Time to concede private colleges autonomy

The sensational expose by a television news channel (Times Now) depicting officials of two private medical colleges in Chennai demanding Rs.20-40 lakh from a student for an MBBS seat has once again highlighted the sub rosa but widely prevalent practice of professional colleges charging capitation or lump sum fees. However, the glib condemnation by Times Now anchors of the two “greedy college managements fleecing vulnerable students” merits further examination. Large lump sum admission or capitation fees are the inevitable outcome of a confusing maze of government regulatory controls which stifle the administrative autonomy and wreak havoc upon the balance sheets of private professional colleges. Regrettably, even the Supreme Court is complicit in contributing to the ideological confusion, of which capitation fee scandals are a natural outcome.

In Unnikrishnan’s Case (1993), the Supreme Court explicitly prohibited private professional colleges from collecting capitation fees while disapproving “commercialisation of education”. Heavily influenced by leftist ideological predilections of the learned judges, especially Justice V.K. Krishna Iyer, the apex court drew up an elaborate schema under which top-ranked merit students of state government conducted Common Entrance Tests (CETs) were obliged to pay astonishingly low (Rs.10,000-35,000 per year for medical education) tuition fees. Next, several layers of ‘merit payment’ students paid one-third to half of the actual cost of education provision, leaving a small percentage (15-20) in the ‘management and NRI quota’ to bear the burden of cross-subsidising merit students — all this without levy of lump sum capitation fees.

Forced to provide heavily subsidised professional education to students qualifying under CET, private professional college managements waged prolonged wars in the courts pleading for administrative autonomy, including the freedom to levy rational tuition fees. Almost a decade later, in a landmark judgement delivered in  the TMA Pai Foundation Case (2002), the apex court not only upheld the right of minorities to “establish and administer educational institutions of their choice” under Article 30(1) of the Constitution, but also expanded this right to all citizens. However a year later in Islamic Academy vs. Union of India (2003), the Supreme Court diluted this verdict directing all state governments to constitute separate admission and fees fixation committees headed by retired high court judges to adjudicate the fairness of admission processes and reasonableness of tuition fees levied.

It is submitted that with a full 11-judge bench having approved of provision of professional education as a legitimate “occupation” (in the TMA Pai Foundation Case), and having confirmed the right of private professional education colleges to levy reasonable, market-driven tuition fees on all students as also to exercise administrative autonomy, it is high time the Central and state governments conceded their autonomy.

The moral of the story is that government intervention breeds corruption. Liberalisation and addressing the supply side of professional education, is the prerequisite of eliminating shame and scandal in Indian academia.

Petty restrictions stifling Indian academia

A curious and typically sub-continental backdoor talibanisation is manifesting itself on India’s college and university campuses. Prior to the commencement of the new academic year, the managements of a large number of undergraduate colleges countrywide, and even in supposedly globally-connected cities such as Bangalore, have notified stringent dress code regulations for students — women students in particular. Skirts, jeans, t-shirts, sleeveless blouses etc have been outlawed by the great majority of institutional managements without any regret or apology, and indeed in indignant tones of righteousness.

Typically, half-baked academics who mysteriously rise to positions of power and authority in contemporary India’s institutions of higher education, seem completely unaware that such petty restrictions abridge the fundamental right of freedom of speech and self-expression guaranteed by the Constitution to all citizens. Worse, they indicate the unwillingness of managements and faculty to accept the reality that college and university students are not children, but adults who since they have the right to vote, are perfectly capable — and indeed should be encouraged — to make their own decisions about appropriate dress and deportment.

The justification routinely trotted out for imposition of strict dress codes is that ‘provocative’ dressing by women students is likely to distract male students, provoke sexual harassment and create law and order problems on college campuses. Yet it’s astonishing how supposedly-learned academics are unable to discern that this argument is validation of the outrageous restrictions imposed upon women in the under-developed, undemocratic satrapies and sultanates of the Middle East region. While the issuance of broadly-framed advisory notices related to student communities can be justified, a growing number of managements in India’s 21,000 colleges seem unaware that strict injunctions relating to campus behaviour, the need to respect women’s individuality and exercise self-restraint should be targeted at male students. Indeed the priority of institutional managements should be to strictly regulate the on-campus conduct of male students so that they learn to exercise self-restraint and practise good sexual behaviour, conspicuously lacking in Indian society.

Yet at bottom, the juvenile rules and regulations imposed upon adult students in institutions of higher education are indicative of a command-and-control mindset which is pervasive in Indian academia and society in general. Indeed it is an accurate description of professedly democratic India that all pleasurable activities — love, romance, courtship and marriage, and petty freedoms of dress, deportment, socialisation etc — are forbidden unless they are specifically permitted. Practised in academia, such restrictive attitudes produce immature, gauche graduates who take a long time to evolve and act independently. Which defeats the central purpose of higher education.