Last week, three young women students in Tamil Nadu committed suicide because their college was nothing but a money-making racket, a fake institution that taught nothing, and awarded certificates that were not worth the paper on which they were printed. Like dozens of other students, all three women were directed to SVS Medical College of Yoga And Naturopathy at Kallaikurichi in Villupuram district by the state-organised counseling system for admissions to professional courses.

Nineteen-year-olds E Saranya, V Priyanka and T Monisha had paid multiples of their family’s annual income as fees during their two years at the institution. The administration’s own inspection report showed evidence that the so-called college was up to no good.

Students had picketed the District Collector’s office in October last year after submitting numerous petitions to the district administration. The tehsil office response to their Right To Information application on conditions at the college confirmed some of their complaints.

The complaints to the Collector are nearly identical to the contents of the suicide note that the three young women left behind, in which they described the Dickensian conditions at the college.

Multiple agencies – including those responsible for granting the college affiliation, the state’s student counseling system and the district administration – seem to have actively or by sleight of hand assisted the so-called college in remaining open for business.

These agencies have neither shown concern for the young students whose future career prospects were effectively in their hands, nor for their poor families who paid well over the odds to secure what they believed was going to be an education that opened the doors to economic and social advancement.

Rise and spread

In a sense, the SVS Medical College of Yoga And Naturopathy is the story of higher education in India. The link between education and social and economic advancement is now well understood by most Indians. The poorest families extend themselves to ensure their children have an education. A “professional” qualification is what most aim for. In the last two decades, it was engineering and to a far lesser degree, medicine, that offered employment opportunities that did not exist before.

Governments – central and state – addressed the shortage of technical education institutions by de facto relaxing the regulatory regime, thus allowing a proliferation of privately owned and operated colleges that were formally affiliated to degree-awarding institutions.

While under law these are not-for-profit institutions, they were in fact making profits by making students pay under-the-table admission and other fees. Governments have supported these colleges by, for example, including them among the institutions that students eligible for government scholarships or grants could attend.

We know from reports that SVS received scholarship money from the government for Dalit students and first-generation university goers, but did not pass on the benefits to the students.

In Tamil Nadu, more than 85% of colleges offering an undergraduate degree are privately owned and run. Colleges offering the Bachelors in Naturopathy and Yogic Science degree that the three young women coveted are few. In Tamil Nadu, there are five such colleges, four of which (including SVS, started in 2008) are privately owned.

Criticism of the quality of education that most private colleges offer is rife. There is plenty of evidence that a large number of institutions do not meet the minimum requirements in terms of infrastructure and faculty to legally qualify for approval.

The SVS Educational and Social Trust which runs the Villupuram college has been fighting a protracted court battle with the Ayurveda, Yoga, Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy department of the Union government over approvals for another venture – a homeopathy college.

Submissions from the AYUSH department on the infirmities in the SVS application for approval for the homeopathy college are an echo of the complaints that the students have made about the naturopathy and yoga college. The same complaints can be made about a large number of professional degree colleges in Tamil Nadu and across the country.

Dismal quality

It is scarcely surprising that students graduating from these institutions possess neither the knowledge nor skills that should come with acquiring these degrees. A great many end up working – if they find work – in sectors that do not require a formal qualification and certainly not the qualifications on their resumes. What this also signals is that while everyone understands the importance of a degree certificate, and that is what you get if they go to even the most abysmal private college, very few fully understand what any education certification should give them at a minimum: knowledge and skills in the chosen field.

The government and the media talk up higher education certification by linking it to employment opportunities – real or imagined. Through the media and the government’s counseling, students would have been told that BNYS offered them job opportunities with promising salaries of Rs 20,000-Rs 30,000 a month and more if they went abroad.

What the newspapers and counseling would not have told them is that a degree from SVS and its ilk was unlikely to get them the promised job. Among the things that troubled the SVS students was that no one who had acquired a degree from their college had got a job.

There are arguments that India’s continuing disavowal of not-for-profit private education has created the conditions for rent-seeking or corruption in this sector, and that formally opening up the education sector to profit-making businesses will ensure competition and hence quality.

It is true that the sector is a major source of unaccounted or black money in the country. Reports on the black economy that the government has commissioned prove as much. Political will is needed to change this, not privatisation. The experience of for-profit higher education elsewhere in the world also shows that in education at least, the motivations and ethics of the market and of education can be at odds.

No way out

The problems with Indian education are not about public or private ownership, but about the recipient of the education. The regulatory mechanism that best helps maintain a modicum of quality in institutions – private or public – in India is class. The state responds to demands of those with social and economic capital, while mostly ignoring the rest. With the caste-class overlap, it means institutions that serve a mostly upper caste elite offer what the rest do not. The decline of public educational institutions – schools, colleges, universities – that were once, but are no longer the preserve of elites exemplifies this.

The quality of existing private institutions that serve different economic groups exhibit a similar trend. For example, private schools attended by the children of the elite produce globally competitive school-leavers. In contrast, private schools that cater to the children of the working poor provide limited learning. The education market, it would appear, only gives you what you are able to pay for.

SVS in Villupuram did not get students from better off families in Tamil Nadu. Many of its students would be first generation university goers, possibly even some first generation school goers. We know from media reports that a bulk of students quit the college within a year or two of joining. There is at least one case of a student going to court seeking a refund of his fees (nearly Rs 2 lakh) when he left after the first year.

The ones who did not leave – like Monisha, Priyanka and Saranya – are likely to be the ones who saw no way out. Given the huge fees paid upfront, they could be beaten down with threats. The fact that multiple agencies of the state, including the district collector, could ignore public protests that might have prevented their tragic deaths, signals that the state administration and the education establishment did not regard them as worthy of notice.

Monisha, Priyanka and Saranya died in order to be heard. Their story is not merely about one fake college in Tamil Nadu, it is about a corrupt stratified education system that is reproducing traditional social divisions for 21st century India. This defeats the purpose of education.