T5E Debates: A Case for a Better Education

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T5E Debates, like the name implies, is an attempt to feature debates on different issues and stimulate thought and discussion.

The first of these debates is on the fee hikes that are being implemented in IITM and other IITs. Vinay Sridhar and A.M. Ayyappadas argue in favour of and against the fee hikes respectively.  

In this article, Vinay Sridhar argues in support of the fee hike in the IITs.

I believe that the fee increase in the IITs is acceptable and justified. Before students protest and appeal against the fee hike, the logic behind the changes must be understood. Many articles have been written questioning the fee hike, but a closer examination will reveal that the arguments do not hold water.

While it is understandable that a sudden, rather substantial, fee hike would spark protests, much of the reaction is based on hypotheticals and misunderstood motives. For the sake of clarity, let us examine the facts.

The two types of fees, tuition and hostel+institute, should be distinguished. Tuition fees are set by the IIT Council and are applicable to all IITs. The hostel+institute fees are set by each IIT separately. Before we get into theory, let us examine the actual numbers. The hostel fees have not been changed in IIT Madras since 1998, and the current revision has been enacted to partially cover the large increase in costs to the institute. For four months of practically uninterrupted water and electricity supply, in a city plagued almost daily by electricity and water scarcity, Rs. 750 is ridiculously low – a fact we cannot afford to ignore.

Looking at tuition fees, a 100% increase in tuition fees must be understood in context. The Kakodkar Committee Report (Pg 76 onwards) recommended students cover the entire operational cost of education at an IIT, which works out to be Rs 2.5 Lakh per annum, a recommendation that will not  be implemented to the full extent. At the same time, the capital costs of an IIT education are funded, and will continue to be funded, fully by the Government. With some approximation, this amounts to Rs 5 Lakh per annum. Thus, today, a student at IIT Madras without scholarships or any other form of funding now pays for approximately 20% of the cost of his education (it was 10% before the fee hike). Even with the increase, the total fees today are very much in line with other institutions of higher education in India.

The intention behind the fee hike is not, as many of the protesters claim, a step towards privatising higher education, but to maintain a semblance of proportionality between what the student and the government contribute towards an IITian’s education. It is incorrect to argue that the Government is ‘slowly withdrawing’ from the education sector (that the government should be spending more on education – primary and secondary – is a separate debate), without understanding the motivation for the fee increase. Even with the 100% increase in fees, the institute is nowhere close to being completely funded by students. A move towards blanket privatisation would be evident in the rationale behind the fee increase – the stated objective (page 76-77, Kakodkar Committee Report) in this case, however, is to account for rising costs and not to shift the burden of a student’s education completely to the student. There is hardly a basis for the protesters to claim that the Government is on a path towards completely privatising higher education.

Let us attempt then to better understand the opposition’s viewpoint – what do the protesters fear when they incorrectly claim that the Government is privatising higher education? That bright, less affluent students will no longer apply? Although this is potentially a problem that must be corrected, purely based on the number of scholarships and options for funding available to a wide class of students, it is a situation that is near impossible to occur at an IIT. Students from economically weaker backgrounds (with parental income less than Rs. 4.5 Lakh per annum) are to be given 100% scholarships, according to the Kakodkar Committee (p79). Students from reserved categories are currently given a range of scholarships as well. With the recommendations of the Kakodkar Committee, it is intended that at most only 52.5% of students in the UG program will be asked to pay the full fees. It is rather apparent that an overarching focus is given to the belief that no meritorious student should be denied an education in an IIT for want of means. The working class is not being priced out of an IIT education.

It might be appropriate at this point to note that, barring a few remarkable exceptions, almost everyone who gets into the undergraduate program at an IIT goes to a private school/college, and simultaneously attends coaching classes (in many cases, the two come as a package). Today, JEE coaching costs anywhere between Rs 75,000 to Rs 1.5 Lakhs for 2 years, while the cost of private schooling is  typically upwards of Rs 25,000 per year. It is misrepresentative to base arguments against the fee hike in IITs, as the Opposition does, on the net PCI in India, as a lack of good primary/secondary school education already results in most of India being (unfortunately) left out of the race to get into an IIT. We should instead compare incomes for the spectrum of society that gets into an IIT, a number I’m sure everyone will agree is much higher than India’s net PCI. For an aspiring IIT student, the deterrent and bottleneck appear well before he/she writes the JEE. If the issue is to ensure that no bright student is denied a seat at an IIT, inferior public  primary/secondary schooling should be the focus for protesters, not a fee increase that can be covered through scholarships and the like.

A few other important factors must be taken into account. One, every IIT student is offered an educational loan when they join, with payment deferred to when they begin earning, with an EMI chosen by them. Two, if we account for the fact that the median starting salary for an undergraduate at an IIT is around 6 Lakh per annum (a direct consequence of the education we receive at an IIT), the impact of the increase seems smaller. An IITian’s earning potential is high enough to comfortably repay a loan of such amounts.

While it is convenient to make a multitude of claims about how the fee hike is part of an elaborate plot to privatise higher education, and how this hike will prevent bright, but less affluent, students from joining an IIT, it’s critical to see if this story fits the facts. The administration and the Kakodkar Committee Report have made it explicitly clear why the current fee hike took place. Claiming otherwise, despite these categorical statements, would be to simply reject reality. Also, the actual nature of the hike, taking into account its very specific context, will not affect students to the extent the opposition claims. Forgetting the scale of increase, arguing that this is privatization and so on does not reflect the setting in which this fee hike occurred. To reiterate, we are a long way off from privatizing education at the IITs – post the fee hike, the Government contributes 80% of the cost of an IITians education, while it is much lesser in the US (anywhere between 20% and 50% for most colleges; it varies greatly across states and based on in-state v/s out-of-state fee structures).

That said, let us for a moment examine the philosophical underpinnings of this debate. The exercise ventures dangerously close to shifting to debating about differences between economic systems (not unlike the Sen-Bhagwati drama this year), but this should help the reader understand a key sentiment behind the dispute. On a relatively abstract note, look at the impact of a fee increase on a student’s attitude towards his education. I believe that asking students to pay for their education increases accountability and responsibility and ensures that one does not have a sense of entitlement.

This belief becomes especially important when the opposition implies that the Australian/European model (nearly-free higher education) is better than the American (student contributes to the cost) model. Looking at the output of these contrasting models, it is distinctly evident which of the two models work better. Taking any metric – research output, University rankings, scale of innovation etc. – the top Universities are largely American. America boasts 18 of the top 20 Universities in the world, as per the ARWU, a widely accepted ranking. According to The Economist in 2005, American universities employed 70% of the world’s Nobel prize-winners, 30% of the world’s output of articles on science and engineering, and 44% of the most frequently cited articles. It can be argued that this stark difference is at least in part, if not entirely, caused by the entrepreneurial spirit and competitive atmosphere that the American system engenders. A basic tenet of that philosophy lies in increasing accountability and incentivizing a student to perform, rather than creating an environment that fosters free-riding. It must also be noted that, in most cases, high fees are only charged of those who can afford it.

Admittedly, the American system has slowly been pushed to an extreme, leading to the ‘unrest’ we see today, but we are far from reaching their current situation. Using their circumstance today as an argument against the general philosophy that played a part in creating their robust, vibrant academic environment is to simply deny the truth. We must aspire to create a strong support system that enables the less fortunate to have equal opportunity without enacting decisions that will erode quality. Arguing against an extreme does not discredit the middle ground.

Nevertheless, it is a fact that the fees were hiked in a sudden manner. I hope the administration explores more ways to help alleviate the sudden burden it may place on students’ families. Endowments from IIT Madras alumni are a pitiful fraction of what they are for top institutions in the US – it is heartening to see the new Dean of International Relations working very enthusiastically towards increasing the endowments IITM gets from its alumni. Funding from alumni could greatly change how the IITs operate. Most importantly, better, more flexible loan repayment programs should be explored, to ensure that education debt is not a basis in making a career choice. I would assume that these potential changes would placate many of the protesters’ concerns. Suffice it to say that enough options exist, and must be evaluated.

On a concluding note, I believe a much more important and pressing issue for India today is the abysmal quality of its primary and secondary school education. This is a disproportionately larger bottleneck in ensuring that everyone gets a fair shot at getting an IIT education (or more broadly, a good higher education). It would be prudent for us, the so-called cream of Indian youth, to spend more time addressing this fundamental issue, instead of arguing over the relative trivialities of a fee-hike for an already heavily subsidised world-class education.
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Vinay ‘Slicer’ Sridhar graduated from IIT Madras in 2013 with a Dual Degree in Ocean Engineering. He lives right next to campus and continues to buy food from Gurunath. Vinay was also the first Executive Editor of The Fifth Estate, a position he created and conveniently subsequently occupied.

You can read A.M. Ayyappadas’s argument against the fee hike here. If there are other debates you believe should be featured on T5E, let us know in the comments or by emailing us at [email protected]

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