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But now, the Karnataka system is in a state of chaos, confusion and constant uncertainty. For the last three years, it’s played out like this: between the months of May and August, a strange, devouring anxiety and unrest grips lakhs of parents and students. They are unsure about the availability of engineering, medicine and dental seats, they grapple with several entrance examinations that have replaced the single, state-managed one, and they are unable to figure out the outcome of the ongoing spat between the state government and the representatives of private colleges over issues like seat-sharing ratio.
Padmanabhaiah, a private sector employee whose daughter is seeking a seat in electronics in Bangalore this year, sums up the anxiety: "This point of time in the lives of our wards is a turning point, their future rests on the choices they make today...the government and private college managements are playing football with their careers. I feel helpless and depressed." Former PM H.D. Deve Gowda says he wanted to resign from his Lok Sabha seat in 2004 when the House ignored his plea to raise the issue. The mess has affected so many families that it’s even grist to the mill in a popular Kannada TV serial, Mukta.
The spokes in Karnataka’s success story (and other states too) came in the form of several court judgements in cases like the TMA Pai Foundation vs State of Karnataka (October 2002), Islamic Academy vs State of Karnataka (August 2003) and PA Inamdar vs State of Maharashtra (August 2005). These judgements freed the private institutions that didn’t get government aid from the caste-based and other reservation policies of the respective states, but allowed a 15 per cent reservation for NRIs. They also barred the state governments from imposing a fee structure for these colleges.
"The state cannot insist on private educational institutions which receive no aid from the state to implement state policy on reservation for granting admission on lesser percentage of marks, i.e. on any criterion except merit. Merely because the resources of the state in providing professional education are limited, private educational institutions, which intend to provide better professional education, cannot be forced by the state to make admissions available on the basis of reservation policy to less meritorious candidates," stated a 2005 SC judgement. It added that "every institution is free to devise its own fee structure...."
Immediately, it led to the breaking down of the state-managed admission system. The old system, a merit-cum-roster model, ensured the democratisation of professional education, at least in the southern states, for a decade. It had a centralised common entrance test (CET) and a centralised admission process, conducted by the state, and the fee structures and allocation of seats—either based on merit in the common exam, caste-based reservations, or private management quotas—were decided by the state. The private sector had little role to play in the entire process, except to follow rules rigorously.
Ravindra Reshme, who has chronicled the history of the CET in Karnataka, reveals that under it the seat-sharing ratio between the state and the private managements was fixed at 85:15, i.e. 85 per cent was allocated by the state on the basis of CET marks and 15 per cent for the managements. Of the former 85 per cent seats, 50 per cent was on the basis of merit, and the remaining 50 per cent was reserved for SCs (18 per cent), STs (5 per cent) and OBCs (27 per cent). Within the OBC and the general merit categories, there was a further reservation of 10 per cent for students with a rural background.
The fees were decided by the state, with concessional rates for 60 per cent of the seats, relatively higher ones for 25 per cent, and the private managements could charge whatever they wished for the 15 per cent under their jurisdiction. The admissions for the 85 per cent seats were governed by the CET cell, which announced the cutoffs and had counselling sessions for each aspirant—as per their CET rankings under various categories—to help him/her to choose the colleges and courses where seats were available.
Explains Veerappa Moily, who introduced the CET system during his tenure as the Karnataka CM in 1993: "For the overall rankings, 50 per cent marks from pre-university exams and 50 per cent from CET were calculated. Under the CET introduced in Karnataka, even the reserved category students wrote the same test; the standards were never lowered, nor was merit ever compromised. It is now an acknowledged fact that Karnataka has produced some of the best engineers in the country." Adds Reshme, "Not a single community of people, poor or rich, complained. The system worked very well till the disruption happened in 2003."
Once the courts set aside the reservation policies and the fee structures, the system was bound to disintegrate as the private managements didn’t have to listen to the state’s diktats any more. It did in 2003-04. To begin with, private managements renegotiated all the issues with the state governments; the reason the former didn’t go their own independent way was because of intense political and public pressure. The state’s quota allocation under CET came down from 85 per cent to 75, and further down to 60 per cent this year.
In addition, private colleges in Karnataka formed a consortium to start their own common admission test, Comed (K), in 2004 to compete with the CET. This year, more students appeared for Comed (K) than the CET. Students now pay higher fees too. This year, annual fees for the state quota seats range between Rs 42,000 and Rs 2,97,500 for medical colleges, and between Rs 18,090 and Rs 88,090 for engineering institutes. And only after intense negotiations between the two sides was the number of seats under concessional fees increased for both medical and engineering colleges. Compare this to the fee structure in 2002—between Rs 48,000 and Rs 1,92,000 for medical colleges, and between Rs 15,000 and Rs 50,000 for engineering ones.
BMS College of Engineering, Bangalore
More fee hikes seem to be in the offing. As per the court judgements, the states have to form two separate committees to monitor the admission procedure and determine fee structures. The Justice Murgod panel, set up to recommend the structure in Karnataka, had suggested annual charges of Rs 1.65-2.72 lakh for medical institutes and Rs 15,000-1.10 lakh for engineering colleges. The panel based its recommendations on the expenditure statements given by managements. It raised a furore and the revenue minister in the previous Dharam Singh cabinet, M.P. Prakash, issued a statement in the assembly that the state government will subsidise the differential between the 2002-03 fee structures and the higher one suggested by Justice Murgod panel in a bid to benefit poor students. "In the earlier system, the students were not exposed to the mercenary attitude of private managements, but now they feel helpless," says Moily.
The situation has become so bad that even the state governments are forced to change laws, and seek legal help for some of those changes. After the Inamdar judgement, Parliament had to pass an enabling law to push through reservations in private educational institutions. As recently as last Wednesday, the Kerala state cabinet approached the Centre to seek protection under the Ninth Schedule of the Constitution for its own Act, aimed at regulating private professional colleges. It wants to arrive at a decision before admissions get under way on July 10 this year. Tamil Nadu filed a special leave petition in the SC in March this year, challenging a Madras HC judgement quashing the legislation scrapping the CET for admission to the 2006-07 batch undergraduate professional courses.
It’s ironical that the courts, which have questioned the CET system and are now saddled with petitions from the state governments, were the ones that helped put the original admission system in the first place in 1993. Reshme explains the stranglehold that private managements had over the state government in the pre-CET days: "The racket of excess admission and retrospective approval from the government had become a norm. The crisis grew during the reigns of subsequent CMs as the state bypassed university bodies and began a new practice of the state cabinet sanctioning professional colleges. Essentiality certificates were handed over arbitrarily."
University Visvesvarya College of Engineering
A nexus between politics and education thrived during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Powerful politicians in Karnataka themselves became owners and trustees of professional colleges. This "cross-holding" gained circulation as some CMs sanctioned a spate of medical, engineering and other professional colleges due to pressure from various caste lobbies. In 2001, clearances were given for 45 new engineering colleges and six medical colleges. The number of engineering colleges in Karnataka shot up from 78 to 120. Probably this was reflective of the growing market demand for engineering talent—the IT captains were certainly clamouring for it.
Another fact about the politician-professional colleges nexus came in a written reply in the assembly by the S.M. Krishna state government. Answering a question from legislator Prafulla Madhukar about the number of newly-sanctioned colleges that belonged to politicians, the government replied that 27 AICTE-recognised colleges belonged to politicians; of them, about a dozen were owned by the then ministers (one of them named the college after himself), three by ruling-party MPs and two by Opposition party leaders. Thanks to this, the number of unaided medical and engineering colleges zoomed from 7 and 25 respectively in 1984 to 28 and 120 respectively in 2005.
Explains B.A. Harish Gowda, an ias officer credited with making the Karnataka CET cell a success as its special officer in the early years, "In 1993, when the situation was at its lowest ebb, it was the SC that came down heavily against the state government in the Unnikrishnan case and gave the broad contours of how to administer professional colleges. The idea of a CET, sharing of seats between government and private managements, the concept of free seats and payment seats which helped the poor and middle-classes, and the state government fixing the fee structures came from that judgement. And then Moily had the political will and the wisdom to implement these ideas." After CET became an inclusive social idea in Karnataka, it was picked up by other states and, according to Moily, "even China adopted our model".
Credit must also go to the bureaucrats for smooth and efficient implementation. Says Harish Gowda, "It was my former colleague Shivkumar Reddy who put the infrastructure and software in place. I streamlined other processes, like we decided to issue seat availability bulletins four times a day and introduced measures like collecting the phone numbers of the various rank holders. In fact, we even made calls if students did not appear for counselling at 9 am. Our concern was that the best seats shouldn’t be lost to a lower rank holder."
He narrates an anecdote to buttress his point. Once a third rank holder did not reach on time as he was coming from rural Chitradurga area and his bus had met with an accident. "He called us from a public booth and we approved his choice of seat on the phone itself. That was the ease with which things worked. There was a personal touch to everything we did and the cell ran just like a private enterprise. Students and parents were seen as customers. Karnataka was far ahead in professionalising its admission system, even a progressive state like Kerala picked it up only in 1999," he explains.
All that has obviously changed now. The 2003 crisis has spiralled into a huge one. For example, the drama during this academic year for which the counselling process has just begun. Initially, the BJP higher education minister Shankaramurthy threw up his hands and said that in the light of the Inamdar judgment, he had only 4,000 engineering and 388 medical seats to dispense with under the CET system. Later, the CM negotiated a "deal" with private managements to raise the number of merit seats under concessional fees.
But these are short-term measures to deal with the situation. If the process of democratisation of professional courses has to continue, the various states need to put in place long-term legislations to deal with the current mess. Or else, the model of southern success in this area will quickly disappear in a whirlpool of chaos. And that too during an era when India needs more engineers and doctors.
by Sugata Srinivasaraju with Saumya Roy