Bengaluru: In 1998, Jinesh P.S. was ranked 700 in Kerala medical entrance exam. There were no private medical colleges in Kerala at the time, and he realised it will be tough for his father to raise the tuition fees required in private medical colleges outside the state. So he prepared for next year’s entrance test, secured 20th rank in it and joined one of the medical colleges in Kerala—they are public-run but about five in number—at a subsidized fee of Rs3,000 per year.

For poor students who came after Jinesh, things became easier. Kerala allowed private medical colleges in a large-scale during 2002-03, at the time one of the most sought after career choices for young men and women, where successive governments made sure that at least 50% of the total seats are fixed at a low fee, sometimes as lower as the same in the public sector.

But not anymore.

This nearly two-decade-old measure of affirmative action, in the form of subsidized medical seats in private medical colleges, is coming to a close in Kerala, thanks—ironically—to its ruling communist government, which often projects welfare measures as its USP.

This year onwards, the government is going for a uniform fee in all private medical colleges. A provisional ordinance has been already brought out this month to this effect, and an assembly session starting two weeks later will make it into law.

The uniform fee in private colleges—which form than 80% of the 3000-odd medical seats in Kerala—will be Rs5 lakh, as per the ordinance; except in 15% seats of the total seats allocated for Non-Resident Indians (NRI), where the fee will be capped at Rs20 lakh. The fee for post graduate studies in medicine has also been hiked from Rs6.5 lakh to 14 lakh.

It means a poor student has to pay more than four times this year in fees when compared to last year. The annum fee was fixed at Rs25,000 or Rs2.5 lakh—depending upon where the student would fit in the merit list and certain reservation criterions—under the 50% seats reserved for affirmative action. On the other side, the move has slashed fees for the relatively wealthier class. If last year the private managements were charging Rs11 lakh in the rest of the seats they can fill up on their own, and Rs15 Lakh in the NRI quota, they can only charge Rs5 lakh and Rs20 lakh now.

This is a major path deviation for the Marxist government in Kerala, whose violent street agitations, especially by student outfits like Student Federation of India (SFI), led to the subsidies in the first place. In 2004, the early days after privitization, Rajani S Anand, a Dalit engineering student jumped off from the rooftop of Kerala’s entrance commissioner’s office and died, after she was forced to discontinue her studies because of a combination of factors, including the prohibitive fees, the lack of money and a turned-down request for a bank loan. In the outrage that followed, led by the communists, the private managements were forced to give in to government overseeing in the 50% of the seats, even though they got a free hand in deciding the fee and allotment process in the rest of the seats.

Health minister K.K. Shylaja, under whose mandate these decisions come, was unavailable for an immediate comment for this story. But she has earlier blamed the disruptions caused by a recent Supreme Court order which said NEET (National Eligibility Entrance Exam) should be made the sole gateway for admission to medical seats.

The NEET order stipulated a state government-appointed committee to take over and oversee the admission process and fee structure. However, since the private colleges would be unable to fix the fee amount themselves as they did until last year, they were unwilling to subsidize for low-income students out of their pocket, as per the minister. Also, she has said her department has been advised to discontinue the four-tier fee structure post the NEET order, as it could lead to legal tussles.

But the government argument does not hold water when compared to the admission process in states like Karnataka, which has a similar tradition of affirmative action like Kerala and is proceeding with it even after the NEET order. In the current academic year, 40% of the total seats in Karnataka are reserved for the poorest students at Rs77,000 per annum as fees, as per Karnataka Examination Authority website. However, the management is free to fix seats in the rest of the seats, and they are much expensive than in Kerala—ranging between Rs22 lakh to Rs41.98 lakh per annum depending on the college—as per the website. No legal tussles have arisen in Karnataka because of this structure, at least yet.

According to the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP), a voluntary organisation promoting the study of science in Kerala, the biggest problem in the medical colleges seems to be a lack of clarity on what should be the fee in a private college and how many seats should be made affordable. The first such attempt was the appointment of a committee under Justice K T Thomas in 2004, which compared fees charged by relatively high-end medical colleges in India and arrived at a uniform fee of Rs1.13 lakh per year for Kerala’s colleges. Both the government and the colleges rejected the committee’s findings as unfeasible.

KSSP say the fee regulatory committee appointed by the present government, which came up with the Rs5 lakh figure, has taken an average of last year’s total fees, which may not be the best way to compute such a figure. According to an analysis made by KSSP president K.P. Aravindan, the total expenditure for a private college with 100 students would fall below Rs1.5 lakh per student per year, which means their current fees can be much lower than Rs5 lakh since education institutions cannot indulge in profiteering in India by law.

Politically, while an even marginal fee hike led to week-long street protests and a heated war of words last year, things are calm this year—although the main opposition party Congress, and SFI, have both raised objections.

“The practise of demanding private players to subsidize something out of their pocket, for a government’s policy of affirmative action, was itself an attempt to mix bad economics with good politics. This is a natural end to things," said a CPM leader, requesting not to be named as his not authorised to speak on this matter.

“But I’m equally puzzled why the government is not offering a scholarship or something as an alternative," he said.

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