Education is a burning topic in Kerala and professional education even more so. Irrespective of the party in power, every year, the State Assembly would witness ruckus over issues such as fee hike, seat allotment, NRI quota, NoC for new colleges etc for professional courses in the higher education sector. Hullabaloo around meetings between the association of private college managements and the State Government (most of the times, the meetings end up in the Chief Minister’s chamber), proceeding court cases and pandemonium or suspension in admissions to the colleges, due to uncertainty and lack of clarity in the procedures, are annual rituals in Kerala. A string of protests by student outfits cutting across political parties keeps up the momentum. This year is not an exception, as discussions and debates fortify the issue of determining the fee structure in self-financing medical colleges in the state.
It all began with the formation of the Fee Regulatory Committee (FRC) to come up with the fee structure in self-financing medical colleges. The Committee headed by Justice R Rajendra Babu fixed the fee provisionally at Rs 5 lakh per annum for general merit seats and Rs 20 lakh per annum for NRI seats. The college managements challenged the decision at the High Court, questioning the validity of the Committee. Even though the High Court ruled in favour of the Government, the Supreme Court issued an interim order, allowing the managements of self-financing colleges to charge Rs 11 lakh as admission fee.
A critical question is overlooked in this case. How can a committee appointed by a government or a court (be it the High Court or the Supreme Court) fix a uniform fee for colleges across the state? As pointed out in the FRC report, various factors need to be considered while fixing the fee, such as location of the college, nature of the medical course, costs of land and building, available infrastructure and equipment, expenditure on administration etc. These costs will not be uniform for all the colleges in the state. The cost of living varies across cities. Likewise, the cost of running a college also varies. If the fee is fixed at either Rs 5 lakh or Rs 11 lakh, some colleges will be at the losing end and some others at the gaining end. This, in turn, will affect the quality of medical education provided in the state.
The level of governmental regulation that exists in the school education sector and the higher education sector in Kerala is disproportionate. Private schools are mushrooming in the state, as parents prefer to send their students to these schools. The private school managements enjoy full autonomy in fixing the fee in their schools. As the supply side of the schools is in excess to the demand side, the market determines the fee structure that is followed by the managements. Competition among private schools has ensured a level-playing field and largely succeeded in imparting quality education to the students. It has been possible because the school education market provides options for the parents to decide which school their ward should enrol. Different categories of schools have ensured affordability and availability indexed to the function of the quality at the end. However, as we move up the education ladder, the level of regulation and issues intensify.
The policy to universalise the fee structure in highly competitive professional degree courses is misguided. The inadvertent bearing would be the limited supply of institutions offering professional courses. Foreign universities within the same country like the US or the UK, where a large number of Indian students enrol for higher education, charge different fees. The education system must be viewed as a pyramid, where the base should be strong with the Government having a greater role in ensuring that students have access to basic education. The Government should limit its role as we move up the pyramid. In Kerala, the trend is just the opposite.
In the present scenario, the Government fixing the fee at a predetermined level will only push the medical education system to a crisis. Instead of fixing the fee, the Government should take measures to ensure that the students have access to credit at reasonable interest rates. Availability of credit is important, as the students can then choose their preferred institutions. This system will ensure more competition and better quality education. However, there should be a regulatory framework; as otherwise, the banks will be flooded with NPAs in education loans. The banks themselves can act as regulators in this structure. India has various credit information companies (CIBIL, Equifax, Experian, and Highmark) that collect data from individual consumers to estimate their credit-worthiness, thereby helping the lenders to gauge their repayment capacity. In a similar way, banks should maintain a record of the students obtaining loans for medical education. If the students are unable to repay the loans, it shows that they are unable to find jobs in the market. This, in turn, throws light on the inability of an institution to equip the students with necessary skills or its failure in imparting quality education to the students. As banks will decline to sanction loans to the students opting for the institutions recording major loan defaulters, such institutions will struggle to sustain. Thus, education institutions will become more accountable, as they are liable to provide quality education, necessary infrastructure and equipment on a par with their fees.
Kerala has examples of engineering colleges that failed to impart quality education to the students, making them unfit for the job market. It took the Kerala Technological University to step up and take measures against such colleges. The crisis could have been averted, had there been a proper market mechanism to signal the academic performance of these institutions. Instead of fixing a uniform fee and pushing the medical education sector into a crisis, the Government should necessitate steps for a competitive market for higher education.
*Writers Dr D Dhanuraj is the Chairman, CPPR and Deepthi Mary Mathew is a Research Associate, Centre for Comparative Studies, CPPR.
The views expressed here are personal.