. All we can now do is to regulate the quality of education; after the judgment we don’t have any other role. To meet our social equity and merit seat requirements we are asking the managements to give us a certain percentage of seats. While some have agreed to hand over 50 per cent of their engineering seats and 25 per cent of their medical (dental, nursing and pharmacy) seats, others are still not sure. The modalities are being worked out.” On the question whether managements might charge an unofficial capitation fee the Minister said that all that can be done is to make parents aware that no capitation fee should be paid.

The Karnataka government is not thinking of taking the issue to court. Said Parameshwara: “We did consider the legal position. But if we go to court and have our petition dismissed as has happened in Kerala, we will lose our bargaining power. If discussions with managements fail, we will have to approach the Government of India to come out with an act to fix admissions in professional colleges.”

The government has had its hands full defending its actions, or, as some people say, its inaction. Regretting that the government had to plead with the private managements for more seats, the Opposition parties have urged it to file a review petition in the Supreme Court or get the Central government to promulgate an ordinance that would enable the continuation of the CET system with the earlier level of government control over the allotment of seats intact.

Said Doreswamy, the chairman of the PES institutions: “The right of admission is a very valuable right, it was taken away by the Unnikirshnan judgment. The very purpose of our starting a professional institute was being defeated because of the Unnikrishnan judgment. The court has now said that the Unnikirshnan judgment was unconstitutional and restored this right to us. After the judgment we feel liberated.”

D.A. Pandu, chief mentor of the Rashtreeya Sikshana Samithi Trust, said: “The money that we were empowered to collect was only enough for day-to-day expenses. We could not improve our colleges, no additional laboratory equipment could be bought and other infrastructure needs suffered. Raising funds for capital expenditure had become impossible.”

The managements had repeatedly gone to the Supreme Court seeking an enhancement of the 15 per cent ceiling. Some of them created the impression that they were on the verge of closing down their institutions. Certain colleges even collected `fees’ under various heads, some of them ridiculous in nature. In some colleges, students who repeat a year are made to pay a hefty tuition fees even when they do not attend classes.

Currently the government-prescribed fee for undergraduate engineering courses in the free category ranges between Rs.11,920 and Rs.13,420 (depending on whether the student is from Karnataka or outside) a year, and in the payment category it is between Rs.46,920 and Rs.48,420. For the MBBS course it is around Rs.14,200 a year in government colleges and between Rs.97,000 and Rs.1.2 lakhs (depending on whether the teaching hospital that is being used by the institution is government-run or not). In the case of BDS it is Rs.11,900 for free seats and Rs.85,500 for payment seats.

Private managements are now talking about an annual fee of around Rs.3 lakhs for MBBS, Rs.1.5 lakhs for BDS and Rs.50,000 for engineering. Said PES chairman: “Let the government calculate how much it costs to educate one student in any of its colleges and then allow us to charge the same. Why are there dual standards? Besides the recurring expenditure, the court judgment allows for a `reasonable surplus to meet cost of expansion and augmentation of facilities’. This the court has said does not amount to profiteering.”

The State government is expected to issue a notification after the Cabinet committee submits its recommendations and the government has further confabulations with the managements, prescribing the fees that can be charged by unaided institutions and also fixing a minimum percentage of seats that will have to be set apart for government-administered admissions. Indications are that the fee pattern will be based on a cost analysis that has been conducted by some of the managements and on norms suggested by governing bodies such as the MCI, the Dental Council of India and the All-India Council for Technical Education (AICTE).

The quantum of fees is the most contentious issue. And students could find themselves at the wrong end of the stick here. After the Karnataka High Court upheld on February 26 (in line with the Supreme Court’s October judgment) the right of two medical colleges (the Kempe Gowda Institute of Medical Sciences, Bangalore, and the Devaraj Urs Medical College, Kolar) to decide on the quantum of fees they could collect for post-graduate medical courses, the Kolar college asked students seeking admission to sign a bond agreeing to pay Rs.7 lakhs a year for the course. Prior to the October 2002 judgment the college charged Rs.20,000 a year for the course.

The question of the number of seats the government can insist on administering itself is still open. The court order has, according to certain private managements, taken away the government’s right to ask unaided colleges to set apart seats for the admission system administered by it. The order only says that the government can regulate the institutions for the sake of transparency, merit and fairness. But does this give it the right to `demand’ the setting apart of a certain percentage of seats?

Some private managements – especially some of the new institutions and those running colleges situated away from Bangalore – want to be part of the government-administered system but only in the engineering discipline. This is because on their own they have been finding it difficult to fill up all their seats. In 2001-02, out of the 31,113 seats that were available in Karnataka’s 107 engineering colleges, 5,378 remained unfilled. While all the 2,452 MBBS seats in the 27 government, aided and unaided medical colleges found takers, 35 of the 1,625 BDS seats remained unfilled.

Understandably, then, managements are not ready to part with medical seats under the new dispensation. Said Pandu, of the Rashtreeya Sikshana Samithi Trust, reflecting the views of other managements which run medical and dental courses: “The government can’t club medical seats with engineering seats. In medical education the number of seats is less and the cost of educating a student is very high. So managements would naturally like to keep more seats, maybe 70 per cent. Pandu averred that the fees that may be fixed by the government would not be sufficient to generate resources for future development. “We will have to approach the only people who will pay, the parents of students and ask them to fund our development. From where else can we get funds?”

Though the Supreme Court has specifically ruled against the collection of capitation fees and profiteering, many academics fear that professional education (in the private sector) in Karnataka could now regress to the situation that prevailed prior to the Unnikrishnan judgment – a situation in which virtually every seat in both undergraduate and post-graduate courses were `sold’ by private managements.

Running a capitation fee-based professional college has been a profitable enterprise. A college’s reputation and, geographic location are important elements here. Starting one of them has been easy, given the cozy relationship between politicians and prospective managements, and the fact that the State government is the primary sanctioning authority.

Given this situation, it is hardly surprising that many politicians are running or are otherwise associated with capitation fee-based institutions. Among them are Minister Parameshwar, Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee treasurer Shyamanur Shivashankarappa, Congress Member of Parliament R.L. Jalappa, former Congress parliamentarian Dr. S.S. Javali, an elected member of the State legislature belonging to the Congress M.R. Seetharaman and Congressman M.B. Patil. KLE Society chairman Kore is a nominated legislator. According to Pandu, the Supreme Court judgment has made private managements “more responsible and accountable to providing good quality professional education at reasonable costs”.

But given the chequered record of many of the managements who, in the garb of charitable work, have made millions of rupees, many academics have their own doubts with regard to such claims.

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