Immediately after assuming office as Union minister of human resource development of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government on May 22, the septuagenarian warhorse of the Congress Party, Arjun Singh (who served in this ministry in the 1980s) has moved with uncharacteristic alacrity to cleanse the augean stables of the ministry.
|Arjun Singh: uncharacteristic alacrity|
Singh’s operation de-saffronisation includes reversing hindutva-inspired changes made in CBSE history and social science textbooks by the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT); ordering an enquiry against NCERT director J.S. Rajput for alleged nepotism and corruption; reviving the Central Advisory Board on Education (CABE) which had been placed in cold storage, and instituting a search committee under the leadership of former University Grants Commission chairman Prof. Yash Pal to suggest a successor for Rajput and several other members on the board of the council.
Singh’s de-saffronisation of education initiatives were preceded by a pilot spring cleaning of Delhi state government schools by feisty chief minister Sheila Dixit. On May 25 Dixit scrapped the NCERT-mandated textbooks for classes I to VIII in government schools replacing them with a mint-fresh package of 47 new ones commissioned and published by the state government’s Delhi Bureau of Textbooks (DBT). These will replace the "distorted" NCERT curriculum with that of State Council for Educational Research and Training (SCERT) in the capital’s government-run schools. "Over the years, distorted myths have been printed in textbooks and education was being tilted towards a particular ideology," says Dixit. "These new textbooks are strong on historical facts, reinforcing India’s secular and pluralistic culture."
Despite having been humiliated at the hustings and losing his Lok Sabha seat, Joshi who has entered Parliament through the Rajya Sabha, has hit back. In a nationally televised press conference, Joshi accused the UPA government of following a "Marxist agenda" with a distorted perspective of history. He demanded that the newly introduced textbooks in Delhi’s schools be withdrawn forthwith.
At a time when he is all set to revise tendentious textbooks in CBSE and government schools, Singh is stymied by an NCERT rule which prohibits any changes in textbooks without the authors’ consent. So if authors resent the changes this may leave the government with little choice except to scrap the impugned books — not a very practical suggestion now that the new academic year has begun. It may be recalled that in 2001, historians Romila Thapar, Arjun Dev and Satish Chandra were forced to move court when NCERT director J.S. Rajput ordered changes in their books without prior approval. This forced Joshi to scrap their books and commission new ones.
As of now textbook authors have adopted a wait-and-watch approach and are tight-lipped about what their future course of action will be if the textbooks authored by them are tampered with. However Arjun Dev, author of Modern India for class VIII, who was in the thick of the 2001controversy is quite clearly spoiling for a fight. "If NCERT has copyright of these books, even the authors have some rights. It is the fundamental right of the author to own his book. Any changes made to it without his consent is illegal."
Quite clearly despite the urgency to detoxify his ministry and affiliated institutions, Arjun Singh will have to tread carefully.
Neeta Lal (Delhi)
Rock-bottom pricing stalemate
The reverberations of the Supreme Court’s landmark judgements in the TMA Pai Foundation Case (2002) which reaffirmed the fundamental right of minorities and all citizens to "establish and administer education institutions of their choice" and of the apex court’s follow up ‘clarification’ judgement in Islamic Academy vs Union of India (2003) which established permanent committees headed by retired high court judges to regulate admissions and tuition fees of private, self-financed professional (engineering/ medical and dental) colleges, are still being felt all over India. Particularly in Maharashtra’s 17 private medical colleges in which 3,000 students are directly affected.
Following allegations that most private medical colleges in Maharashtra were demanding large capitation fees (donations) from students seeking admission into their MBBS programmes last year, a high level probe was ordered by the state government to inspect admission procedures and infrastructure facilities provided by the 17 private medical colleges. The report of the probe committee indicates these colleges are woefully deficient in infrastructure requirements mandated by the Medical Council of India (MCI). The managements of the state’s private medical colleges told the investigating committee that having had to make do with arbitrarily imposed tuition fees for several years they had not been able to invest in infrastructure and facilities. Their expectation was that higher fees likely to be recommended by the fees committee mandated by the Supreme Court would enable them to upgrade academic facilities.
But their great expectations have been dashed by the fees-fixation committee set up last year following the Supreme Court’s order. The committee headed by Justice (retd.) R.A. Jahagirdar has recommended that the colleges slash their fees by 50 percent. The tuition fees that private colleges are recommended to charge range between Rs.49,000-1.5 lakh per year, against the hitherto Rs.2.5-4 lakh charged.
Not surprisingly the managements of the state’s private medical colleges are outraged by the rock-bottom tuition fees adjudicated by the Jahagirdar Committee and are all set to move the Supreme Court. They warn that most of them will be forced to close down in the near future if these fees aren’t reviewed. "The government provides a 95 percent subsidy to students admitted into state run medical colleges, spending Rs.4.5 lakh per student every year. How can private unsubsidised colleges do the same? If it wants us to charge low fees, it should subsidise our students as well," says Kamal Kishore Kadam a spokesperson of the Association of Management of Private Medical and Dental Colleges (AMPMDC).
However Justice Jahagirdar refuses to accept this argument. "We have adjudicated the tuition fees scientifically and rationally after assessing the audited papers submitted by the medical colleges," he says.
With the consensus of opinion among medical educationists being that at base level the cost of training every medical (MBBS) graduate is "at least Rs.2.5 lakh per year", quite clearly there’s a stalemate between the state government and the managements of Maharashtra’s private medical colleges. This stand-off is likely to delay the admission process this year as well, as it did last year. The first shot was fired on June 3, when the AMPMDC "requested" the state government not to allocate students under its 50 percent quota to private colleges until the fee issue is sorted out. "This is not about a vote of no-confidence against the government or the Jahagirdar Committee. It’s about our survival, and about the interests of students," a spokesperson told the press. "What if we are forced to close down our colleges? Students admitted will suffer in such an event."
The ground reality is that students are already suffering. Though many of them saw reason to cheer the reduced fees, the current stalemate clouds their future as much as it does of the 17 private medical colleges in the state.
Gaver Chatterjee (Mumbai)
At its 166th meeting held on June 18, the board of governors — chaired by ITC Ltd chieftain Yogi Deveshwar — of the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta (IIM-C) "unanimously" resolved to reverse its earlier decision to slash annual tuition-cum-residence fee for students to Rs.30,000 as per the controversial February 5 directive of former Union human resource development minister Dr. Murli Manohar Joshi which had provoked an unprecedented faculty-student revolt on the 135 acre IIM-C campus. "We have taken a decision to stick to the Rs.1.27 lakh fee of 2003-04 for the academic year 2004-5 beginning this month (June)," confirms IIM-C director Dr. Shekhar Chaudhuri.
Deveshwar does not see any contradiction or conflict in the IIM-C board’s successive decisions — both "unanimous" — to slash annual fees by 80 percent and then restore the status quo ante. "The tuition fee cut order of April 6 was not at the institute’s initiative. The board had accepted the government’s proposal on the understanding that the order was binding on the institute. We had laid down certain conditions and we accepted the fee cut on the basis of assurances of aid and assistance from the government. But the situation has changed," says Deveshwar.
Nor ex-facie does Deveshwar seem embarrassed that IIM-C was the first and only one among the country’s top three IIMs — the two others being Ahmedabad and Bangalore — to have meekly accepted Joshi’s manifestly arbitrary diktat to slash tuition fees by 80 percent overnight. Nor by the fact that acceptance of the new tuition fee of Rs.30,000 per year was recommended to the governing board by Deveshwar in the teeth of opposition from the faculty apprehensive of the loss of IIM-C’s autonomy — and for the first time in Indian history — even from students.
Nevertheless Joshi’s professed concern for the meritorious but poor has had a beneficial fallout. A provision has been made for students admitted from economically backward households defined as those with annual incomes of less than Rs.2 lakh. They will be eligible for need-cum-merit based assistance amounting up to full tuition fee waiver. In special cases, financial assistance will be provided beyond full tuition fee waiver to cover other expenses. These scholarships will be available to first and second year postgraduate students. "We will ensure that no student who qualifies for admission faces any difficulty in pursuing his or her studies at IIM-C for want of finance. The emphasis will be financial need and not proficiency," adds Chaudhuri. This clarification is significant because earlier rules prescribed certain grade-point parameters as qualification for scholarships.
The IIM-C board’s volte-face is not just on the issue of fees. Announcing another change of stand, Deveshwar says the institute "is not dependent on funds from the government as it has enough money of its own". One unofficial estimate reckons the size of IIM-C’s corpus at Rs.129 crore. "To augment our corpus we are weighing various options such as tapping alumni associations and overseas donors, conducting more executive development programmes and charging a recruitment fee from companies that recruit from the campus," says Deveshwar.
In Joshi’s era, all these initiatives would have required clearance by the HRD ministry as the minister had mooted that the IIMs sign an annual memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the government to obtain clearance for both accepting and expending capital amounts. "There is no need for an MoU any more as we don’t need funds from the government," says Deveshwar.
IIM-C’s dean of planning and administration Prof. Asish Bhattacharya, who is also the official spokesman for the faculty council, has welcomed the board’s decision on reverting to its prior to February 5 fee structure. However the faculty council has declined to withdraw its writ petition in the Calcutta high court challenging the appointment in April of six allegedly "illegal" nominations to the governing board by the previous regime. He doesn’t agree that the writ has lapsed since new nominations have since been made. "We want the court to set a precedent that the governing board will not be tampered with when governments change," he says.
Surprisingly the decision of the IIM-C board to reject the fee cut order of February and revert to the status quo ante has also elicited support from West Bengal’s ruling Left Front administration.
The dominant mood at IIM-C, following the board’s June 18 decision to revert to the previous fee structure, is of relief. Faculty members have been congratu-lating each other. It might be more appropriate for them to congratulate the Indian electorate instead.
Sujoy Gupta (Kolkata)
It’s an anguished annual ritual which is an indicator of the widening demand-supply gap for quality school education. Every year during the academic admissions season (April-June) thousands of middle class parents in Karnataka experience the trauma of securing admission for their children into ‘good’ (read as English medium) private schools. With the state government given to erecting numerous hurdles in the path of private school promoters while neglecting government schools upgradation, the scramble for admissions into English medium schools in particular is intensifying with every passing year.
Inevitably, given the demand-supply imbalance, a large number of school managements are known to demand donations, capitation and development fees as a condition for admission. In mid-May dramatic evidence of the trauma thousands of middle class households experience was highlighted by the tragic suicide and infanticide of a 28-year-old housewife Roopa and her daughter Dhanushree (4) because the family was unable to mobilise a donation for her daughter’s admission into a neighbourhood nursery school. According to police sources, Roopa, the wife of a reporter took this drastic step after the principal of Sri Sai Nursery and Primary School, denied Dhanushree admission into kindergarten unless a donation of Rs.5,000 was paid upfront. While the school’s principal declined to comment on the episode, the state government has ordered a probe into the incident.
Solicitation or acceptance of donations and/ or capitation fees is expressly prohibited under the Karnataka Education Act 1983 and by the Supreme Court in several judgements. However this provision of law is practiced more in the breach and private/ independent schools are known to collect lump sums as building, infrastructure, school development funds and non-refundable deposits among other heads. Nor are horror stories of school principals and promoters of front-rank English medium schools demanding under-the-table payments as the price of admission entirely without foundation.
Most upwardly mobile middle class parents are aware of the widening demand-supply gap for quality education and are not averse to paying higher tuition fees. But the inequity of a system which requires payment of large capital sums as donations, building funds and refundable deposits causes much anguish. "It’s wrong to completely prohibit donations because school managements need them for building auditoriums, libraries, etc. Instead the government should allow donations to be paid in instalments and added to monthly tuition fees," says a parent of the English medium Sree Vidya Mandir High school who had to pay a lump sum toward the school’s development fund when her son was admitted into high school.
With parents within the expanding middle class becoming more conscious about quality, especially English medium schools, the only options available to the state government are to ease licensing norms for private sector schools and simultaneously upgrade government schools so that middle class parents would voluntarily send their children to them. Right now the latter option is unthinkable for upwardly mobile households given the pathetic academic standards typical of government schools.
Therefore unless the supply side of the system is addressed, demand for admis-sion into quality (i.e. English medium) schools will continue to rise resulting in intense middle class frustration often resulting in suicides, immolations and similar anti-social loss of life.
But it is unlikely that the newly sworn-in rural-oriented state government will equate the demand for quality education with the growing demand for English medium schools. Therefore the tragic story of Roopa and Dhanushree — as well as many less tragic histories — are likely to repeat themselves come admissions season 2005.
Srinidhi Raghavendra (Bangalore)
Suspiciously spectacular results
Ever since the Uttar Pradesh state examination board’s inter (Plus Two) results were declared on May 25, questions are being raised on the fairness of the examination process. A massive contingent of 1,000,007 students across India’s most populous (160 million) state wrote the state examination board’s class XII school leaving exam and 89.5 percent (895,000 students) passed — an unprecedented pass percentage for the state. Against this during the past three years the pass percentage never exceeded 70 percent.
Moreover in the merit list of 29 as many as 21 students were from one school in Kanpur — BSNDSN Inter College. Likewise in the vocational category ten girls from the Carmel Girls Inter College, Gorakhpur made it into the merit list of 13. And the pass percentage of privately enrolled students leapt from a poor 49 percent to a jaw dropping 71 percent.
When these unprecedented results aroused widespread speculation, Secondary Education Board director Sanjay Mohan issued a statement saying that a thorough inquiry has been conducted and that there is nothing fishy about the grading. However, when the class X results were declared on May 30, Mohan was at a loss for words. From a pass percentage of 40.91 percent in 2003, the percentage has leaped to 70.61 percent of the 2.47 million students who wrote the exam. Once again, of the 57 students in the merit list 38 were from Kanpur with 32 of them — no prizes for guessing right — from BSNDSN Inter College.
|Mulayam Singh Yadav (left): self-centre exam scheme miracle|
On June 4, a public-spirited citizen of Lucknow, Mukesh Dhaon filed a PIL (public interest litigation) drawing the Lucknow high court’s attention to the board exam results. The petitioner challenged the fairness of the result, queried the rationale of designating exam centres and submitted that students from some colleges (i.e BSNDSN) had derived unfair advantage. Admitting the PIL the court ordered the sealing and safe custody of the answer sheets of the toppers from the Kanpur school. The principal education secretary, secretary of the state’s Secondary Education Board and principal of BSNDSN have been asked to file replies. The PIL is slated for hearing on July 13.
Monitors of the education scene in Lucknow attribute the miraculous exam results of 2004 to the self-centre scheme mandated by the newly elected Mulayam Singh Yadav government. Putting an end to the tradition of students writing school leaving exams in schools other than their own, the state government decreed that students could write the state board exams in their own schools converted into exam centres.
Basudev Yadav, secretary of the Secondary Education Board defends the government’s self-centre scheme decree. "The scheme helped students to concentrate completely on their studies without having to travel to other centres and bother about finding board and lodging which is especially a problem in rural areas. The increase in pass percentage is also due to the changes in the evaluation system which requires teachers to give marks to several parts of a question rather than the entire question. Our students have always been disadvantaged against ICSE and CBSE students who get much higher marks. This year our students have an equal chance to get admission into the best colleges," says Yadav.
Among the ingenious explanations offered for the spectacular results was a smart choice of subjects. At BSNDSN, Kanpur most of the merit holders had opted for music as one of their subjects. Students were also coerced into writing the computer science paper at the cost of the more strictly assessed English language paper. BSNDSN principal Angad Singh is unfazed about voices of suspicion. "The results were a combination of strategy and hard work. Wait until the results of medical and engineering entrance exams written by many of our students are announced," he says confidently.
These record results have created another problem. While almost one million students have cleared the class XII exam this year, there are only 1.5 lakh seats available in UP’s 800 government, government aided and self financed degree colleges. These are supplemented by 27 universities, 90 polytechnics and 230 ITIs.
Meanwhile with the award of high grades and marks becoming commonplace, Lucknow University officials propose to give up marks and grades as criteria for admission. "We admit students on the basis of the marks they score in their class XII exam. Obviously this system cannot work anymore. The admission process for this year has started but from next year onwards we need to evolve other criteria. Perhaps entrance exams could be the solution," says Prof. S.D. Sharma, principal of the Jai Narain Degree College.
However Islamia College principal Ali Mohammed Khan is unwilling to wait until next year. "We will deduct five marks from UP board candidates’ results during the interview," he says.
But these are mere knee jerk solutions to a malaise that runs deep and threatens to discredit the state’s already suspect school education system.
Vidya Pandit (Lucknow)
Continuous warfare between government and manage-ments of privately funded self-financed engineering and medical colleges in Karnataka and Maharashtra on the issue of relative admission quotas and tuition fees notwithstanding two landmark Supreme Court judgements, hasn’t spared Tamil Nadu either. Hardly surprising given this southern state (pop. 62 million) hosts over 220 private self-financing engineering colleges. The admission process, which was working smoothly until two years ago, when Anna University used to allocate 50 percent of seats in private colleges through a common entrance test and leave the other 50 percent for the managements to allocate, has changed, but not necessarily for the better.
Following the Supreme Court’s judgement in Islamic Academy of Education vs Union of India last August, which directed that even management quota allocations should be made on merit to be determined by a common entrance test (CET) conducted by the state or Central government or by an association of self-financing colleges, the Tamil Nadu government set up a permanent admissions committee, headed by former high court judge S.S. Subramani. The committee is vested with powers to oversee fair and transparent conduct of all entrance tests, with powers to call for question papers, ascertain the names of setters of exam papers, examiners and ensuring that question papers are not leaked. As per the apex court’s directive another committee, headed by former high court judge A. Raman was constituted to determine the fairness of tuition fees of each private engineering/ medical college in the state.
|Anna University: muddied waters|
Even as the admissions committee was finalising norms for conduct of CETs, the vice-chancellor of Anna University, E. Balaguruswamy who is also a member of the committee, reportedly muddied the waters by writing a circular letter on May 20 to college heads, issuing guidelines for admissions into unaided, affiliated engineering colleges under the 50 percent management quota. Following this the managements of several colleges allowed students to pay tuition fees and ‘book’ seats or secure admission under the management quota to first year BE courses. These admissions were made on the basis of students’ combined scores in Plus Two and the Tamil Nadu Professional Courses Entrance Examinations (TNPCEE) results.
Concurrently, in accordance with the admission committee’s order that only a single association of self-financing engineering colleges was eligible to conduct the non-government CET, 180 out of over 220 unaided private engineering colleges in Tamil Nadu joined forces to form the Consortium of Self-Financing Professional, Arts and Science Colleges and opted to conduct their own CET. What they were totally unprepared for was the admission committee’s subsequent ruling in a June 1 order that even students admitted under the management quota should be required to write the common entrance test under a single window system (SWS) based on merit. Any admissions made otherwise or de hors merit are illegal. Moreover delivering another blow to the consortium of private colleges, the fees committee fixed the annual cost of tuition at Rs.32,500 for non-accredited courses and Rs.40,000 for courses accredited by AICTE’s National Board of Accreditation and warned that any deviation from these norms would invite penal action and disaffiliation from the university.
The rulings have placed private self-financing engineering colleges in a quandary. "The Supreme Court judgement doesn’t anywhere state that the management quota seats should be filled under SWS on the basis of merit. The admissions committee instead of exercising its legally permissible supervisory powers is overstepping its limits and imposing stringent conditions at every level," says Dr. P.V Ravi, vice-president, Consortium of Self-Financing, Professional, Arts and Science Colleges.
Educationists blame regulatory authorities for attempting to stifle the growth of private colleges. "More than 20,000 seats out of a total of 72,000 in engineering colleges have remained vacant in the past few years. When there are so many seats and so few takers with every candidate applying for a BE course getting easy admission, what’s the need of entrance tests? Managements should be left to fill 50 percent of the seats as they wish instead of a government committee doing it for them," argues D. Victor, former director of collegiate education (Tamil Nadu) and currently founder-director of the Academy for Quality and Excellence in Higher Education.
Meanwhile the Madras high court has stayed some of the conditions laid down by the admissions committee for the conduct of the CET and posted the matter to July 24 while stipulating an interim arrangement for unaided engineering colleges to hold a common entrance test for the management quota. By the time the consortium holds its CET on July 24-25, Anna University, which plans to begin counselling on July 5 for its quota seats, would have completed the process. The university will fill 40,000 seats through its process and leave the consortium with 32,000 seats. But if last year’s experience is any indication, many private colleges will be willing to offer 70 to 80 percent of their seats to the single-window pool of Anna University to ensure greater assured enrollment even at the cost of the management quota.
The suspense and confusion over admissions is expected to drag on keeping students on tenterhooks. Quite obviously, the admissions committee and Anna University have complicated the process of admission. If the guidelines and norms of admission had been finalised well before the admission season, it would have spared students, parents and private manage-ments a lot of grief.
Hemalatha Raghupathi (Chennai)