Higher education – an expensive proposition

By HH Mohrmen

We have very recently celebrated the 65th Independence Day of our country; the day we attained freedom from foreign yolk. But the question is- are we really free? And if I may borrow Dr Mukul Sangma’s statement from his recent speech at a seminar to commemorate the 150th death anniversary of u Kiang Nangbah, “Does the democracy we practice really make us free?’ Are we, and in particular the poor really free in the current state of affairs in the state?

The state higher education in Meghalaya is still very poor. We are yet to have a state- owned technical institute and have only one medical school. Hence young people have no other option but to pursue engineering and medical education outside the state. I am not saying that we should discourage students from studying outside, but let us consider how this impacts on the economy of the state?

In a year the state can hardly afford to sponsor 40 medical seats from the government quota which means that many students whose parents can afford to pay huge capitation fees and exorbitant monthly or annual fees send their kids to study in private institutes. This is good for the state because if we depend only on the government sponsored quota we will never be able to attain an acceptable doctor people ratio in the state. In the years to come, we will have more doctors and hopefully the state will not have the problem of getting doctors willing to work in the rural areas. But this comes at a price. Private medical education is unaffordable for many. Only the rich can afford it. The minimum cost of a complete MBBS course is approximately half a crore which includes Rs 22 to 25 lakh capitation fee and Rs 4-5 laks per year annual fees for five years. A private dental study would cost the parents 2.5 to 3 lakh capitation fees and Rs 2.5 to 3 lakh annual fees. This is information I personally collected from some of the institutes and agencies in the business of providing admission for students from Meghalaya to the rest of the country.

Then there are those who study medicine in the foreign countries like China, Nepal, Philippines, Russia etc and I am sorry I don’t have information on these but the fact of the matter is people from Meghalaya spend crores of rupees to educate their kids outside the state. A simple understanding of the economics of it will tell us that if the state has its own medical institutes much of this money will remain within the state. Besides Meghalaya will also attract students outside to these institutes which in turn will help the economy of the state.

Obviously private medical education is beyond the reach of poor parents and with the kind of capitation and monthly fees the private institutes charge the education loan provided by the various banks will be of no use. The banks will finally find the kids of poor parents not credit worthy. So the poor students have nowhere to go. To add to the problem, the only medical institute in the state is not of any help either. In spite of the allegations in the media against the way the entrance test to the Institute was conducted, yet the North East Indira Gandhi Regional Institute of Medical Sciences (NEIGRIHMS) chose not to make any clarification. Letters to the editor questioning the result of the entrance tests were published time and again, yet the Institute for reasons best known to those in charge chose to dodge the question.

When no clarification is forthcoming from the Institute, the public in general are in a dilemma and are compelled to accept the saying “silent means consent” – that the charges of nepotism against the Institute are true. And the staffs of the medical school still have the gumption to demand that the government reserve two seats from the state quota for the children of the teaching fraternity of the institute. Where is equality? Does it mean that children of the staff in the Institute are preordained to be doctors? Isn’t there a common entrance test where the children of farmers, carpenters, daily labourers and perhaps even single mothers take to get admission to the Institute? If the children of the staff of the Institute with all the advantages and the kind of upbringing they have cannot compete with the children of the poorer parents then they don’t deserve to study medicine and I don’t see why the government should succumb to their demand. The doctors should be ashamed of themselves to even raise this issue with the government, because it implies that their kids can’t even compete with children of the poorer section of the society.

With regards to the entrance test, NEIGRIHMS should ensure transparency and conduct the test in a free, fair and just manner. If the HRD Minister Kapil Sibal’s common medical entrance test does not materialize by the next year, the Institute should at least use OMR to conduct the entrance test and make the OMR answer sheets of every candidate available online.

September is approaching and the Directorate of Health Services is yet to publish the list of candidates selected for studying medicine and allied services. One wonders why. What takes the Department so long to publish the list? These are signs that make people question our democratic system.

Meghalaya is yet to have its own engineering institute too, so students who wish to pursue engineering studies have to go outside the state and private studies of any engineering trade is a very expensive. So where is the opportunity for the young, poor students? The central government has sanctioned a Regional Engineering College and was proposed to set that up at Sohra, but the state government is taking its sweet time to even start the project.

I support the MHRD’s plan to conduct a common entrance test for admission to all the medical colleges and engineering institutes in the country. This will provide a level playing field for students irrespective of the differences that they may have. Although candidates from rural areas will still have the disadvantage of not having had the best education opportunity, but a common entrance test for both medical and engineering studies in the country is the only viable alternative in the present scenario.

In Meghalaya, the process by which some departments selected students for pursuing technical studies from government quota also leaves ample room for suspicion that there is foul play by the heads of the departments. The case in point is the department of Animal Husbandry and Veterinary. The director did not take proper attendance of the selected students. Those on the waiting list who reported as instructed in the notification were not asked to sign any attendance sheet and the director is the only one who keeps the attendance by a mere tick on the notification. There is no transparency in the process hence there is ample space for manipulation by the man in charge. Every department selects students for undergoing studies based on their performance in the class 12 science board examinations, but the directorate of AH & Veterinary is also the only department which conducts its own entrance test for students who wish to study veterinary in Mizoram. The question is whether the Department has the wherewithal that the various boards have, to conduct the test? Or is it because the Directorate does not trust the results of the various boards of examinations? The Directorate of Health and the Directorate of Higher and Technical Education selected students for studying medicine and allied services and engineering based on their performance in the Board examination so why does the Directorate of AH & Vety have to conduct a special test for this? I think the government should see that the Directorate does away with the entrance test because the Department will not do justice to the candidates. This will also minimize chances of manipulation and prevent favouritism and nepotism by those in power.

It is the bounden duty of the Government to see that citizens of the state irrespective of their caste, creed, economic status or religion are given equal opportunity to pursue higher studies. The Government which is the custodian of the Constitution should see to it that the poor are treated in a just and fair manner and equal opportunity for higher education is made available to them.

(The author is a researcher and an environmental activist)