Whither equity?


back to issue

INCREASING privatization of higher education, an issue of deep concern for many, is now an accepted reality, more so when viewed against the backdrop of the ongoing structural adjustment programmes. In this new market oriented milieu, the debates around privatization of education have centred on areas related to financing, fee structures and government regulations.

Unfortunately, critical issues with wider sociopolitical ramifications have often been glossed over. Neither legislation nor any concrete government measures have seriously looked into areas of access and equity; nor have concrete steps been taken to address the issue of quality education.

Meanwhile, the number of private professional institutions lacking basic infrastructure have grown and, court verdicts making education a fundamental right notwithstanding, the collection of high fees for professional courses continues unabated.

In India, privatization made inroads into the sphere of professional education long before the World Bank suggested cutting subsidies to welfare and development programmes. A.R. Desai, on the state of education in the country had remarked, ‘Even under the guise of constitutional obligations, the state of India has absolved itself of its responsibility to educate all.’ Indeed, education has turned out to be a boon for a privileged few. Among the reasons has been the inherent contradictions within the Constitution – its commitments to egalitarian objectives on the one hand and the rights guaranteed to private interests on the other by virtue of the right to freedom of choice. Added to this has been the state’s unwillingness to invest adequately in education. In today’s context of free competition, private ownership and market orientation, the connotations of ‘freedom of choice’ have acquired commercial overtones.



Professional colleges charging capitation fee are reflective of such commercialization. The term ‘capitation’ refers to huge sums of money and deposits demanded by private institutions, especially medical and engineering colleges, for granting admission to prospective students. The system of capitation fee began first in the state of Karnataka and soon spread to Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh – this despite several official pronouncements and legislation, including the July 1992 judgement by the Supreme Court quashing charging of capitation fee and making it obligatory for the state to enable the citizens enjoy the constitutional right to education.

But was it just lack of state funds which allowed the unbridled growth of the capitation fee phenomenon? Why is it that despite the ‘historic’ 1992 Supreme Court judgement, the system continues of flourish, albeit under a different guise? To better understand this we need to set out a brief historical perspective before analysing some implications of the Supreme Court judgement.

The system of education introduced by the British in India in the 19th century was motivated mainly by their political, administrative and economic needs. The colonial policy neither aimed at developing India into an industrial nation, nor did it provide for medical and technical education.



The narrow growth in education under the British was sought to be corrected after Independence. A need was felt for professional and technical manpower to meet the requirements of a developing economy. Thus, the government set up the IITs, regional engineering colleges and medical colleges. However, state efforts proved woefully inadequate with just about 3% of its GDP invested in education. Given such paucity of state funding, private initiative in education was permitted within the constitutional framework to, ostensibly, supplement state effort.

Most such private initiatives came from caste-based associations of lower and middle castes in Karnataka, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. They had been looking at their own socioeconomic upliftment in the face of oppression from upper caste Brahmins. The growth of private professional colleges began in the 1950s; the first of such kind was set up in Karnataka. The main objective behind the setting up of such institutions was initially to promote political power and gain material benefits and social prestige for the caste groups, such as the two contending middle castes in Karnataka, the Vokkaligas and the Lingayats. However, over a period of time these objectives underwent change and acquired an entre-preneurial character wherein profit became a major motivator.

The economic status of the parents became the single-most important determinant in the selection of students to such private professional colleges. Even among their own boys and girls, caste-based managements began giving preference in admissions on the basis of the student’s capacity to pay. The system thus only succeeded in manifesting the functioning of the rapidly growing elite sector of the professionally educated in India.

Such private colleges mushroomed with little concern for providing quality education. Rather than using the rush of admissions to pro-fessional courses to impose higher academic standards, the state governments allowed the managements of these private colleges their quota of seats which were filled for political and other non-academic considerations.



There were compelling reasons why state governments yielded to the pressure of various sectional minorities and entrepreneurial interests in order to protect the private managements of such institutions. And here the close interplay of caste, class and power in education assumes significance. The managements maintained a close link with vested interests – caste leaders, politicians, businessmen and government officials. Community and caste colleges were often supported by religious leaders and their mutts and served as vote banks for caste leaders. While parochial and commercial interests continued to prevail, the state governments were only able to create a semblance of a balancing act between the demands of the various pressure groups, and they sanctioned more of such private colleges.

With the government at the centre in the 1980s and 1990s showing greater commitment to economic liberalization, reduction of controls and a market friendly approach, commercial initiatives by interest groups such as the middle caste elites and other community groups received a further impetus.

In all this, left to the vagaries of the market, how to choose an appropriate college became a major issue for aspiring students. Since state-run colleges were few in number, the only other option was a private college, that is, for those who could afford the high capitation fees.



Despite public outcry against the charging of capitation fees, only lukewarm measures were taken by the states, such as a superficial regulation of fees and setting aside a minuscule merit quota. No strong policy initiatives were undertaken. It was as late as 1992 that the Supreme Court came forward with a judgement which held that the capitation fee system represented a potent denial of a citizen’s right to education under the Constitution; that it was obligatory for the state to establish educational institutions at all levels to enable citizens to enjoy the constitutional right to education.

When in May 1992, two months after the Supreme Court judgement, the Ministry of HRD at the centre laid down a fresh set of guidelines for admission to private professional colleges, it was widely welcomed. In another judgement (Unni Krishnan v. State of Andhra Pradesh), the new directives entailed that admissions to private institutions would now be on the basis of a merit list following a common entrance test. Half the seats in a college would be free for which students were required to pay fees as prescribed by the state governments; the remaining would be payment seats for which the charges would be a great deal higher.

The criteria of eligibility was to be the same in respect of both free and payment seats – that is, merit. However, a private institution would be entitled to reserve some seats based on specific criteria. For instance, a minority college could retain a few seats for its own community candidates, though admissions would be merit based.

The idea behind the Unni Krishnan judgement in devising the free and payment seat scheme was to provide enhanced opportunities to meritorious students who may otherwise not be able to pay the enhanced fee prescribed by the government for such colleges. Such a system would mean correspondingly greater financial burden on payment students; the rationale for the method being ‘that a candidate who is stealing a march over his compatriot on account of his economic power should be made to pay not only for himself but also for other meritorious students.’



This judgement, in its ‘social justification’ argument behind the 50% rule of free and payment seats, failed to recognize that merit based on a competitive examination is almost always likely to favour those with better quality schooling and consequently the more affluent students. The students in the top bracket who qualify for the Common Entrance Test would have, in most cases, access to better coaching. They would also be allocated free seats. If a study were to be undertaken on the socioeconomic background of such students, their family-income profiles would, in most cases, also prove to be higher.

Research proves that access to education is determined by one’s position in the socioeconomic hierarchy. Given the inability of the weaker sections to see their wards through school education, their elimination takes place well before they reach the level of higher education. When there is little equality at the elementary level, it is hard to conceive of equality at the higher levels of education. Here the rhetoric of equal opportunity can only benefit those sections who have already benefited from the state’s inegalitarian policies.

The Unni Krishnan judgement in its zeal to do away with the capitation fee structure devised a system wherein the bottom half of the merit students, who are likely to be more from the lower income groups, would cross-subsidize the top fifty. The judgement seems to have misplaced the issue in terms of the notion of equal opportunity vis-a-vis education. For, in such a situation, a common fee structure across the board, with scholarships for the needy would have seemed more rational. What has happened on the other hand, is the persistence of the elitist base of our educational system where not more than 6% of the educated youth gain entry to professional colleges. Such a disorder cannot be tackled without the state intervening in the issues of better schooling, quality, as well as equity.



However, even while the Unni Krishnan judgement tried to deal with the capitation fee system in its own way, the state governments and the centre have defaulted on several counts. Merit based education, free and payment seats seemed like transitory arrangements. Transparency in admissions was required but, even after the judgement, neither the states nor the centre have come forward with effective measures or legislation. The payment quota students have to pay a whopping fee of over a lakh of rupees annually for a course lasting 4-5 years. The seats for the nonresident Indian (NRI) quota are left to the discretion of private managements and the going rate per student is $50,000 and more.

The intake of students often exceeds the stipulated number, though lately, in Karnataka, the courts have been firm in not permitting excess intake. But in many cases, private managements have artificially enhanced the number of management seats while settling waitlisted cases or backlogs. At the same time, since most private institutions are run by caste or community based managements, there is clamour for more seats for students belonging to the respective caste or community group. And when one minority institution succeeds in acquiring a larger percentage of seats, there are protests and demands from other groups.



In Karnataka, for instance, the state government has accorded permission for five new engineering colleges from the academic year 1999-2000 and one each to the Kamma, Reddy and Kodava Sanghas. This has been done to appease some lobbies as also because of the pressure of elections. In June 1999, the centre approved the Yenopaya Medical College in Mangalore run by the Islamic Academy of Education and a dental college in Kodagu run by the Kodava Sangha. Two more medical colleges are likely to be approved by the centre while 17 other such colleges have been given clearance by the state government.

Such a mushrooming growth is bound to have an impact on the already poor standards. Greater responsibility needs to be shouldered by statutory bodies like the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE), the Medical Council of India (MCI) and the Dental Council of India (DCI) in ensuring standards and in seeing that recognition is not granted to colleges without the required infrastructure.

The restructured fee is so steep as to permit only the rich and affluent to gain entry to such colleges. The UGC had in May 1999 recommended a 1:10:20 formula while determining the fee pattern for three self-financing, deemed-to-be universities at Chennai, Pune and Manipal, a formula which is likely to be extended to all private unaided professional institutions in the country. For example, if a free seat student pays Rs 1000 as tuition and development fee, for a payment seat one will pay Rs 10,000, while the NRI seat student will have to pay Rs 20,000.

While restructuring and regulation interventions of this kind have been attempted from time to time, these have institutionalized, in many ways, the erstwhile capitation fee phenomenon. The present system also ensures that the advantages of pro-fessional education accrue to those who can pay for it. Though the court interventions can be read as steps to partially correct the existing disorder, the situation is beset with contradictions. On the one hand is the Supreme Court emphasizing education as a fundamental right for all; on the other is the policy of wholehearted privatization being pursued by the government. How do we reconcile this?



For any long-term impact, it is abundantly clear that it is necessary to go beyond the issue of the quantum of fees to be paid. More crucial issues of justice and equity, such as quality schooling for the underprivileged, access to higher education to a wider section of society and extending privileges to deprived communities, need to be addressed. Unless government policies can reflect how the required social transition can be brought about effectively, facile administrative measures and limited, though well-meaning, judgements can serve as palliative. Our debate, therefore, has to shift to these wider social concerns to make any significant impact on policy-making.