In April 2011, a committee headed by Anil Kakodkar and appointed by the MHRD ‘to recommend autonomy measures to facilitate IITs scaling greater heights’ proposed, among other measures, a tuition fee hike for the IITs from the existing Rs 50 000 per annum to Rs 2.5 lakhs per annum for undergraduate students. The proposal was met with stiff resistance and the then HRD Minister, Kapil Sibal, decided against implementing it.
Two years later, in early 2013, the new HRD Minister, M M Pallam Raju accepted the IIT Council’s recommendation for a smaller tuition fee hike, from Rs 50 000 to Rs 90 000 per annum for the 2013 batch of B. Tech. students. These fees were fixed centrally, and hence apply uniformly to all IITs. In addition, the fee for MS/PhD students has been increased from around Rs 4000 to Rs 8000 per semester.
The government also provided a mandate to the Institutes for hikes in Institute fees, which individual IITs have control over. The Institute Senate convened on 6 March 2013 and approved hikes in other semesterly fees such as Hostel Seat Rent, which will go up in phases from Rs 250 currently to Rs 5000 by 2016, Gymkhana Fees, from Rs 100 to Rs 1000 and Medical Fees, from Rs 50 to Rs 300. Hostel Fees have also been hiked – Hostel Deposit has been doubled from Rs 1000 to Rs 2000 and Advance Dining Charges have been increased from Rs 10 000 to Rs 12 000.
These hikes have been met with much opposition from the students. The resistance has not been passive – a meeting was held on 21 May 2013 for the students to discuss the hike with the authorities, with the Director and the Deans (AR and AC) representing the institute’s side. The Director pointed out that the hike in tuition fee was a central policy and the Institute had to comply. Dissatisfied, the students held a panel discussion to debate the hike’s requirement, followed by a protest march from GC to Main Gate.
The hike is ostensibly aimed at helping the IITs reduce their currently heavy dependence on the government for financial aid. Prof Bhaskar Ramamurthy, Director of IITM, says – ‘The goal behind the hike is to bring back some element of proportionality between the cost of providing these services and the fee charged’. Raju contends that the IITs should become financially sustainable like the IIMs and that a fee hike is the only way to ensure that. The students who protest, though, feel that the government views education as a commodity and is trying to privatise higher education. Deepak Johnson, the Students’ General Secretary says – ‘The government is slowly withdrawing from the sectors like healthcare and education which have been public goods for over centuries. Privatising healthcare and education has had disastrous consequences in other countries. The Kakodkar Committee Report and general mindset of government in transferring the ‘operational expenses’ of IITs on to the students resulted in this hike.’
IITM’s administration provides the following justification for the Institute fee hike – since the fees have not been increased for a long time, it is time to realise the correct cost that students now should bear. Gymkhana Fees, Medical Fee and Electricity and Water Charges have not been changed in IIT Madras since 1998, the Director points out. Since the purchasing power of one rupee is now around a third of what it was in 1998, it is felt that the IITs’ fee structure is slightly obsolete. “There continues to be a significant subsidy, but the subsidy had grown over the years to a very high fraction. This has been partly remedied now,” opines the Director. If there is an inflation in the cost of every other aspect of life, it is reasoned, then why not bring educational cost at par with that? The argument relating to subsidy, though, has not found resonance among the student protesters. They contend that the government offers huge exemptions to corporates and education should not be compromised to make up for corporate subsidies.
The reaction from parents has also been in a similar vein as the students. Says a parent – “A fee hike will only lead to a greater burden on the students, without anything significant offered in return in the form of better quality of education.” The government has tried to pacify such fears by arguing that greater financial freedom will help the IITs encourage better research and entice better faculty with bigger salaries. But this contention, too, is viewed with apprehension. Dr Rahul Siddharthan, who was a panel member for the discussion, points out in his blog that even after having high degrees of financial freedom, private universities like BITS have not done as well as would be expected.
Educationists have a different take on the issue. Although they agree in principle to the hike, they feel the more pressing concerns will be accessibility and availability of education. Students availing the MCM Scholarship will be largely unaffected, but they reason that the ones just above the criteria will be hit hardest. The government has promised ‘soft loans’ as a solution to all such students who cannot pay the fees upfront. This issue also has had a polarising effect – some, primarily parents and students, feel that this will add an unnecessary burden to a student’s future prospects, while others argue that an undergraduate IITian, who on an average earns Rs 8 lakh per annum, can easily afford to pay back the loan later. Says an alumnus – “A soft loan will not only help an undergraduate pay his fees on his own terms, but will also inspire him to study better so that he can pay back the loan at the earliest by getting a good job.”
The faculty, though, hold this argument void for students intending to pursue higher education. How can a student on a stipend pay back such large sums? ‘The method of financing higher education with bank loans would only be detrimental to research in the long run as it becomes impossible for an undergraduate to repay the loans if he takes up post-graduate education,’ says Deepak Johnson. But there are interesting solutions to this dilemma. In the United Kingdom, you need not start repayments until your income reaches a certain threshold, which is £ 21 000 per year currently. Also, the repayments after reaching this threshold are calculated according to your level of income. This ensures a great amount of flexibility. Similarly, in the United States, a part of your loan, can be waived if you take up specific professions, for example teaching or nursing, or enter public service. But the feasibility of these ideas with India’s current infrastructure is debatable.
This issue had been subject to a lot of media attention during the announcement of the hike, and the protest by IITM students has led to renewed interest among the media. Major newspapers such as the The Hindu and The Times of India carried articles discussing the hike and the protest and explored the issue from various angles. Although the ramifications of the hike and the response it elicited from different sections of the society were detailed extensively, an inquiry into the feasibility of its intention and possibility of alternatives to meet the requirement was hard to find. From the very beginning, since the inception of the Kakodkar Committee, the aim was set at improving the quality of education at the IITs. There seems to be no conclusive argument to support the fact that the fee hike will definitely lead to that.
Although a section of the society feels that IITians must recognise the value of what they are receiving here and pay their dues responsibly, another feels that this hike is a step towards today’s ultimate evil – privatisation. Still another section views it as a bitter pill that must be accompanied with multiple concurrent therapies. The issue that lies buried inside everyone’s mind, though, is the same – whether our education system can be lifted up to be held at par with the best global universities, which had been the Kakodkar Committee’s inspiration all along. Only the method and the executive’s commitment towards that method remains at question here.