INDIA: Proposal to raise fees every three years

The Indian government is planning to push for a 10% hike in university fees every three years at a meeting of state education ministers next week, in a move that could have a far-reaching impact on the resource-strapped public higher education system.

Current fees at government-funded colleges and universities are nominal and increases are rare due to strong opposition from students as well as rival political parties. However, the proposal to increase fees follows a recent recommendation at a meeting of vice-chancellors of central universities, after taking into account their current financial circumstances.

According to an Education Ministry official, the fee increases would be 'nominal' because existing fees were already very low.

"Looking at the current situation, a 10% hike is unlikely to burden families as university education is not very expensive. Universities are getting less than 10% of their revenue from student fees and this can be increased up to 15%," he said.

A student pays on average Rs6,000 to Rs12,000 (US$135 to US$270) in annual tuition fees. Private universities charge anywhere between Rs40,000 (US$900) and Rs100,000 (US$2,250) annually.

But major student bodies have said they will oppose any move to increase fees.

"It is the duty of the government to provide affordable higher education, especially since more students from lower socio-economic backgrounds are coming into our universities. The Indian government is blindly following Western countries such as the US and the UK and its policies will make our higher education system elitist," said Jitender Chaudhary, President of the Delhi University Students Union.

"While the government is talking about raising fees it is not talking about scholarships. When the monthly income of a family is Rs5,000 a 10% increase in the course fee is definitely going to impact on the family budget," said Satinder Gowda, a member of the Students Federation of India, a student political body active at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi.

Moreover, most universities in the country are under the control of the states, and local governments will need to back the increase for it to go through.

Of some 525 universities in India, around 450 are funded by the government. Of these 450, only 40 are central universities funded by the central government, and the rest are state-funded universities.

Syed E Hasnain, former vice-chancellor of the University of Hyderabad, said some universities were charging just a few hundred rupees per course for a semester, which was irrational.

"When the demand for education is growing, you cannot be irrational. A 10% hike every two or three years will help universities get some extra funds," he said. "And in five years time the course fee will be rational."

Instead of a one-size-fits-all solution, the fee hike should be left to individual universities, Hasnain argued. "Less than 13% of high school graduates go into higher education. Clearly, they are the elite and can afford to pay much more. An increase in fees can be supported by scholarships for poor students.

While demand for higher education has increased enormously in recent years, central government expenditure on the sector is less than 1% of gross domestic product, according to official data.

The ministry proposes to discuss this issue at the meeting of state education ministers on 7 June, and at a meeting of the Central Advisory Board of Education, which advises which assists the central government on education policies, which is also scheduled for next week.

According to reports, the government is likely to press for higher education funding to be raised to 1.5% of GDP.