Tuition at £2.65 takes its toll

August 31, 2001

One hundred and eighty rupees does not buy much in India - a couple of chickens or a few kilos of mangos. But that sum - about £2.65 - does buy a year of college.

Fees have not changed in more than 50 years, and students, of course, would like to keep it that way. When India gained independence in 1947, university doors were thrown open to anyone who could pass the entrance exams, and tuition has been kept at 180 rupees ever since.

Now India's once-elite universities are in a rapid state of decline. College budgets have failed to keep pace with inflation, academics are often paid two or three months late, lecturers strike for higher wages and professors, even at top institutions, skip classes to make money coaching wealthy students.

Structurally, many campuses are falling apart. At the University of Allahabad - once known as the Oxford of India - the libraries have no librarians, the chemistry labs lack basic supplies, and the campus looks more like a series of run-down tenements than a place of learning.

To make matters worse, in the past two decades the number of colleges and universities has doubled to more than 10,000. Colleges sprout with the help of political patronage - but once built, they have little money to operate.

Committee after committee has recommended increasing tuition fees. But even the suggestion of an increase meets with huge opposition. The problem, said Anil Wilson, principal of the University of Delhi's elite St Stephen's College, "is that universities and young people have political clout. Therefore no one has had the political will to tackle this subject."

After all, once students get in, they can hardly afford not to go to college. At Jawaharlal Nehru University, the premier graduate school in New Delhi, not only is the tuition just pennies a month, but the monthly rent on a dormitory room in a city with notoriously expensive housing is little more than 70p and students receive discounted travel.

Some Indian students treat college as being worth no more than what they pay for it. Sonam Yangcheng, a first-year student at Delhi University, says many of her classmates go for the social life. "They come to campus but don't go to class. They sit in the canteen all day and flirt and gossip."

Such behaviour worries Mr Wilson and others, who fear that charging a pittance for tuition has cheapened learning. While he believes that many institutions still offer an excellent education, he acknowledges that "colleges and universities have become the cheapest club in town".

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