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PUCL Bulletin, June 2003

A gap in the education policy
- By Amrik Singh

Some four decades ago, the Union Government started a scheme to help students with their post-matriculation study. The need to help Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe students was recognised even at that time but there was no organised way. Begun somewhat modestly, the outlay on this scheme has been rising; currently it is several hundred crores of rupees a year. All that a student has to do is to apply for this kind of scholarship. The academic assessment is done by the institution concerned and the Government accepts that as valid. On the whole, the scheme has worked fairly well and has benefited a large number of Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe students.

What about those students who do not belong to these categories but have good potential for advanced studies? No initiative was taken for years together. However, this category of students was helped by the Supreme Court a decade ago when it ruled that the fee fixed by the Government need not be scaled upward. Instead, seats in professional colleges might be thrown open without any unnecessary restrictions to those who were qualified enough to get selected. Without question it was a radical step to have taken.

What the Supreme Court over-looked was that those who did not get included in the 50 percent category had to pay very high sums of money as tuition fee; sometimes as high as Rs.70,000 to Rs.80,000 a year. This led to a lot of exasperation and denial of opportunity to a fairly large number of deserving students. Partly in order to resolve the situation, the Supreme Court recently empowered the professional colleges to fix their own fees without the State Governments breathing down their necks. It was mainly the State Government which argued with the professional colleges regarding the legitimate quantum of fee to be charged with the result that the situation ranged from complete understanding to complete misunderstanding about each other's point of view. That is why the Supreme Court swing over to the other extreme and empowered the colleges to fix their own fees.
In one sense, the problem has been complicated.

Those who are affluent will be able to cross whatever obstacles arise. Those who belong to Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes will continue to get scholarship support as in the past and those who belong to the OBC category will also get scholarships. The real problem concerns something like one third of the students whom it is difficult to categorise and who do not know where to turn for help or guidance. This is not a small number. Nor can those vested with the power of decision-making both at the Central and the State level be absolved of their responsibility for finding a solution to this problem. The painful truth is that nothing is being done for this difficult-to-define category of students.

Since it is difficult to categorise them, it makes it doubly difficult to grapple with this problem. At the policy level, the Governments do not know how to classify these students. They come from all kinds of backgrounds. But one thing common is that they do not belong to the affluent middle class which knows how to negotiate all kinds of hurdles. One student may be a poor farmer's son, another's father may be a peon and the third one may be the son or daughter of a small businessman who cannot afford high tuition fees.
There is also another category of student; he does not aspire to go to a professional college. He would be content even with a modest, even ill-equipped, science, arts or commerce college. For the last few decades, tuition fees at this level have not been raised significantly in any State because the 'state', without being open or explicit about it, likes to give illusion of imparting education to such students. The college do 'baby-sitting' for the parents who are happy to pay the low fees to keep their children occupied.

These students are not all that affected when tuition fees in professional colleges go up. They have no intention of joining such college. And as far as these non-professional colleges are concerned, there is no compulsion to raise the fee. But what about students who have some potential ability? Since their percentage is (again) about one third of the total strength, it is not a small number that we are talking about. In any case, quite a few of them, given the opportunity, can do well. It is a serious problem and cannot be over-looked. Indeed it will get aggravated as the decision given by the Supreme Court comes into effect from the next academic session.
Neither the Centre nor the states would be able to help them in any significant way. What we have to do is to initiate and sustain certain schemes whereby professional institutions, both universities and colleges, are encouraged as well as enabled to raise funds from their alumni and other who might be willing to help.

One scheme which has been tried successfully in a number of places is: institutions identify certain students and put them in touch with foster parents who, out of their sense of generosity and gratitude as old alumni, would be prepared to pay the whole or a part of what it costs a student to study. In several such cases, students are in direct touch with the donor families which like to remain informed of the progress being made by students and take interest in their well being.

There is one thing more which needs to be done. In every professional college, there should be substantial number of part-time jobs which are created as a part of the overall plan. Students can work for a couple of hours a day and earn something.

It is in recognition of this changing situation that the UGC, in its scheme which has identified five universities which have the potential for excellence, has set apart a Rs.1 crore as seed money for raising such a fund. A university becomes eligible for this amount only when it has raised Rs.4 crores on its own thus taking the aggregate to Rs.5 crores. Every such university has been told that it is expected to raise a minimum of Rs.10 crores in the course of the Tenth Plan. In addition, a sum of half a crore has been set apart for providing part-time jobs which students can do. This is an area where industry can also help.

While this scheme is applicable only to five universities, there is nothing to prevent other universities from embarking upon such a scheme and creating a climate of opinion whereby the alumni will be enthused to participate in it. It is for the State Governments to provide seed money to each university and each college. Once this momentum pick up, the results would be, hopefully, gratifying. Perhaps the UGC can help the Central Universities even outside the ambit of that scheme. As to the State Universities, some kind of a partnership can be organised between the UGC and the States. The important thing is to create an atmosphere wherein public opinion is mobilised in favour of such an initiative.

 

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