Sunday, May 29, 2011

Kakodkar Committee Report: Part 2. What else is wrong with the proposal to hike tuition fees?

Here is a summary of why I don't like Kakodkar Committee's recommendation for a hike in tuition fee hike:

  1. In my previous post, I said the fee hike implies a change in the character of IITs from public institutions serving a public purpose into essentially private institutions that can, potentially, go on to institute a regime of exorbitant tuition fees just "because we can," or "because the market can bear it."

    [There are two indications in the Kakodkar Committee Report about the possibility of even higher fees: (a) it presents a dubious computation that implies that Rs. 200,000 represents only 30 % of the real cost of education at IITs, and (b) it has another section on autonomous governing boards with powers to set the tuition fees. The zeal with which the Committee goes about its business is truly scary!]

    And worse, all this could happen while the institutions keep taking a lot of money from the government! This . is . just . wrong.

  2. Again, as I pointed out in the previous post, the fee hike proposal still leaves the IITs dependent on the government for a huge bulk of its budget. Thus, it certainly doesn't solve the specific problem which, as identified and articulated by the Committee, is the IITs' quest for "financial independence" as a prelude to their autonomy.

  3. IITs are not just another set of academic institutions. As India's leading institutions, they also serve as a benchmark. A 200,000 rupee tuition fee would send the wrong signal to the wrong sorts of people -- businesspeople, crooks, thugs and muttheads who run some of our shadiest self-financing colleges. It will only end up giving a license to every unscrupulous Rai, Pai and Chaudhuri to stiff their students even more.

  4. The idea of a "National IIT Scholarship Programme" exemplifies what I call the doctrine of "IIT Exceptionalism." This doctrine not only refuses to see the IITs as a part of India's larger system of higher ed, it wants to keep the IITs separate and exclusive (The demand to keep JEE in addition to any other national test flows directly from this doctrine; so does the demand for maintaining a salary differential for faculty.).

    [Aside: There is a case to be made for a national scheme to help students go to college -- it could take the form of direct grants (like the Pell grants in the US) or a system of post-payment (by way of a slightly enhanced tax rate on one's income, as in Australia). But such a scheme must be created for all students.]

  5. The Committee recommends a loan scheme, "so that no student is deprived of education because of want of means." It doesn't seem to acknowledge some of the bad consequences of saddling graduates with loans (which may now start at, say, Rs. 800,000, but could get much stiffer in future if the governing boards choose to go aggressively after revenue from students).

    What about students who drop out? What about idealistic students who join an NGO, a non-profit, a charity? What about enterprising ones who choose entrepreneurship over a steady, cushy job? What about those who go for jobs in the government sector where salaries are oh-so-low? What about students who want to pursue a PhD (e.g., in the IITs themselves -- something that the Committee so eagerly desires; more on this in another post)? Is it right to burden them with a (potentially crushing) loan?

  6. A nasty consequence of the Committee's blinkered IITs-only view is this: whether they deserve it or not, IIT students are seen as among the best, not only by the society at large, but, as a recent episode reminded us, by people in the government as well. How can the government justify making India's "top" students pay Rs. 200,000 (or more), while their "less-than-top" cousins get educated in other colleges at a fraction of that cost?

To me, (1) is paramount. The IITs, together with some of our central and state universities, represent the very best of what is possible when our government chooses to do the right thing. They are a slap in the face of all those who like to go on and on about the irredeemable badness of the public sector. For all the rhetoric from industrywallahs about the glories of the private sector philanthropy, they can't cite even a single private college / university that comes even close to what these fine institutions have achieved. To the crowd that has drunk the Kool-Aid of private sector superiority, IITs are anathema; they would use every opportunity to "take IITs private."

I see the fee-hike proposal as a thin edge of the wedge. And that's why I want our government to stand firm against attempts to change the very public character of these very public institutions.

So, here's my request to our HRD Minister: Just say "No!" to the fee hike proposal.


  1. Sivaramakrishnan said...

    Firstly, BITS is one private institution which is considered as good as any of the IITs, at least as far as undergraduate education goes. As for the research output, I do not know enough to comment.

    As a student of IITM, having seen large scale student apathy, I'm of the opinion that students must be made to see the amount being invested in them by the government. Students needn't be gifted a seat. Show people the full cost, and then have a merit-cum-means financial aid process, with a combination of scholarships and loans.The details can be worked out to make sure that students don't get saddled with a heavy financial burden. I'm not sure how this will make the IITs financially independent, but I guess the government share in scholarship can slowly be reduced over time, once we star getting in alumni endowments or other source of funds.

  2. WebMiner said...

    By many accounts, the money spent per year by the Indian middle class on tuition toward entrance exams exceeds or at least compares favorably to the total budget of the "original" IITs. If middle class India thinks that entry into engineering colleges is worth more than engineering education itself, they should be served exactly what they deserve.

  3. Sivaramakrishnan said...

    Here's an article justifying a figure of a few lakhs in annual fees.

    Another piece of relevant information that has come to my notice is that in TN, with the mushrooming of private engg colleges, there is this culture of "management quota", where students pay a one-time donation, startong at around 2 lakhs for the lesser coveted branches in lesser universities, and this figure might even go upward of 10 lakhs for branches like Mech. Engg and ECE in the popular univs. This is apart from the annual tuition and hostel fees.

  4. Ajit said...


    Re. your point 5. here.

    I completely agree with you. I am trying to locate the URLs of the interviews, articles, etc. for the following. See if anyone can help:

    -- Anil Agarwal (of CSE) had indicated that had he not been taught all those equations from elasticity, fluid mechanics, etc. courses, specifically at an IIT, he simply would not have been able to function even for a single day, in running an NGO like his.

    -- Manohar Parrikar, similarly, has attributed the great utility that his studies of dislocation entanglement at grain boundaries and grain growth mechanism at IIT Bombay had, when it came to the task of portfolio allocation. These days, he went to add in that interview, the time he spent in the corrosion lab routinely comes in handy in chalking out strategies to fight corruption together with Anna Hazare---both begin with a "c" and end with "ion", a reminder of the hydrogen ion.

    -- Nandan Nilekani noted in an interview that while it was relatively easier to take the gamble worth crores of rupees in deciding not to do a job and settle down in the USA and instead going in for co-founding Infosys, the unbearable weight of a ten lakhs rupees worth of educational loan would have been so great that it would have crippled his imagination and would have destroyed his career.

    -- Some IITians in BHEL vouched by the fact that not only for erection and commissioning of electric machinery but also for its reverse engineering during the "design" stage from Russian, German, etc. made machines, the knowledge they directly required and applied went so beyond that available via the 10+3 Diploma courses, that only a top ranking Circuit branch IIT education, complete with courses on Dirac's electrodynamics (as a Physic minor, possible not at an NIT or COEP but only at IITs), could have been of any help.

    -- Ashutosh Gowariker had showered praise on that unknown IITian from Kerala who said it had taken 2 years of intense calculations before the astoundingly cost-effective hydro-electric project they showed in "Swades" could be made into a success. The Kerala engineer was all the praise for the education he received at an IIT, followed by an ME at IISc, the place where they all had so deeply appreciated his choosing not to apply for patents for that idea. This engineer had choked with such emotions that not even an Oscar-nominated director could capture such emotions on the film, Gowariker had noted.

    I am hunting for those URLs, but Google, Yahoo, Bling... they all are such lousy search engines, I tell you!!

    And, finally, Abi, you forgot to elaborate further on those IIT dropouts, who, unlike either Bill Gates or Prashant Bhushan, turn out to be such disastrous failures in life itself. To be ethical, we must drop everything and rush and join their mothers in extending love, sympathies, care, etc. to them. You forgot to elaborate this part, Abi, though I would have liked it if you could have stated it more directly.

    So, can't you see, Abi, that I so completely agree with you. Indeed, you inspire me, Abi! So much so that I could go on and on and on. But, then, one has to stop somewhere, right?


  5. iitmsriram said...

    About your point 3, have you checked out what businesspeople, crooks, thugs and muttheads are charging today? Private universities who are outside the ambit of state controlled fees are already charging in this range. SRM fees can be found at showing an average of 1.5 lakhs per year as tuition fees with 2.5 lakhs for aero. Who is setting the benchmark?

  6. Abi said...

    @iitmsriram: What I meant was this: even with 50K at the IITs, some private colleges are charging a lot more; just imagine how much more they would charge if the IIT fees were to go up to 200k. So, you and I are in agreement here. I'm sorry my wording was not clear(er).

    @Sivaramakrishnan: Thanks for the link. It is not my argument that IITs don't incur an expenditure in educating their students. They do. Right now, a large part of this cost is borne by the government.

    But, as I said in the post, there's a case to be made for a scheme that helps people go to college, and also have them pay for it. The post-paid option (by way of a slightly higher tax rate) implemented by Australia is something I like a lot. It has the feature that a student pays for his / her college education -- but only after his/her income exceeds a certain threshold.

    @Ajit: Thanks for "agreeing" with me.

  7. Ankur Kulkarni said...

    An interesting point for a system level assessment: suppose an iit btech does phd in iit and then joins an iit as faculty, would he be able to repay his loans with the starting OCAP salaries?

  8. Sivaramakrishnan said...

    @Abi: Rough figures -- Everyone who attends any form of "coaching" during 11/12th std spends roughly 2lakhs over the two years on education (average estimate, including school fees). For people who start coaching early extend that rate through to whenever they start. If a large section of the qualifying students can afford to pay for tht, they why can't they pay for quality undergrad education? I think that by making all those who can afford it pay for their education, the pressure on govt funding will be reduced. The same funding can then be diverted to research, etc.

  9. Abi said...

    @Sivaramakrishnan: I'm not arguing against the principle that students should pay for their college education. I would just prefer it in the form of 1% or 2% additional tax after the students start earning (above a certain threshold).

    That the students can afford to pay 2 lakhs because they already pay a hefty amount for coaching is an IIT-specific argument. I would like public policy to be unsullied by the doctrine of IIT exceptionalism.

  10. Suresh said...

    I am not sure that the tax system is preferable to the fee system. With a tax sy/stem, you will need a bureaucracy to keep track of graduating students and their incomes. We also need to keep track of students who move abroad.

    I am sure there are answers to the above: after all, Australia has done it, right? However, I am not convinced that the resulting system will be fairer and better than a system based on a fee. Note that adding a layer of bureaucracy also means adding some more corruption.

    With respect to your first point:

    the fee hike implies a change in the character of IITs from public institutions serving a public purpose into essentially private institutions that can, potentially, go on to institute a regime of exorbitant tuition fees just "because we can," or "because the market can bear it."

    First, the education "market" cannot be treated like the market for an ordinary consumption good like a TV (for example). The reputation of an educational institution depends on the quality of its graduating students. So while a (private) educational institution can theoretically raise its fees, it will also have to take into account the fact that it might be losing good students and that can lower its future reputation. Your argument presupposes an unlimited supply of "good" students and while that may be true in the current scenario, it will not always hold.

    I am not an expert but I think the actual fee setting by private American educational institutions is much more subtle than simply setting it at "whatever the market can bear."

    Secondly, what is public purpose? In our country, public purpose often hides purposes which are very private. That aside, is subsidising the United States -- as we have done all these years and even now through export of our best students -- also public purpose? Unless you define this properly, I am afraid I will remain sceptical of any argument based on invocation of "public purpose."

    Thirdly, from a cost to benefit viewpoint, it is best putting money into the public school system rather than the university system whether that be IIT, IIM or whatever. Think about it: In the USA, most students attend the public school system. In contrast, in our country, most parents avoid sending their children to the public school system the moment they can afford it. I once asked my sister, who teaches at JNU, whether any of her colleagues send their children to the Kendriya Vidyalaya which adjoins the campus. No, my sister replied, those children attend schools with names like Springdales, Mount St Mary, Mothers International School etc.

    Does this make a difference? I would argue that it does. If we want an egalitarian society, then we need a school system where all children come together. In the current system, students come together only at the university (if at all) and attitudes have already hardened by then. If the money freed up by hiking fees can be put back into the school system (not sure this will happen), then it will be worth it, in my opinion.

    At any rate, I don't think you have made your case. In my opinion, the fee (aided by loans) is a fairer and a less bureaucratic solution. But I suppose you have made up your mind like I have made up mine, and so I will leave it at that.

  11. Ankur Kulkarni said...

    Abi, about IIT exceptionalism: this report's mandate was about the IITs. It wasn't about the system at large. It is fair that the report is limited to proposals for IITs.

    About fees in general: I think (though I am not sure), the issue of ensuring financial independence is subtle. The report aimd to make IITs independent of certain types of government expenditures and agencies. In such operational matters dependence of stydents on govt loans is acceptable comparable to direct dependence of IITs on a particular government expenditure.

  12. Abi said...

    @Suresh: Just a quick response. (a) Among other things, the public purpose behind IITs, Central Universities, and State Universities is preserving the principle of publicly funded education -- including higher education (not all of it, but enough of a presence to ensure a level playing field). (b) As for those who go abroad after graduation, their number is likely small enough to be covered by a suitable mechanism (for example, convert what they owe the government into a bank loan against a collateral, etc). (c) The post-paid route is fairer because it has an element of insurance built into it -- to cover those who end up (either by choice or by circumstance) in non-lucrative careers. And finally, (d) I'm not going to get into a false and forced choice between school and college education. By the government's own admission, there's enough money to go around.

    @Ankur: The dependence on government money comes in through the nearly 75 % of the IIT students who would be covered by scholarships; i.e., all the grad students, and about 50 % of the UG students.

    And my comment about IIT exceptionalism is specifically about the recommendation that a National IIT Scholarship Scheme be created just to take care of IIT students.

  13. Suresh said...

    Among other things, the public purpose behind IITs, Central Universities, and State Universities is preserving the principle of publicly funded education -- including higher education (not all of it, but enough of a presence to ensure a level playing field).

    I don't agree with the principle of publicly funded higher education but that aside, if one takes this principle seriously, then why not go the whole hog and get rid of fees altogether? I am not being facetious here: Germany, for instance, does do it. Check the Wikipedia page on education in Germany. In particular, note this:

    A very low-cost or free higher education could lie beyond a German Abitur. Many of Germany's hundred or so institutions charge little or no tuition. But, students must prove through examinations that they are qualified.

    Note that the Abitur is the equivalent of our 12th standard exams. Under Indian conditions, I would actually prefer a system of free higher education to one based on part fee and part higher taxation, as you advocate. I don't see what the fee accomplishes in your proposed setup and I would rather get rid of it altogether and have everyone pay a higher tax.

    But my preference would be to allow each institution to set its own fees and more entry into the education sector by private players. Obviously, by now, I have revealed my "neo-liberal" bias. Sorry :-(

    Now, why don't I accept the principle of publicly funded higher education? With elementary or school education, there is a significant "externality" component, as economists put it. In other words, when a child attends school, the child benefits (of course) but society as a whole benefits also, and to a much greater extent.

    With higher education, the externality component is much less. For the most part, whatever benefits accrues when a student acquires higher education is mostly appropriated by the student herself in the form of higher wages. In such a situation, the argument for having publicly funded higher education is much less. That is also the argument for a system based on fees (with loans).

    Note here that I am not advocating privatising all our existing higher educational institutions. There are additional complications which I have not taken into account. But those additional complications do not invalidate the argument for having fees.

    I'm not going to get into a false and forced choice between school and college education. By the government's own admission, there's enough money to go around.

    (sarcasm mode on) Indeed. I see hordes of middle class parents withdrawing their children from private schools and admitting them in the local public schools. Can one ask what percentage of the children of IISc faculty attend public schools? (sarcasm mode off)