More than 5,200 seats remain empty in medical colleges affiliated to deemed universities after the completion of the admission process, and university authorities are blaming it on a variety of factors – from the move to a centralised seat allocation process to the high cost of education in general and even demonetisation, which they say has dried up cash reserves and affected fee collection.

The large number of vacancies after the final or “mop-up” round of the seat allocation process prompted the Consortium of Private Deemed Universities of Karnataka to move the Supreme Court. In response, the top court on Monday extended the deadline for completing the admission process to September 7, but only for these universities. Unlike regular universities that are established through state or central legislations, these are existing institutions that were declared “deemed to be universities” through a provision of the University Grants Commission Act 1956, if they meet certain requirements and generally enjoy a greater measure of autonomy.

However, college authorities say this is not enough time. They expect a large number of vacancies to remain even after the new deadline has passed, and a cascading effect on the finances of institutions.

Till last year, medical colleges in deemed universities – most of them privately-run – admitted students on their own, often from their own regions or states. However, this year, the selection of candidates was centralised and conducted by the Directorate General of Health Services under the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.

Traditionally, only state government-run medical schools reserved 15% of their seats for students from other states. Admissions under this “all-India quota” were regulated through a national-level examination, the All India Pre-Medical Test. Deemed universities, on the other hand, were free to select their students as well as their admission policy.

However, in 2016, the Supreme Court made the National Entrance-cum-Eligibility Test mandatory for admissions to all medical and dentistry colleges, public or private. And in May this year, it laid out the details of the admission process and included all seats in the medical colleges of deemed universities, including minority institutions, in the all-India quota. There are over a hundred such universities in the country with anywhere between 10,000 and 15,000 seats.

Vacancies and a court case

Under the new system of seat allocation, candidates who have qualified for the National Entrance-cum-Eligibility Test can register with the online centralised counselling process and submit their choices for institutions with seats in the all-India quota. The medical counselling committee then allots each of them a seat.

But even after two rounds of counselling, 7,463 seats, or more than a third of the seats in the all-India quota, were left unclaimed – an unprecedented situation, according to a member of the All India Private Medical Colleges Association, who did not wish to be identified. In the final round, or the mop-up round, on Thursday, 6,352 of these candidates were allotted seats. But most of them did not take admission, and the final tally of vacant seats in deemed and central universities on Monday stood at 5,226.

These unclaimed seats were then “sent back to deemed/central university” to be filled through “offline counselling” and by the universities themselves. The committee did not release a consolidated list of the seats that were sent back, but on Monday posted a 1,046-page list of over 50,000 candidates and their ranks for the deemed and central universities to consider for offline counselling.

The same day, the Supreme Court allowed the Directorate General of Health Services to provide candidates list of 10 times of the number of vacancies to the deemed universities. The lists will be emailed to individual universities.

The distance factor

Despite this intervention, medical and dentistry colleges expect a large number of seats to remain empty this year.

“Students are not joining,” said a senior board member at KLE Institutions, a deemed university in North Karnataka that runs the Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College in Belagavi. Talking about the situation after the mop-up round, he said, “Till Friday [August 25], out of 200 seats in medicine, 56 were vacant. Dentistry is worse off with about 30-35 seats filled out of 100. We have never faced this problem before.”

He added, “I do not have a single boy or girl from Karnataka this year.”

The official blamed the vacancies on the centralised seat allocation system. He explained that deemed universities have traditionally relied on students from surrounding districts – KLE’s Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College and VK Institute of Dental Sciences, for instance, reserved seats for “local students” from North Karnataka and another lot for the state, while also offering them concessions in the fee. The institutions made up for these concessions by charging a heftier fee from those taking admission under the non-resident Indian quota (typically 15%), he added.

The centralised counselling has warped this system, the board member complained. Students do not know of deemed universities in states other than their own and may not be willing to move. Also, the online system requires “no commitment from the students”, whereas the earlier practice was to allot seats only after the necessary documents had been submitted, he said. The present system, thus, makes it easier for candidates to withdraw their admission. He said there have been many resignations and no-shows.

A member of the DY Patil Education Society, which runs a deemed university with a number of affiliated colleges in Maharashtra, agreed. “Why will people from Delhi come to Kolhapur to study medicine?” he asked, posing a rhetorical question. The official went on to say that “30%-50% seats in Maharashtra are vacant”. He added, “We have accepted NEET [National Entrance-cum-Eligibility Test], at least the admission process should have been left to us.”

It is not just big states like Karnataka and Maharashtra that have been affected. The problem of vacancies plagues a small place like Puducherry, which has several universities, too, the All India Private Medical Colleges Association member pointed out. He said that over 660 vacancies in medicine and dentistry across six Puducherry institutions were declared in the mop-up round and only a little over 200 of these allotted.

In 2016, the Supreme Court made the National Entrance-cum-Eligibility Test mandatory for admissions to all medical and dentistry colleges, public or private. Till then, deemed universities were free to select their students and their admission policy. (Credit: PTI)

‘Will the government compensate?’

For now, the private deemed universities have till September 7 to fill these vacancies using the central all-India list of ranks. And they would prefer to focus on non-resident Indian candidates. Medical college administrators admitted they brought in most of the revenue. “We used to get 30 students from countries like Malaysia and Indonesia and they would pay over 2 lakh dollars,” said the official from KLE Institutions. “That was sufficient money to run the institution.”

But with the National Entrance-cum-Eligibility Test made mandatory for this category too and candidates being selected centrally, admissions under this quota have gone down, to the disappointment of the universities.

The list of candidates issued by the counselling committee on Monday included under 200 names of overseas citizens of India, non-resident Indians and people of Indian origin.

“We have been requesting for the full list of NRI candidates so the colleges can contact them directly and fill seats,” said the member of the DY Patil Education Society. “But even with the new deadline, time is short.”

Pointing to other problems, he said, “No process has been outlined for offline counselling yet, or how the lists have been drawn up. If students from Delhi have to come to Kolhapur, they will need time too. This is total chaos.”

He added that vacant seats would eventually affect the running of the charitable hospitals connected to the colleges and mean that “salaries will not get paid”. He asked, “Will the government compensate?”

Education costs and demonetisation

While the centralised allotment of medical and dentistry seats may be behind the vacancies, the cost of education in general is also a major factor.

Those who qualified for the all-India quota were also eligible for state counselling and many of them picked the more affordable state seats, college authorities said. These seats are in government-run colleges, of course, but also in private colleges affiliated to state universities. In the latter, seats are divided into state seats – for which the fee is fixed by the state – and the management quota (typically about 15% of the seats).

“In Karnataka, you have three fee slabs – Rs 70,000 per year, Rs 6.2 lakhs for those who can pay among the state seat holders, and Rs 20 lakhs-Rs 30 lakhs per year for the 15% management quota,” said the head of a set of private colleges affiliated to a state university. “Because state seats are significantly cheaper, many candidates from the all-India list too are opting for them.”

The cost of medical education is proving steep across the board. “[The fee in private institutions affiliated to state universities] is relatively low but even that students are finding difficult to pay,” he added.

Several medical college administrators suspect demonetisation – the withdrawal of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes as legal tender in November – has a role to play in this. The office-bearer of the All India Private Medical Colleges Association explained that in previous years, a portion of the cost of medical education was always paid in cash. “But because of demonetisation, people do not have cash reserves anymore,” he said. “Families often invest in land, selling it before admission, but now they are not able to sell. Their businesses have suffered. With these changes, the flexibility in payments has gone. It is harder to get loans too for such high amounts.”