Private educational institutions in Telangana are in a fix. This year, five colleges registered zero admissions while admissions in 29 were in single digits. A total of 1.6 lakh seats remained vacant in the 2016-’17 academic year, and college managements anticipate this number will touch two lakhs in 2017-’18, according to data available with the state Education Ministry. “It is not just engineering, MBA or pharma seats, degree and MCA are falling vacant as well,” said Padmavathi Pamarthy, principal of an aided college in Hyderabad.

The high vacancy levels, documented by the ministry, have been a constant in the last few years – 29,000 seats in 2015-’16 against 63,000 in 2014-’15 and almost a lakh in 2013-’14, which was when the agitation for a separate Telangana state was at its peak. As a result, over 300 colleges in the state approached the All India Council for Technical Education in October this year to reduce intake in undergraduate and postgraduate courses for the next academic year, citing non-availability of students.

Many colleges are on the road to bankruptcy, claiming lack of funds to even apply for closure. According to the regulations of the All India Council for Technical Education, colleges must pay Rs 3 lakhs and obtain a no objection certificate from the university they are affiliated to for shutting down.

Politicisation of education

Educationists blamed the state of affairs on the debilitating politicisation of the education sector by successive governments. “What else can happen when education has become big business?” asked MAK Menon, an educationist based in Hyderabad. “Anybody with 5,000 square feet of space in the city floats a school during the day, a college by evening and a training institute by night.”

According to data provided by the technical education regulator, of the 774 colleges that offered technical education in 2013-’14, only 671 remained this year – a decrease of 103 colleges. About 40% of Hyderabadis chose to study in colleges in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Odisha in view of the state leadership’s strident political stand against Andhra Pradesh and recurring violence and protests. Many also did not see any advantage in studying in Hyderabad with the Telangana government having modified tuition fee sops to benefit only the state’s natives.

With the decrease in the number of students, as many as 14 engineering institutions in Medak and Ranga Reddy districts have already been turned into entertainment facilities such as spas, shopping malls, resorts and function halls. This is eerily similar to the fate that befell cinema halls in the early 2000s, with the advent of digital cinema and video piracy in united Andhra Pradesh.

“Many entrepreneurs had ventured into this [education] field to set up colleges and make a quick buck as engineering education was considered a prized study,” said educationist and former National Assessment and Accreditation Council director VS Prasad. “But not all of them could maintain high standards. Vacant colleges speak volumes for the quality of education.”

Private education bubble?

According to the 2015-’16 All India Survey of Higher Education, conducted by the Ministry of Human Resource and Development, 76% of colleges in the country are private. Andhra Pradesh and Telangana are among the top patrons of private education at 83% and 82%, respectively.

The survey showed that Andhra Pradesh had only 143 government colleges against 1,445 private colleges, with 83,729 of the 8.9 lakh students in the higher education sector attending these government institutions.

In Telangana, just over 1 lakh students attended the state’s 145 government colleges against 7.4 lakhs who went to 1,223 private colleges.

“Students prefer to study in private institutions as they offer a ‘better environment of learning’ and it is really hard to get admission in government institutions,” said Chukka Ramaiah, senior educationist and a champion for public sector education.

However, the same sought-after private institutions are now facing a major threat in Telangana. The number of All India Council for Technical Education-approved colleges has gone down by another 40 this year, taking the total to just over 100 in the past four years. The majority of these are degree and junior colleges and only a handful offer courses such as engineering, pharmacy, MBA and MCA.

Tuition fee politics

The situation today is a far cry from when private education in the then united Andhra Pradesh received a big boost from the Chandrababu Naidu government during its first innings between 1995 and 2004. To facilitate investors in information technology with cheap manpower to run call centres during the BPO boom, the Telugu Desam Party administration encouraged centres that promoted English speaking skills. “We gave land to IT companies and also colleges and, hence, had to ensure they provided jobs and graduates,” said K Lakshminarayana, a retired Indian Administrative Service officer who was the architect of skill training centres for intermediate students in 2000.

Naidu also promoted higher education by exploiting his links with the then Atal Behari Vajpayee government in power at the Centre. The All India Council for Technical Education granted a few lakh seats to new colleges by relaxing accreditation norms. Andhra Pradesh was also allowed to conduct its own entrance exams, the Engineering And Medical Competitive Entrance Tests. “The TDP regime downsized standards in college education to suit the demands of the IT sector,” said Mohammed Ali Shabbir, former minister in the YS Rajasekhar Reddy-led Congress cabinet and now leader of the Opposition in Telangana’s legislative council.

The result was that both Naidu and his successor, YSR, successfully relegated government institutions to second position in favour of private institutes. Hyderabad became a private education hub for students from West Bengal and the North East. Many politicians and industrialists with land assets around Hyderabad, Nalgonda, Medak, Ranga Reddy and Mahaboobnagar districts set up colleges, laboratories and hostels for these students.

YSR went a step further by introducing another initiative to promote private education – tuition fee reimbursements for all students from the backward classes, scheduled castes and scheduled tribes for all courses. Almost 27 lakh students benefited from this, costing the exchequer up to Rs 3,500 crores a year.

Government patronisation ensured that student fees were paid directly to corporate institutes such as the Chaitanya, Bharati, Nalanda and Narayana groups. Many of these went in for initial public offerings, raising funds in the capital market to develop huge campuses with hostels, air-conditioned classrooms, shopping malls and theatres for the benefit of non-resident Indian and wealthy students.

“On an average, we have 3,000 admissions every year and about 8,000 will live on campus for the four-year course,” said K Subba Rao, one of the pioneers of private education in the state. “There is nothing wrong if we aim to provide a safe and hygienic environment for the wards.”

But after YSR’s death in 2009, his successor, K Rosaiah, refused to dole out the funds, arguing that other sops such as free power to farmers and the Rs 1 a kg rice scheme were already draining the exchequer. The chief minister tightened tuition fee reimbursements to less than Rs 2,300 crores, bringing down the number of beneficiaries to 18 lakhs-20 lakhs.

His Congress colleague who succeeded him as chief minister, Kiran Kumar Reddy, tightened the screws further. He introduced an income ceiling of Rs 1.5 lakhs for beneficiaries and a condition of 75% attendance in colleges to qualify for the sops. During his rule from 2011 to 2014, tuition fee reimbursements came down to less than Rs 2,000 crores for around 16 lakh students. But Reddy left behind a huge backlog of arrears – unpaid reimbursements to private colleges to the tune of nearly Rs 4,800 crores.

When a separate Telangana was finally formed in June 2014, its first chief minister, K Chandrasekhar Rao, was unhappy with the rising dues. According to Opposition leaders, Rao dealt with this by deterring non-locals (students from the Seemandhra region) from studying in Hyderabad and ensuring that the sops went only to Telangana students.

Since then, the government has granted Rs 1,025 crores towards clearing these dues. Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu has offered to pick up the tuition fee burden of Seemandhra students.

The fallout

In October his year, private degree colleges in Telangana boycotted the supplementary exams in Kakatiya University, demanding the clearance of Rs 2,175 crores in dues from fee reimbursements for 14 lakh students. “Colleges affiliated to Osmania University also joined the boycott drive,” said Ramana Reddy, president of the Telangana Private Degree and PG Colleges Managements Association.

At a review meeting on December 13 in Hyderabad, the chief minister is said to have lambasted Education Ministry officials for not promoting government institutions and blamed them for encouraging the corporate sector instead.

But educationists, such as Chukka Ramaiah, believe that successive political heads are to blame for driving schools and colleges in the government sector to the verge of closure, leading to a collapse of confidence in these institutions.

For now, the damage is already done. Telangana ranked 25th in the country in terms of literacy in 2014-’15. It has a literacy rate of 66.5%, according to the 2011 census, and a massive gap in literacy rates between rural and urban areas of 23.8 points. According to state government data, the overall school and college dropout rate is around 38.2%, a factor that experts attribute to declining standards of education.