The recent announcements of an increase in fees at the Indian Institutes of Management and the Indian Institutes of Technology have attracted a fair bit of comment. While the IIMs announcements were made individually, and therefore did not attract as much discussion, the one for IITs attracted much more, including editorials in national dailies.

It is instructive to understand the mechanics of the decision to appreciate its implications. The proposal has its origins in a 2011 report by a committee headed by scientist Anil Kakodkar, which had estimated the operational cost per student of an IIT to be between Rs 2.25 lakh and Rs 2.5 lakh. The committee also suggested that IITs recover their operational costs entirely from the tuition fee. The issue was discussed repeatedly but there was no agreement. In the last meeting of the IIT Council – the highest decision-making body for the IITs that is headed by the Union Human Resources Development Minister, Smriti Irani – in October 2015, a committee of IIT directors was formed and assigned with the task of finding ways to achieve greater financial autonomy. It was this committee that suggested that the undergraduate course fee be increased from Rs 90,000 per annum to Rs 3 lakh per annum.

What made news was the acceptance of the above recommendation by the Standing Committee of the IIT Council,

As the comments kept coming, the HRD ministry issued the following clarification on April 7 titled “Proposed Changes in IIT Fees structure”. The release said:

“Keeping in view the interests of the students, proposed hike is denied. Instead, it has been proposed that the increase is capped at Rs 2 lakh per annum. This increase in fee is subject to the following safeguards for protecting the interests of the socially and economically backward students:

A) The SC/ST/Differently-abled students shall get complete fee waiver.

B) The most economically backward students (whose family income is less than Rs 1 lakh per annum) shall get full remission of the fee.

C) The other economically backward students (whose family income is between Rs 1 lakh to Rs 5 lakh per annum) shall get remission of 2/3rd of the fee.

D) All students shall have access to interest free loan under the Vidya Lakshmi Scheme for the total portion of the tuition fee payable.

Further, all IITs are asked to use the increased student fee for infrastructure development with the assistance of funds from the Higher Education Funding Agency (HEFA) so that the increased fee directly translates into better infrastructure for the students. As per orders issued, the matter will be placed in next meeting of the IIT Council for ratification.”

While this clarification is subject to interpretation, the decision, for all practical purposes, seems to be to increase the fee to Rs 2 lakh per annum, and not Rs 3 lakh, as recommended. The matter, of course, will be ratified in the next meeting of the IIT Council.

Roadmap to excellence?

The Kakodkar Committee also made some other recommendations. The prominent ones are:

  • Suggest a roadmap for the autonomy and future of the Indian Institutes of Technology as world-class institutions for research and higher learning.
  • Suggest increase in fees to achieve financial autonomy (in gradual manner).
  • Suggest scholarship programmes.
  • Suggest interest-free loan scheme.
  • Suggest means to retain or attract top B. Tech students in IIT system.

Other than increasing fees, if anything has been – or is being – done about recommendations, it does not seem to be in the public domain.

Considering the first of the above recommendations – a roadmap for autonomy – a valid question is: If the decision-making for increasing the fee is what has been described above, what is the definition of autonomy that is being considered?

Another indication could be recent reports that the HRD ministry had written to all Indian Institutes of Technology to consider offering Sanskrit as an elective course for their students. The report said that the advisory requested the IITs to “create posts and appoint teachers for the above purpose with the approval of their respective Board of Governors.” It is to be noted that this was only an advisory and not a directive.

Another issue worth considering is how effectively and smoothly will the fee remission scheme and the Vidya Lakshmi Scheme interest-free loan scheme work in practice.

Notwithstanding the intentions, contents, and implementation complexities of the Kakodkar Committee proposal, some issues need consideration. The foremost is: Is increasing fees to meet “the cost of maintenance of the IITs… largely from the student fee” the best or the most appropriate way of making IITs and IIMs “world-class institutions for research and higher learning”?

Mediocrity in education

Some other issues here are: What is higher learning? Is world-class higher learning possible or sustainable without the so-called lower learning systems, which feed the higher-learning institutions? Is it possible to sustain a limited world-class system in a sea of mediocrity, or worse? Is money the main issue? What are, or should be, our national priorities?

Not all these issues can be dealt with in one piece, so let us look at the last two. It has often been said that the state does not have the capability to meet the demand for education, so privatisation may well be the solution. Private engineering and management institutions, of course, are free to charge what they like, often with debatable quality, with some exceptions of course. The same argument is often given even for healthcare.

What gets forgotten in the ensuing debate is that there are some human endeavours that cannot be left to the private sector with the major, if not the only, objective of making a profit. Education and healthcare are prime examples of such endeavours which a society cannot allow to be run as pure businesses.

In sum, increasing fees through such convoluted processes is not going to make any difference to the performance of IITs and IIMs, and their accessibility to students of different strata. If the government is serious, it needs to take a hard and comprehensive look at the entire education system, not only the so-called institutions of excellence. This, of course, is a very big IF. The reality of the situation is perhaps captured in the last sentence of the news item in the New Indian Express given below.

  “Though the HRD Ministry remained tight-lipped, sources said the Minister has to take into consideration various aspects before approving the fee hike. Of particular concern will be the fallout in the poll-bound states [emphasis added]”.  

Jagdeep S Chhokar is former professor, Dean, and Director in-charge of IIM, Ahmedabad.