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Saturday, July 24, 2010

Refund Rules for Admission to Engineering Colleges: Unfriendly to Students, Inimical to Quality

In April 2007, AICTE announced that all institutions imparting technical education must refund entire fee (except a token amount of Rs. 1,000), if a student withdraws before the starting of the course. On the face of it, this was excellent for students. But is the rule really student friendly. And does it promote quality education. Experience of past three years can help answer these questions.

This rule has enabled students to “book seats” at multiple institutions, since there will be no monetary loss on withdrawal. Most students and parents invariably wait till the last day to actually withdraw from the institution. If everyone, on an average, paid fees at even two places, and withdrew on the last day, one should expect about fifty percent of the seats to be vacant at the beginning of the semester.

As per AICTE, each institution is expected to maintain a waiting list, and offer admission from this list. But when do these students join. One needs to give at least a week for the admission offer to reach the students, the parents to arrange funds, seek withdrawal from the previous institutions, get train reservations, and come to this new Institute. Since there is chain reaction to this, the institutions have to do this for several rounds, and often the admission process continues for 5-6 weeks into the semester.

A very large number of students are shifting from one institution to another AFTER the classes have started, and as per the AICTE rules, these students may NOT get refund. AICTE rules require that if the seat has been filled up through the waiting list, then proportionate amount of fees be refunded. But here is the catch. If a college has 500 seats, and after all the rounds of admission, only 499 seats are filled, the college claims that since the seats are not filled, we will not refund the fee.

The rule helps good students. They can apply for multiple places and keep those seats till the last minute. The AICTE rule has given them an additional 2-3 weeks to decide where they want to study. But most other students take admission in the first college that offers them admission. As and when one gets admission in a "better" college, one shifts there. And since most seats get vacated after the beginning of the semester, most of the shifts take place after the beginning of the semester. And in such cases, there is no refund usually.

So more students are losing their money now than they were before this rule came into bring. More students are getting delayed admission, causing a lot more anxiety and stress. Also, since the colleges give much smaller number of days to join after the semester has started, a lot of people have hard time arranging large amount of money - and they lose admission just for that reason. Many students and parents have to catch flights, since train reservations at short notices are often not available. So a lot more money is spent by them.

The academic calendar at engineering colleges are going haywire in the first semester. Last year, NITs did admission even two months after the semester began. If the regulator of technical education in the country is not bothered about loss of several weeks of classes in the very first semester of college life of a large number of students in the country, then it is no surprise that quality takes a beating in most colleges.

One also wonders the sanctity of Rs. 1000. Why has AICTE been so magnanimous as to allow the colleges to retain Rs. 1,000. Apparently that is the processing fee. But generally, the admission process is hugely expensive with several advertisements in various newspapers, glossy brochures, and so on. The cost of admission is much higher than Rs. 1,000 that the colleges are allowed to retain. Why not at least have a more reasonable amount, which takes care of real costs on one hand, and acts as a small deterrent against booking multiple seats.

But the good part of this rule is that no one is complaining.

When parents used to lose Rs. 10,000 in every college, they used to complain a lot. Now, even when they lose a lakh of rupees, they only request. They understand that it is fair to lose money after the semester begins.

The universities and colleges are not complaining, except a few at the top end. Because they are able to retain more money under the new rules than they were retaining when there was no such rule.

Students are not complaining. While the rule increases the anxiety and stress levels, but at the end, everything is forgotten and what they remember is that they were able to officially miss classes for two months. (And, the only reason to join a college is to miss classes, something many people are not able to do at the school level.)

The airline companies are not complaining. By some estimates, their business have gone up by about Rs. 100 crores due to this rule.

But, unfortunately, even though everybody is happy with the rule, some people are trying to change the system. There are people who want admissions to largely stop after the semester has started. Their solutions include: Having joint counselling of IITs, NITs and other central government institutes, and perhaps include others as well. This will force you to chose between IITs and NITs early. Yes, it will help. But these people should realize that IITs and NITs only contribute 2-3% of the total engineering seats in the country. So unless there can be joint counselling of thousands of colleges, the problem will remain.

The solution lies in doing two things: First, the colleges should offer more admissions than the number of seats. They should estimate the drop out rate based on past experience, and offer more admissions accordingly. (This is how admission process works everywhere else in the world.) Second, the last date for significant fee refund should be much before the beginning of semester. So the rule may say that withdrawals till 1st July will lose Rs. 5,000, withdrawals till 8th July will lose Rs. 10,000, and thereafter for every week, an additional Rs. 5,000 will be charged. This will give incentive to students to decide early. Admission from waiting list should happen in the month of July. There should be no admission once the semester begins.

The supposedly student-friendly rule has wreaked havoc with our admission system, and it is time to change.

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