Bengaluru: The Supreme Court on Monday allowed private medical colleges in Kerala to charge Rs11 lakh as annual fee for medical education, dismissing the state government’s move to stipulate an unified annual fee of Rs5 lakh.

The development will have a crucial bearing on the politically charged ‘merit versus profit’ debate playing out in Kerala’s medical education sector, a much sought after higher education option in the state.

Each year, the private medical colleges have been getting into a tug of war with the government in power on what the fees should be and the admission process. For the last two decades, most of the colleges had agreed on a four-tier fee structure which allowed them to control the fees and the admission process for at least 50% of the seats, while allowing the government to decide fees and control admission for the rest.

This year onwards the ruling Left Front government tried to bring in a unified fees of Rs5 lakh for 85% of private medical seats. The rest of the seats were reserved for non resident Indians (NRIs) for whom the fee was fixed as Rs20 lakh, following a proposal by a government-appointed fee regulatory committee in June.

The government claimed it was forced to do this because the four-tier fee structure could not be continued after the Supreme Court made the National Eligibility Entrance Test (NEET) the sole gateway for medical education last year.

The decision to fix Rs5 lakh as unified fees was challenged by managements of private colleges, resulting in the Supreme Court decision on Monday.

“It is a face loss for the government, the health minister (who was overseeing the admission and fee discussions) should step down," opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala, said in a press statement.

The development comes just three days before the 2017 admission process comes to an end and after most of the colleges have almost filled their seats under the unified Rs5 lakh fee.

Nevertheless, as many as 15 colleges will raise their fees to Rs11 lakh, said Fazal Gafoor, a representative of private colleges and also the state president of Muslim Educational Society (MES), which runs a private medical college in Kerala.

Gafoor says his colleagues were pretty sure of this verdict as they brought in high profile lawyers like Harish Salve on their side. The verdict should not be a problem for students, he says, as the court has given them a 15 day window to submit a bank guarantee for the remaining Rs6 lakh that they now owe to the colleges.

He, however, admitted that cash-strapped students in Kerala, who want to study medicine, will be paying much higher fees than any of their predecessors ever. When asked to react to their plight, Gafoor said, “only the government should be blamed for derailing the entire process".

“The government had no authority to fix fees in private medical colleges but anyway went ahead and fixed a fee of Rs5 lakh. Two colleges fought against the unified fee in SC and got a favourable verdict earlier this month, so all of us decided to follow that path. Practically, not only the government made so many policy bunglings, but failed to protect the interests of poor students also. This could have been avoided if it continued the four tier fee structure," Gafoor said, speaking in Malayalam.

Health minister K K Shylaja did not respond to a call from Mint for comment.

In response to the court order, Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan has said the government will make sure that no student will lose the opportunity to study medicine because of the fees. The government will stand as guarantee at the banks, and if needed will provide loans too, for students who are qualified but find it difficult to arrange the additional fees post the SC order, he said in a statement to the media.