Given how high capitation fees can be in privately-run medical colleges, it is not surprising that the Supreme Court should rule in favour of the state governments’ right to control the fees and even regulate admissions. While doing so, the SC also set up a committee to oversee the Medical Council of India (MCI). The controversies surrounding the MCI, including the arrest of its president on corruption charges and instances of medical colleges and teaching hospitals being accused of rigging entrance examinations and accepting bribes, make a thorough overhaul vital since this is the supervisory body for medical education in the country. The SC, and the governments that have been petitioning it against private colleges, however have got it wrong on the issue of controlling fees and admission procedures.
Indeed, when the court rails against commercialisation of education and says it cannot be considered a business or a profession, it fails to appreciate the enormity of the problem. In 2014, while an institute of the quality of AIIMS had only 672 seats on offer, 6.3 lakh persons applied for the All India Pre-Medical Entrance Test—where are they to be accommodated if not in private colleges, and why will these be set up if those doing so are not allowed to make a profit? Certainly, their quality needs to be good, but that is where a revamped MCI comes into play—it needs to grade colleges and de-recognise them when their quality is suspect. Indeed, if there is enough information in the public domain on the faculty of a college, the academic papers it publishes, its alumni, the quality of placements and other such data, much of the problem would get resolved on its own.
The problem is accentuated when you look at other areas of education. Of the 140 million kids that India has in the college-going age, just 24% go to college—this compares with a gross enrolment ratio of over 30% in China and 89% in the US. If India wants to reach even Chinese levels, this means it needs to put another 9-10 million kids in colleges. Given that the existing colleges are bursting at the seams, it means India needs another 14,000 or so colleges, or an addition of around 30% or so, and another 4 lakh or so teachers in disciplines varying from English to engineering. At even R100 crore a college, that’s R14 lakh crore of capital spending—where is this money and the recurring expenditure going to come from? Certainly there are non-profit universities like Ashoka and Shiv Nadar that have come up in recent years, but the number of students they cater to is tiny compared to India’s needs—in any case, the fees at these colleges aren’t low either. A good example to keep in mind is Harvard University and the University of Phoenix—one was established in 1636 and the other in 1976; one is not-for-profit, the other is for-profit and no one even compares the quality of their education. But while there is just one Harvard campus, the University of Phoenix has 91 campuses and learning centres—Harvard has 21,000 students and an endowment fund of $37.6 billion while the University of Phoenix has 162,000 students even after a sharp fall from 5 lakh in 2011. If India is to grow, it needs to put a lot more students in colleges, but there is no way the government can cope with what is required—in which case, while it is critical to have top-class regulators to ensure quality education, India has to give up the myth that education is not a business or a profession. The over 3 lakh students who leave India each year to spend $8-10 billion in annual fees should be testimony to that.