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Cloudy future

In a judgement delivered on February 11 which has far-reaching implications, a three judge bench of the Supreme Court forced closure of 97 self-financing, private universities functioning in the state of Chattisgarh with immediate effect declaring the state law which had allowed 112 private universities to spring up in the newly demarcated (November 2000) state within one year, ultra vires. The apex court’s judgement has created consternation in the councils of several high profile varsities including Amity, Rai, Kalinga and NIILM. Suddenly the future of 30,000 students, over 1,000 faculty and a network of ancillary study centres and mini-campuses of these institutions which have been established in Haryana, Delhi and Punjab and further afield, has become cloudy.

According to the Supreme Court order in Prof. Yashpal & Anr vs state of Chattisgarh & Ors, ss.5 and 6 of the Chattisgarh Private Sector Universities (Establishment and Regulation) Act 2002, enacted by the Congress government led by Ajit Jogi (voted out of office in 2004) which empowered the state government to incorporate and establish universities through a mere gazette notification and to set up more than one campus anywhere in the country with prior (discretionary) approval, were unconstitutional. The court upheld the petition filed by educationist and former UGC chairman Prof. Yashpal who challenged the Act alleging that it "allowed sub-standard institutes to flourish".

Immediately after it assumed office in June 2004 the new BJP government led by chief minister Raman Singh conducted a review of all private universities in the state, and denotified 60 of the 97 for lack of infrastructure and abysmal academic standards. Far from being chastened, several hole-in-the-wall institutions transformed into full-fledged universities by executive fiat, challenged the denotification in the apex court. But with the Supreme Court’s ruling denotifying even major private universities such as Amity, Rai and MATS which had made substantial investments in infrastructure and campuses in Chattisgarh, chief minister Raman Singh pleaded with the Union HRD ministry that at least "better private bodies with good infrastructure be allowed to function".

With the future of over 30,000 students, many of whom have paid relatively high (by government aided college standards) up-front registration and tuition fees in jeopardy, the HRD ministry has roped in the University Grants Commission (UGC) to constitute a committee to safeguard the interests of affected students enrolled in affiliated study centres of the derecognised universities across India. The committee will visit these campuses beyond Chattisgarh to ascertain if they can be classified as undergraduate education campuses in the light of the Supreme Court’s definition of the word ‘university’.

In other words, the ministry will evaluate the denotified private varsities as "chain of colleges" located in different states. "The idea," elaborates S.P. Sharma, one of the affected teachers of Amity University, Chattisgarh, "is that the nearest UGC recognised university having territorial jurisdiction over the area will take them under its wing." For instance, the Amity study centres in Noida could be brought under the jurisdiction of Meerut University while those in Gurgaon could be clubbed with Rohtak University.

Rai: separation and protection plea
 Predictably, private university managements are less than happy with this compromise formula. They fear their carefully built brand equities will disappear. Says Vinay Rai, chairman of Rai University which has 21 campuses countrywide: "We prefer that the Union government takes legislative action. It needs to enact a new law which separates and protects serious players in higher education."

Private varsity promoters fear that existing universities are too slow in vetting institutes that need to be accredited, and enjoy too much discretion. Says Dr. Ashok Pundit, a Delhi University lecturer, "Most universities which will affiliate these campuses are themselves of dubious character. So, this suggestion really won’t solve the problem. In fact the Supreme Court order has only served to highlight the problem without presenting any solution."

The apex court’s judgement has once again highlighted the need for resuscitating the Private Universities Bill which has been lying dormant in Parliament for over a decade. Quite clearly, as the huge enrollments in independent ‘universities’ and colleges testify, there’s rising demand for quality higher education to which the UGC which has been given the enormous responsibility of ensuring high scholastic standards in higher education, is turning a blind eye. It’s hardly a secret that across India, and especially in the north, many universities hardly take their role as providers of education seriously. They are more interested in functioning as prolific nurseries for future politicians. UGC has done nothing to upgrade such institutions, nor has it provided them with a template to improve academic standards. The result is all too visible — assembly line production of ill-adjusted graduates who remain unemployed or unemployable for years.

Neeta Lal (Delhi)

Tamil Nadu

Here come community colleges

A comprehensive policy document on making higher education accessible to all through a community college system is being drafted by a seven-member Indian Community College System (ICCS) committee, under the chairmanship of Prof. S.P. Thyagarajan, vice-chancellor, University of Madras and member, University Grants Commission (UGC). The document will be submitted to the UGC, which will endorse and convene the first-ever national conference of ICCS. The document will then be sent to the Union human resource development ministry for finalisation and legislation.

This agenda for establishing a community college system in India was finalised at a recently concluded seminar jointly organised by Madras University and the office of public affairs of the US consulate general for south India on February 8 and 9 at the university’s campus. The two-day meet debated whether India can replicate the American community college system, which boasts 1,100 community colleges.

The ICCS committee defines community colleges as para formal education institutions providing skills education to a heterogeneous mix of school dropouts, people interested in acquiring skills in a particular trade, displaced workers, those wanting to update their skills and others. Hence, community colleges should build a high degree of flexibility into their programmes to cater to varied needs. "The ICCS could be the missing link between secondary school and higher education. Several vocational training centres, existing community colleges, polytechnics and Indian Technical Institutes (ITI), which offer higher education but are not formal university affiliated colleges, can be incorporated into ICCS," explains Thyagarajan.

(Left-right): Templin, Thyagarajan, Candadai & Pillai at ICCS seminar
The seminar attracted 200 participants including 70 representatives from 43 skills education providers in south India and a mix of teachers, education administrators and academics. Among the panelists were Dr. V.N. Rajasekharan Pillai, vice-chairman, University Grants Commission; Dr. Robert G. Templin, Jr, president, Northern Virginia Community College, USA; Ravi S. Candadai, public affairs officer in the US Consulate, Chennai; Annamalai Muthiah, founder, Futureschools India, and Fr. Dr. Xavier Alphonse S.J, director of the Madras Centre for Research and Development of Community Education, Chennai. Templin, who heads the second largest community college in the US, with an enrollment of 64,000 students, highlighted the proven benefits of community colleges in the US.

Unsurprisingly at the end of the two-day deliberations, the consensus was that community colleges will meet a felt need and that the ICCS committee should determine ways and means to establish the system in India. "Community colleges need to be integrated into the higher education system if the percentage of citizens having access to higher education is to increase from the present 6.7 percent to 10 percent by the end of the Tenth Plan and to 20 percent in the next decade. There are over 40 million registered unemployed people in the country and of them, 70 percent are the educated unemployed, chiefly because there is a mismatch between the education system and industry needs. Community colleges integrate academic and occupational education, and could be the answer to ‘including the excluded’," says Dr. Rajasekharan Pillai.

Several speakers at the seminar informed delegates that community colleges are not new to India and have been informally operational in this country since 1995. Already there are 124 community colleges in 14 states of the Indian Union, of which 53 are operational in Tamil Nadu, Fr. Xavier Alphonse of the Madras Centre for Research and Development of Community Colleges (est. 1999), informed the participants. "Community colleges teach life skills, communication skills, basic computer applications and over 36 trades. We have a dynamic relationship with industry and insist that our students do on-site internships. We now seek recognition and financial viability for our colleges and want an apex body to regulate the system. We also want to provide horizontal — through jobs with industry — and vertical link-ups through mobility with universities, for our students," says Alphonse.

The ICCS policy charter is still in its preliminary stages and issues such as recognition, affiliation, accreditation and curriculum design have yet to be worked out before developing the final blueprint. But clearly the proposal to establish a network of community colleges across the country has captured the somewhat slow imagination of educationists countrywide, as the enthusiasm at the recently concluded Chennai seminar clearly demonstrated. About time too.

Hemalatha Raghupathi (Chennai)


Legal ping-pong

Admission into private professional colleges and tuition fees are issues which have confused students and parents for over two years in Maharashtra, despite two judgements of the Supreme Court in 2002/2003 on the subject, and a subsequent clarificatory judgement of the Bombay high court in August 2003. Since then the court has been moved on several occasions by students as well as college managements on the topic with the heat still being felt by both parties. At the moment it is the state’s 17 private medical colleges, with an aggregate enrollment of 10,000 students, who are in the eye of a storm regarding the fees they will charge.

Following the Supreme Court’s 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 colleges, the Justice (Retd.) R.A. Jahagirdar Committee set up in Maharashtra, submitted its report in June 2004. Recommended tuition fees for the 17 private medical colleges in the state were in the range of Rs.61,000-1.41 lakh dependent upon their facilities and infrastructure.

But with the consensus among educationists being that the cost of training every medical (MBBS) graduate is at least Rs.2.5 lakh per year, outraged independent college managements are anything but placated by Justice Jahagirdar’s recommendations. "The government provides a 95 percent subsidy to students admitted into the 16 government medical colleges spending Rs.4.5 lakh per student per year," says Kamal Kishore Kadam, a spokesperson of the Association of Managements of Private Medical and Dental Colleges (AMPMDC). "How can private, unsubsidised colleges do the same? If it wants us to charge low fees, it should subsidise our students as well."

Following widespread dissatisfaction with the Jahagirdhar Committee’s fees fixation criteria and a spate of writ petitions, another Bombay high court order allowed colleges to approach the committee for revision of fees and a new committee was constituted under Justice (Retd.) S.D. Pandit for the purpose. In late January this year, the Pandit Committee revised the tuition fees payable to four colleges, with retrospective effect from 2003-2004. Under the revised order the annual tuition fee chargeable by the K. J. Somaiya Medical College (Mumbai) was raised from Rs.1.49 to Rs.1.89 lakh; Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College (Wardha) from Rs.1.41 lakh to Rs.2.42 lakh; Krishna Medical College (Karad) from Rs.89,475 to Rs.1.49 lakh and Tatiya Saheb Gore Dental Medical (Mumbai) to Rs.1.41 lakh.

Following the Justice Pandit committee’s order, college managements informed their students that they would have to pay the difference between the newly prescribed fees and what they had paid earlier immediately, leaving students with the prospect of rustling up between Rs.40,000 to Rs.2 lakh within the span of a few days. Even those who had completed their internship in 2004 and are now practising doctors will have to pay the difference for one year. The dean of K.J. Somaiya College, Dr. Dewoolkar warned students that they won’t be allowed to write forthcoming examinations and their degrees could be withheld until they paid the differential amounts.

In a now predictable response, aggrieved KJSC students filed petitions in the Bombay high court. On February 10 the court directed the college not to restrain students from writing any examinations because of non-payment of additional fees. Moreover the court directed that interns should be allowed to complete their internships and after completion should be issued certificates to enable them to appear for the postgraduate common entrance test later this month. However interns will have to give an undertaking that if the court’s decision eventually goes against them, they will pay up the difference in fees to the college. Students from the other affected medical colleges are now in the process of filing their petitions while the hearing of the KJSC students petitions has been adjourned to February 28.

The prolonged stalemate in private medical colleges in Maharashtra, which just cannot seem to be shaken off, has enveloped medical education in the state (pop. 96 million) which produces a mere 3,630 medical graduates per year, in a cloud of gloom. In 2002 a full 13-judge bench of the Supreme Court decreed in the TMA Pai Foundation Case, that private colleges of professional education should be free to prescribe their own admission norms and charge reasonable tuition fees provided their decision making processes are transparent and rational. But control-and-command governments and the subsidy-addicted middle class have continued to dispute this eminently sensible judgement. The result is constant litigation and drying up of the thin trickle of medical practitioners which India (51 doctors per 100,000 people cf. Belgium 419 and China 164) desperately needs.

Gaver Chatterjee (Mumbai)


Carry on doctoring

Responding to intensifying pressure for medical education in the state, the Congress-Janata Dal (S) coalition Karnataka government has passed a cabinet resolution to promote six medical colleges in Shimoga, Bidar, Belgaum, Mandya, Hassan and Raichur districts at an aggregate outlay of Rs.120 crore. Operational from the next academic year (2005-06), each of these colleges (to be initially housed in public buildings) will enroll 100 students in the first semester of the five-and-half-year MBBS study programme.

According to D. Manjunath, Karna-taka’s higher education minister, the new colleges are required to help talented poor students to access medical education. "Currently there are only about 200 seats in government-owned medical colleges in the state. This capacity compares very unfavourably with states like Tamil Nadu which has 2,000 seats in government-owned medical colleges. Therefore this decision to establish six new medical colleges is to ensure 600 more seats will be available for the state’s poor students," says Manjunath. Accordingly the state government’s finance ministry has sanctioned a sum of Rs.27.5 crore for each college (Rs.20 crore for building infrastructure and Rs.7.5 crore for equipment).

However educationists in Bangalore express considerable scepticism about the quality of medical education these proposed medical colleges will dispense given the state government’s perennial blindspot: faculty. Recruiting well-qualified medical professionals willing to work in mofussil towns lacking infrastructure is likely to prove a herculean task for the state’s education ministry officials. The norms of the Medical Council of India (MCI), which regulates medical education in the country, specify that every one of three departments of a start-up medical college should have one professor, an associate professor, assistant professor and at least two tutors for every 50 students. Since the government has decreed an intake of 100 students in each college, this faculty requirement will double.

According to MCI sources, MBBS graduates may be appointed as tutors/ lecturers but all higher-level teachers should be postgraduates. "Depending upon the position, aspiring faculty members should have teaching experience ranging from three to eight years in a recognised medical college. Thirty percent faculty from non-medical backgrounds may be appointed in the departments of anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, pharmacology and microbiology. However the heads of these departments must have postgraduate medical degrees," says an MCI spokesperson.

Therefore to fulfil the basic faculty requirements of the proposed six medical colleges, the government needs to recruit 108 postgraduate and 72 graduate doctors for the academic year 2005-06 beginning this July. Education ministry officials are worried that they may not be able to find 108 postgraduates willing to be deployed in the remote districts where the colleges are being sited.

The difficulty is likely to be compounded by the fact that MCI salary scales are too modest to attract experienced faculty who are much in demand in the state’s 23 fast-expanding private medical colleges with pay scales way above MCI norms. "In the past we have offered additional cash incentives apart from salary but have not been very successful in luring sufficiently qualified faculty to cities like Hubli and Bellary. It will be even more difficult to find experienced teachers willing to work in under-developed districts like Bidar and Raichur," says a senior official on condition of anonymity.

As per MCI norms followed by the existing four state medical colleges, gross remuneration is Rs.19,000 for assistant professors, Rs.21,500 for associate professors and Rs.25,000 for a full-fledged professor. The salaries of tutors have not been fixed, but the MCI says they should be "remunerative". "Given that a postgrad doctor working in a private hospital takes home an average of Rs.30,000 per month and a private practitioner with five years experience grosses Rs.45,000 without making house calls, promoting government medical colleges bound hand and foot by outdated salary scales is an exercise in futility. These colleges cannot offer quality education of international standard which people demand," says Dr. Narayanaswamy V. retired joint director of medical services, government of Karnataka.

Quite obviously the rational option is to liberally encourage the promotion of private medical colleges which have proved they can provide quality education at perhaps the world’s lowest prices. But that would reduce the cuts, kickbacks and commission incomes as well as patronage powers of Karnataka’s business savvy politicians. Hence the promotion of government medical colleges. Never mind the quality of doctors they produce.

Srinidhi Raghavendra (Bangalore)

West Bengal

Cosmetic wars

Teachers in Kolkata’s government-aided Bonhooghly Girls High School in Baranagar, a north Kolkata suburb, have been forbidden to wear lipstick, kajal, bindi, danglers and eye-catching clothes or carry mobile phones to class.

"Ours is not one of those elite English-medium schools attended by students from affluent families. Our students are mostly from low-income families. Here, we don’t want to see teachers going to class wearing deep shades of lipstick, dangling ear-rings and totting mobile phones," explains headmistress Tapati Dutta.

This Taliban-style fatwa is being vehemently opposed by four young teachers — Madhumita Khan, Shampa Saha, Sanchita Adhikary and Asima Adhikary in particular. "We won’t accept this irrational diktat under any circumstances. All of us are qualified teachers and have joined the profession after clearing competitive exams conducted by the state government. We are perfectly aware of how to present ourselves before our students," says a ‘rebel’ teacher. "Our teaching abilities do not depend on lipstick or kajal."

The school management is hellbent upon enforcing its sartorial and fashion diktat. Earlier this year, teachers who reported to work wearing lipstick were not allowed to take classes. Near-comical attempts for a compromise were ruled out. Comments Shampa Saha, one of the banned teachers: "We asked the headmistress to allow us to apply light lipstick but she stubbornly refused."

The stand-off has put West Bengal’s Communist-led government whose natural instinct is to suppress such bourgeois affectations, in a spot. There are serious doubts in academic as well as official circles as to whether the school’s management was within its rights to issue the ban circular. "There is no government rule debarring teachers from wearing lipstick or kajal," admits a senior official of the state government’s education department.

Khan: irrational diktat protest
As recently as last year, the fatwa of a Kolkata school banning the ubiquitous salwar-kameez and imposing a ‘sarees only’ rule was struck down by the Calcutta high court. Later, the state government issued a circular to all state-aided institutions asking them not to proscribe teachers wearing salwar-kameez to school.

This bizarre controversy has also attracted comment from West Bengal chief minister Buddhadev Bhattacharjee who has taken a liberal view. He has clearly pronounced in public that no dress code or codes governing use of cosmetics in work places can be enforced: "There is no law to impose such codes. And such laws should not exist anyway."

A broader solution — which could well provide a sensible and permanent resolution of the whole issue — is offered by Prof. Dibyendu Hota, president of the Board of Secondary Education in West Bengal. According to Hota, the board will shortly announce a ‘code of conduct’ for schoolteachers.

Under the code, private tuition and teachers engaging in private business, trade or moneylending will be verboten. Teachers will also be asked to abide by laws governing intoxicating drinks, drugs, smoking within school premises and public spaces. Moreover the proposed regulation will specifically ban use of subordinate staff for teachers’ domestic work. Teacher truancy will invite severe punishment, withholding annual increments, fines, compulsory retirement or dismissal. Although the elaborate code is not a public document yet, Prof. Hota’s press statement is silent upon the issue of appropriate attire and use of cosmetics.

Nevertheless in the Bonhooghly Girls’ High School the battle lines are drawn. If the school’s management fails to withdraw its diktat, the four affected teachers intend to move the Calcutta high court.

Quite evidently it’s a fight to the finish.

Sujoy Gupta (Kolkata)

Uttar Pradesh

Happy historians

The community of liberal professional historians whose scholarship and reputations had taken a battering during five years (1999-2004) of BJP-led NDA (National Democratic Alliance) rule at the Centre has evidently recovered its confidence, if not élan. This was very evident at the three-day 65th Indian History Congress (IHC) convened in end December at the Mahatma Jyotiba Phule Rohilkhand University campus at Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh. Despite a handful of slogan-shouting members of the BJP-affiliated Akhil Bharti Vidhyarthi Parishad (ABVP) descending on the venue and decrying liberal academics who had sharply criticised the ‘saffronisation’ of history — particularly Aligarh Muslim University professor Irfan Habib and JNU historians Romila Thapar and Sabyasachi Bhattacharya (newly elected president general of the congress) — the IHC concluded in good cheer with left, centrist and left-of-the-centre historians publicly celebrating the riddance of former Union human resource development minister Dr. Murli Manohar Joshi who had engineered the NDA government’s abortive attempt to rewrite Indian history from the hindutva perspective.

The tone for the conference was set by the new Union HRD minister Arjun Singh who promised the IHC non-interference from the Union government. "I have confessed that I have given much thought to how Gandhiji’s murder came about, what kind of ideology created the ground for that act and what harm the purveyors of that ideology wish as of now to inflict on the nation… the conspiracy to conceal the national vision had as its other side a conspiracy to distort and misrepresent our past in the grossest possible manner," said Singh whose address (read out on his behalf) ended with the promise that his ministry would help in every possible manner to "preserve the primacy and the integrity of your discipline".

The 65th IHC was notable also because it marked the first time since 1998 that the congress accepted patronage from the Union government. The interim years had turned the annual congress into a forum of protest against the machinations of the NDA government for meddling with history. In turn Joshi had withdrawn his ministry’s involvement with the deliberations of IHC.

IHC 65 platform: good cheer
Reflective of the new conciliatory mood was a proposal moved by Prof. Udai Prakash Arora, head of ancient history and culture at the host university, suggesting the writing of a common history of South Asia — a proposal which would have been a red rag to Joshi. "Geographically and culturally South Asia is a contiguous zone. Our ancient and medieval histories are the same and hence cannot be studied in isolation. For instance Indian history cannot be comprehended fully without reference to archaeological remains of Taxila, Mohenjodaro, Harappa and Sri Lanka. The European Union has moved towards writing common history texts. Why should we remain separated by narrow bounds of sovereignty?" argued Arora.

The main resolution drawn up at the end of the 65th IHC castigated Union culture minister Jaipal Reddy’s brand of "slow" detoxification and demanded a complete overhaul of the Archaeological Survey of India (which falls under Reddy’s ministry) to deliver it from the hands of bureaucrats. The text of the resolution demanded greater "scientific rigour and accountability" from the research and excavations conducted by ASI. "One cannot but express alarm at the fact that for well over a decade ASI has not been headed by an archaeologist, but has had temporary civil service officials assigned to it as directors general. The ASI has thus been deprived at the very top, of any element of expert supervision, scientific vision or long-term planning, all of which are necessary if it has to come out of its current stupor." The resolution, an indicator of the domination of Left historians of the proceedings, was overtly critical of the minister’s cautious approach to the process of weeding out the NDA government’s hindutva drive within cultural institutions.

Indicative of the revival of interest in history were the milling crowds in the book fair organised on the university grounds. Buyers flocked to stalls selling books on Ayodhya, the Mumbai riots, Gujarat, Narendra Modi and Zaheera Sheikh. "People seem to be more interested in history in the making," commented a young bookseller who claimed to have sold more than five dozen such books in a single day.

Quite evidently for the nation’s hitherto beleaguered historians, happy days are here again.

Vidya Pandit (Lucknow)

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