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Why should govt run a medical college?
January 11, 2005
The expulsion, last month, of 74 NRI students from two medical colleges in West Bengal on orders of the Supreme Court, highlights an important national problem regarding professional education that requires urgent resolution.
There is a tremendous demand for seats in professional colleges. But most of these colleges are run by the government, which simply does not have the resources and ideas to respond to this demand.
The government has not even met the challenge of how to attract competent faculty to teach in a medical college when their salaries are much lower than those of doctors in a private hospital. This is the same problem as that of getting capable professors to teach in engineering colleges and management schools, when they are worth many times more in the private sector.
Instead of clearly defining the problem and then seeing how it might be solved, the government, at the state level or at the Centre, has taken ad hoc decisions, which are not only generally unfair and inconsistent, they increase the opportunity for the bureaucracy to indulge in corruption. It must be added that this is not an ideological issue; the BJP has been as much to blame as the Congress and the CPM.
To increase revenue for the medical schools and also to satisfy demand for medical seats from the NRI, in 2003, the West Bengal government announced a quota for NRI-sponsored and foreign students provided the Medical Council of India approved the increase in number of seats in the state's seven medical colleges. These students had to pay a fee of Rs 1 lakh every six months, as against 12 rupees per month of the regularly admitted students. The government also proposed that the tuition for regular students would go up to Rs 850 per month.
But the students in the NRI quota did not have to pass the Joint Entrance Examination, and they required only 50 per cent marks in the science group in their higher secondary examination! This standard was much lower than that of the JEE, and not exactly in accordance with the ideals of meritocracy. The government admitted 104 NRI students to two medical colleges, which have 200 seats. The Opposition parties called this admission-for-cash scheme a sell-out to the rich.
Then a group of 16 boys and girls -- who passed the Joint Entrance Examination but were denied admission in medical colleges -- filed a petition in the high court against the NRI quota.
The Calcutta high court soon ruled against the NRI quota. Chief Minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya responded by announcing that 'NRI students will complete their course come what may.' The government appealed to the Supreme Court, where it argued that the quota fees were to raise funds for medical education. This was disingenuous since the government could have charged foreign students a higher fee, while insisting that they satisfy the same admission requirements as other students.
The Supreme Court did not buy the argument, and it slashed the NRI quota from 50 percent to 15 in the two medical colleges where the cash-for-seats scheme was implemented, leading to the expulsion of the 74 students.
From the point of view of the expelled students, who have already spent five months in their medical colleges, the situation is a disaster, one that is not of their making. They are right to be bitter and many of them are on hunger strike. The Bengal government owes them compensation for their ruined careers.
I don't blame the justices of the Supreme Court. They were intervening in an impossible situation because what the government of West Bengal had done was wrong. But the court's ruling found no fault with the idea of the quota scheme, only with the size of the quota. It did not say what it ought to have said: the West Bengal government -- and this is true of other states also -- has no business running a medical college.
The government's bureaucracy does not have the expertise to micromanage professional education. It should cede authority for running these colleges to autonomous professional bodies, which, free from political pressures, would be able to examine the issues of revenue, number of admission seats, and salaries for professors, and implement appropriate solutions.
Personally, I think that the currently sanctioned number of medical seats is not enough to satisfy the demand, both internal and international. Since the government does not have the resources to establish new medical colleges, it should allow the private sector to enter the picture. This may also lead to healthy rivalry between the two sectors that could provide impetus for reform in government-run professional colleges.
If the government in West Bengal, as in other states, withdrew from the administration of professional colleges, and instead concentrated on the problem of the primary and secondary education in government schools, it would shift the focus away to services for the poorer sections in the cities and the rural areas.
It is uniquely true of India that the left and the right are generally agreed regarding state control and centralisation. This is an ideological issue for the Marxists, whereas the right's approach is a consequence of the false theory that India was defeated by the British because its institutions were not centralised.
In truth, as Noam Chomsky reminds us in Understanding Power, all successful economies are state-coordinated. For example, American capital-intensive private agriculture is subsidised by the state; American private universities are also heavily supported by government research grants. Privatising a part of medical education does not mean that the government loses the ability to direct medical education; it merely transfers the administration to professionals.
One hopes that the expulsion of the NRI medical students on the order of the Supreme Court may just lead to an examination of the many unquestioned assumptions regarding the powers and the obligations of the state in India. But in a system where the State has been equated to the power of the bureaucracy, it seems like a long shot.