Finding a Logical Solution to Self-financing Colleges Issue

Kochi: The ERAM Group presents ‘Destination Kerala CEO Roundtable: The Growth Dialogue’ held recently here witnessed three distinguished representatives of self-financing colleges (SFCs) in Kerala coming together on a platform for discussing issues plaguing the institutions every academic year. The panelists of the seventh edition included Dr. R Sasikumar, Director, CAPE (Cooperative Academy of Professional Education); Rev. Fr. Shaiju Augustine Thoppil, Director, Lourdes Institutions, Kochi and President, Association of the Managements of Christian Self-Financing Nursing Colleges of Kerala and P J Ignatius, Coordinator, Kerala Christian Professional College Managements’ Federation and Kerala Catholic Engineering College Managements’ Association. The deliberations were moderated by Jose Kunnappally, Chief Editor, Destination Kerala business magazine.

Self-financing colleges seem to have a problem with everything: NEET, year out system, fee structure. Are they only willing for ‘self-regulation’?

P J IGNATIUS: There is no problem with NEET. However, every year, agreements regarding admissions are reached only towards the far end of the season. This is one problem. The other is regarding the committees constituted following the directive of the Supreme Court – one is to regulate the fee while the other is to supervise admission. These committees take decisions arbitrarily. As far as year out system is concerned, I do not oppose the idea. Students failing in the first year need not have to wait till fourth year to clear the papers. If they cannot bear the stress of engineering, they could opt for any other course.

REV. FR. SHAIJU AUGUSTINE THOPPIL: Christian managements have always maintained that course subsidy is not a just thing to do as Ignatius rightly pointed out. Even the Supreme Court has expressed similar views in the past. When we fix the fee in our colleges, we ensure that it would be sufficient for meeting the expenses to run the colleges offering good facilities. Moreover, the fee is the same for all students. To be sustainable, the fee must be fixed after a proper scientific study. Time has proven that the 50-50 seat-sharing strategy in which fee is equal for all is better. Even the government is now supporting to this idea.

Being part of the cooperative sector, do you subscribe to the view of private managements?

DR. R SASIKUMAR: When SFCs were started, there was a big controversy. In the 1990s, there were only a few colleges in Kerala offering engineering and medicine. So, people went to other states to get the education which led to a major social issue. At the beginning of 2000, there was a forecast that every year we would need 10 lakh engineers in IT sector. At that time, AICTE sanctioned a number of colleges with the condition that 50 per cent of admissions should be on merit and the rest under management quota. Unfortunately, the concept failed. In Kerala, politics is also involved in education, making it a sensitive issue.

At present, faced with a shortage of students, managements – especially in engineering colleges – are ready to reduce fee. AICTE has made it mandatory that there be at least 30 per cent of the sanctioned strength of students in a college. Engineering is a skill-oriented course where the students should be talented in that particular stream. Unfortunately, this is not happening. Parents should be blamed for this. They want their children to become engineers without realising the real talent of their wards. As a result, the failure rate in engineering stream is more than 65 per cent in our State. Regarding the year out system, it should not be implemented in the first year. Students should have sufficient time to get accustomed to the system.

NEET is fine, year out is fine. So we are primarily boiling it down to seat and fees sharing.

IGNATIUS: The situation has changed from increase in demand and decrease in supply to just the opposite. That is, seats are vacant now. So, there is no question of rejection and selection. In fact, the entrance system itself is obsolete. In 1998, the government discontinued the entrance exam for nursing. Now the same can be done for engineering. As there is year out system in medical colleges, the students make up immediately. Otherwise, they cannot go to the next level. Engineering is much liberal in the sense that if you got 10 marks in any subject, you pass.

The moment we gave up the entrance test and more people started coming into the colleges, you also have the case of banks’ education loan NPAs, especially in the case of engineering and nursing, where after students pass out they may not get jobs or are not employable. Tthe quality of talent that is coming out of the colleges is also affected.

REV. FR. SHAIJU: I don’t agree. In nursing and medicine, if a student does not like the profession, he or she may opt out. If the student continues the course, he or she subsequently qualifies as a full-fledged doctor or nurse. However, in engineering, this is not happening.

But the quality of nursing talent also is questionable?

REV. FR. SHAIJU: It is not. Wherever you go in this world, we have Malayalee nurses. They are all coming out of institutions in Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. So, we have good facilities and faculties in Kerala. The only issue is regarding admission. If the admission happens at the proper time in Kerala, all our nursing colleges will get the best students.

IGNATIUS: It is a social responsibility to produce talented engineers. Now, the Kerala Technological University as well as AICTE has made it mandatory that students should undergo internship. However, this may not be possible in Kerala. Many colleges are having excellent workshop facilities, where the students themselves can take up projects, innovate and earn the experience. Rest of the colleges should also set up such facilities.
When we talk about the fee issue, all the colleges are going through the same crisis. The new Pay Commission recommendations have come, as a result of which there is a 40-50 per cent increase in the salary of faculty. We are finding it difficult to meet salary expenses, mainly because of the fewer student intakes. In some colleges, teachers are not paid after January. They get their salary only when it is July, at the time of new admissions. Many colleges have been attached by banks and we find announcements saying ‘Medical colleges and engineering colleges for sale’. Realising the gravity of the situation, AICTE has diluted the staff-student ratio from 1:15 to 1:20.

SASIKUMAR: With around 60,000 students joining engineering courses every year in Kerala, how is it possible to form a linkage between the industry and academics? There are only a limited number of industries in the State. With a flood of students seeking internship, industries have even started charging students for it.

It has been a trend all over Kerala that during the academic intake time, you have some imbroglio with the government and subsequent intervention from courts which leads to the admission process being stalled and a number of talents moving out to Tamil Nadu or Karnataka, leaving many seats vacant in our State. Is there any hidden agenda behind this?

IGNATIUS: There is no hidden agenda. It is just like the monsoon. It is expected to come in June, but there is a long wait for its arrival. The same happens with the admission. The court doesn’t just make an intervention; instead, it rescues the education system. The court has never created any problem for the institutions. The problem starts with the lack of a long-term policy. Government decides on the admission of each year separately. No study has been done till now to find the actual cost to bring out a doctor, engineer or nurse. If you take the amount spent on a student in Government Medical College, Thiruvananthapuram or College of Engineering Trivandrum from the budget, it would be much more than the fee charged by self-financing colleges. But, the government is not yet ready to accept this fact.

SASIKUMAR: I have a different opinion on that point. The government will have a discussion with the managements at the time of admissions, but it will not be fruitful. As the government changes, educational policies will also undergo a major shift.

Why should there be a fluctuation every year? At least we should have a five-year vision now?

REV. FR. SHAIJU: There is a lack of proper planning. The discussion on fee structure will only last for five or 10 minutes. There is nothing much to discuss. Only thing is that we need to finalise the dates. But the government will only start thinking about it by the end of July. Then, there won’t be enough time.

IGNATIUS: In 2006, self-financing colleges under Christian managements offering engineering, medicine and nursing courses could not agree with many of the conditions in the Kerala Self-Financing Professional Colleges Act brought by the Kerala government and went to court. With the Court giving us a solution, we admitted students on our own from 2006 to 2012. I can proudly say that during those six years, there was not even a single allegation that one extra rupee was collected from students. No admission was refused to an eligible student or was given to an ineligible student. In Christian institutions, we follow some self-regulations which are the core reason for our success. Consistency in educational standards over several decades has been the hallmark of our institutions. Whereas, many other SFCs are run by individuals who consider it as a business. But, education cannot be treated as a business. It has to be an occupation or service.

REV. FR. SHAIJU: The committee appointed by the State Government for fixing the minimum wages for employees in private hospitals, including nurses has come out with its report. Fixing minimum wages for nurses will certainly impact nursing education in a big way. The report is in reality applicable to BSc and GLMA nurses. But most of our teaching faculties are MSc holders and the present fee is not adequate to pay them. One advantage we have is that our hospital helps subsidize. But it is not the same for many other nursing colleges. That is why we need to have discussions with the government on the fee structure, which should satisfy both students and institutions.

SASIKUMAR: As mentioned earlier, I think there are hidden agendas in the issue. Many students from Kerala are doing BTech courses in colleges outside the State. Some of those college managements ask the students to canvas aspirants in return for discounts in their course fee. This is common in other states, especially in Tamil Nadu.

IGNATIUS: It happens in other states also. In Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, nursing students are also the agents for nursing admission and recruitment. Some of those nursing colleges may not even have attached hospitals.

Some media reports had said that there are two groups within the self-financing colleges’ federation – one representing greenfield medical colleges and the other comprising medical colleges attached to old hospitals. How valid is the argument that different fee structures are needed for greenfield and brownfield?

IGNATIUS: That argument is not justified. According to MCI, an agency which has been operating a hospital with 350 beds on a 25-acre land for at least three years is eligible to apply for a medical college. But the application would be accepted only if the hospital is capable of an expansion by the end of second or third year of commencing operations. The Christian medical college managements having 50 to 100 years of experience are being referred to as brownfield. If you check balance sheets of those managements, you will not find many losses. These hospitals grew over the years through systematic investments in equipment, manpower and technology. If the surplus amount generated by hospitals is invested in medical educational institutions, it will adversely affect the future growth of the hospitals.

REV. FR. SHAIJU: There should be no such differences.

Is the Kerala Medical Education Bill 2017 something that you welcome?

IGNATIUS: There is already an Act of 2006 that is being challenged in Supreme Court. With the new Bill, the government aims to gain an upper hand. The government does not trust the managements. We are not enemies of the government, students or the people, but are very much part and parcel of the society.

On some of these topics, does the Muslim Education Society (MES) have a completely different view or are they in sync with what regular private managements are telling the government?

IGNATIUS: They do not seem to maintain consistency. They shift their stand according to the circumstances. A classic example is the recent Ponnani college case.

Some self-financing engineering colleges are of the opinion that whatever fee the government fixes, if your infrastructure, faculty and track record are good you will be able to fill seats. How true is that?

IGNATIUS: I don’t think that is possible, unless the fee charged is sufficient to provide the infrastructure, academic facilities and to pay the faculty.

SASIKUMAR: How many of our institutions are NAB accredited? If our institution is accredited, then we can say that we provide the best education. About the infrastructure, once you start an engineering college, within five years all the infrastructure will be ready. There is no need of further investment. Only the recurring expenditure remains. Hence, they are willing to reduce the fee.

What are your views on the Nehru College issue?

IGNATIUS: The hidden agenda has a role here. It was in full play during the 2017-18 admissions. Some unfortunate things happened. Those issues highly demoralized the entire SFCs. The media also played a major role in painting a bad picture. If you analyse some of the reasons for such agitations, it will start with late attendance. If it is allowed, then there will not be any discipline.

SASIKUMAR: There is also something not right about the way SFCs handle young students. When you deal with students of the age 18-22, you should be very careful because they are highly reactive.

REV. FR. SHAIJU: It is not just knowledge that we are giving the students, but we are forming their individual selves. Our students are not motivated. So, they may lack a vision for the future. They look at only the present. We should motivate them and make them realise what will happen after three or four years of education. But this is not happening as the faculty is not empowered.

IGNATIUS: I agree. These young students are full of energy and they will be naughty. All naughtiness should not be curtailed but it should be directed towards creativity, through perfect grooming. In Christian colleges, the faculty members are well trained to establish a healthy teacher-student relationship.

How do you improve the curriculum and quality of talent that comes out of engineering, nursing and medicine courses, which are seeing a transformation of technology?

REV. FR. SHAIJU: With regard to nursing, it is only possible when the students are given adequate clinical exposure. Fortunately, our students are getting it.

IGNATIUS: Institutions have no role in deciding the curriculum or changing it. They can add some value through providing exposure to many interesting innovations like 3D printing.

SASIKUMAR: In engineering, we are updating our curriculum. It is very difficult to include all technology changes in the syllabus. BTech-level education is for teaching the fundamentals of engineering. However, recent technologies like robotics have been included in the curriculum. Most colleges have innovation centres and all government engineering colleges have startup incubators.

REV. FR. SHAIJU: In the medical field, learning is an ongoing process and on-the-job training is very important.

For the new academic year starting in 2018 what are the things that you want the government to do?

REV. FR. SHAIJU: First is to have proper planning and involve experts from private sector also in the admission process. Secondly, the government needs to trust SFC managements. Thirdly, the government should facilitate hand-holding with industries.

IGNATIUS: As far as medical education is concerned, it is based on the NEET rank. Regarding the fee structure, the High Court has given the fee fixation committee clear-cut instructions to finalise it by January 31. So we hope we’ll have a smoother admission process.

SASIKUMAR: We have to complete the admission process before July 31 and start the classes by August 1 itself. Issues regarding university procedures should be sorted out. We should then focus on quality of the education.

As the new academic year is set to start in the next six months, management federation representatives are hoping that the existing issues regarding admission process and university procedures will be ironed out and we have a seamless academic year to look forward to.