A collage of former CM C Achutha Menon and flags of SFI and KSU | File photos
It's been 205 years since the declaration of free education in ‘Malayalanadu’. Gowri Parvati Bayi, queen of the erstwhile Travancore kingdom in 1817 declared the right to free education for her people. The former ruler and her elder sister Gowri Lakshmi Bayi had provided 16 acres of land to start CMS College on the banks of the Meenachil river. Parvati would later provide more money and land for the college.
Since then, the higher education system in the state has come a long way. Several people lost their lives in the protests to ensure free and fair education for all. Many others faced police brutality to defend the rights of students.
Today, the government is putting higher education at the centre of its master plan for the state’s development. The Knowledge Mission and soft skill jobs are the focus of the second Pinarayi Vijayan government.
Meanwhile, 2022 marks the golden jubilee of two milestones in the higher education sector of Kerala. The fee unification protest and the Direct Payment Agreement (DPA) of 1972. Both of them aimed at unifying the financing of private and government colleges in the state and hence bringing more accessibility to the downtrodden.
Demand for parity
The salary of staff was the major expense for management in running colleges. Following the historic Education Bill of 1957, the government pays the salary of teachers in recognised private schools (or aided schools), but not in colleges.
ET Mathew, in his research paper on financing the private colleges of Kerala, notes that the colleges back then had low enrolment and the faculties were underpaid.
College teachers had been demanding proper payment since the formation of the state. It may be noted that the salary scale was unified (on par with that of government college staff) in 1958 itself by the state government. However, colleges struggled to implement it.
When the government passed the Education Act in 1958 and took over the salary distribution of school staff, the newly formed All Kerala Private College Teachers Association (AKPCTA) demanded a similar method be implemented in the higher education sector as well. In 1962, they organised a ‘mute rally’ in Thiruvananthapuram. In April of that year, the government implemented a grant-in-aid code and provided monetary support to colleges. However, direct payment of salaries or implementation of the University Grants Commission (UGC) scheme was not started. Despite the grant-in-aid, several colleges struggled to make payments on time.
Initially, the protests for parity had support from management as well because it meant more grants from the government. However, the demand for DPA was not welcomed wholeheartedly by management.
"Management was supportive of parity. But they turned against the teachers when it came to issues like power to appoint and transfer staff,” said VN Murali, a retired faculty from Nair Service Society (NSS) college. Murali said the teachers organised several protests till 1971 for the government to pay their salaries.
In 1971, AKPCTA conducted a two-month-long unsuccessful protest.
“The teachers staged a picket. Police arrested us. We sang songs at the police station. KM Chandy, one of our leaders, had arrived to greet us when we were released from the station. He gave a fiery speech there. The next day, during a public event, he unilaterally announced that AKPCTA was ending the protest. We had not received any promises from the government. Many teachers were facing the wrath of the police and college management. And there was Chandy, making decisions without any discussion. Naturally, the teachers were fuming. They assaulted him. We later learned that he was offered a governor post by Congress to end the protest,” said Murali.
Congress leader and former MLA KC Joseph, however, denied the allegation outright. “There were two factions in AKPCTA. Chandy was a Congressman. While R Ramachandran Nair, another top office bearer of AKPCTA, was a CPM nominee. It was not Chandy’s personal decision. After feeling that CPM was hijacking the protest, the Congress party took the decision to end the protest. Besides, Chandy was a tall Congressman who later became the KPCC president. There was no need to offer him a governor post,” said Joseph.
Former KPCC president and then KSU president VM Sudheeran, in an article written in Mathrubhumi in 1972, stated that the protest was withdrawn as the demands were partially agreed to by the government. KSU mediated with the government to end the protest, he wrote.
Anyway, Chandy was appointed as Lt Governor of Pondicherry a decade later.
The decision of Chandy to end the protest split the teachers. While some protesters continued for a while, they had to end it abruptly later on.
Fee unification protest
After a short break, the students hit the road with another demand.
Until 1972, the fees of private colleges in Kerala were not regulated. Government colleges and private colleges charged different fees and obviously, the latter had a higher rate.
Student organisations, including the then ruling dispensation’s Kerala Students Union (KSU) and All India Students Federation (AISF) and the newly formed Left-aligned Students Federation of India (SFI), started protests in 1972 demanding the unification of the fees of private and government colleges. Achutha Menon was the chief minister of the state.
The management opposed the students' demands. They refused to give up control of the fees. As protests intensified, the colleges were shut down for around two months. They formed a Private College Protection Council to resist the demand. Meanwhile, protestors formed the Education Protest Council (Vidyabhyasa Samara Samithi).
“Though we had organised joint protests, the Students Federation of India (SFI) felt the organisations affiliated to the ruling parties were not sincere. Hence we started separate protests later on,” said CPM veteran and former minister G Sudhakaran. He was the state secretary of SFI during that time.
Joseph considers Sudhakaran's allegation to be a mere "political statement." "We led the movement from the start to the finish," he says. The demands were fulfilled because of our presence in the movement as our government was in power,” he said. Joseph was the Kerala Students Union (KSU) general secretary during that period. Even AK Antony was manhandled during the protests, said Joseph.
PC Chacko, the then Youth Congress state president, and VM Sudheeran had accused CPM of being a ‘mute witness’ to the students' movement.
When asked about the trigger of the upheaval in 1972, Sudhakaran said the student organisations had been fighting with the management for a long time and the fee unification protest was an aftermath of it.
Teachers were quick to extend support to the students’ movement. If the fee is reduced in private colleges, the government cannot deny their demand for parity as the income of the colleges would stop, they were certain. They offered parallel classes on the roadsides as the colleges were shut down.
Sit-in protests were organised in front of all major religious and caste organisations which ran the private colleges. NSS, Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Sangham (SNDP), Muslim Educational Society (MES), and various Christian churches had (still have) several colleges under their control. “Though SN Trust was against the protests, its leader R Sankar decided not to join other management in closing down the colleges. He made that decision because he was a Congressman,” said KC Joseph.
NSS president Kalathil Valayudhan Nair had stated that it would not budge to the demand even if it had to give away the colleges. The Protection Council also organised massive rallies.
Dr M Usman, Kerala Private Colleges Management Association general secretary, said that the managements were unable to run the colleges during that time. “Teachers and students were protesting. Hence the managements were forced to close the colleges,” he said.
Murali recalls that student leaders Maxwell of AISF, G Sudhakaran of SFI and Kottara Gopalakrishnan of KSU were brutally beaten up by the police at Fatima Mata College in Kollam. “They helped the teachers as well to a large extent,” said Murali who was on probation during the period. “It was a crucial move that would decide our future. It didn’t matter whether I was on probation or not. I had to participate in the protests,” he said.
The protest became a headache for Congress. A solution was achieved on August 17 after several rounds of discussion. By then 52 days had passed since the beginning of the protest.
"It was proposed that the government provide salaries from the state's kitty in order to ensure merit-based admissions and ensure reservation. However, management was given power over around 35 per cent of the seats. The system is still in place," Sudhakaran said.
The agreement between management and the government over salary payments to staff is called the Direct Payment Agreement.
The grapevine is that the decision was made in a meeting chaired by none other than the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi. However, Joseph doubts it. “Indira may have given directions. I don’t think she attended any meetings,” he said.
Gandhian and educationist MP Manmadhan mediated the discussions.
Sudheeran, in the above-said Mathrubhumi article, said that the pre-degree fee should be reduced by Rs 90 while UG and PG students could save Rs 122 and Rs 242, respectively, post fee unification.
Why does it matter?
Aided colleges are part and parcel of the higher education system of the state. The reduction of fees opened the gates of colleges to lakhs of students in later years.
At present, there are 174 arts and sciences colleges, three engineering colleges, six polytechnics and 17 training colleges in the aided sector in Kerala.
The government has 136 institutions in these categories. Besides, there are 70 autonomous institutions under the government. The majority of them are IHRDs.
The biggest infrastructure is certainly the self-financing colleges that charge exorbitant fees from the students and underpay the teachers.
As we saw earlier, private colleges were widely aided by the rulers. Public funds were used to establish them. Besides, since 1972, the government has been paying the salaries of the teachers and staff of these private institutes. But, the appointments are made by managers and not through the state-controlled Public Service Commission. They have not implemented reservations either.
The UGC has stated time and again that reservations must be followed in admissions and appointments. As per a directive of 2006, reservation is mandatory in appointments to grant-in-aid institutions, except for the ones run by minority communities as they have Constitutional protection under Article 30(1).
The activists who have taken up the issue argue that DPA is the biggest troublemaker in this.
As per DPA, management can appoint 50 per cent of the staff from their community and only the remaining posts need to be filled from the open category. Even within this, the reservation is not mandatory.
A group of students approached the court regarding reservations. Though initially they got a favourable decision from the court’s single bench, it was overturned by the division bench. The matter is presently under consideration by the Supreme Court.
Minority-run institutions are protected from implementing reservation policies thanks to the UGC and multiple Supreme Court verdicts. However, institutions of NSS, SNDP or even the state’s own Devaswom Board do not have this protection.
A retired college principal, requesting anonymity, said that more than the DPA, the university acts are the major trouble makers in implementing the reservation. The DPA was included in the university acts. To implement reservation, the act must be amended by the Assembly. Even the Devaswom Board’s colleges do not implement reservation as it is not part of the act. It is a long fight, he said.
The EMS government in 1957 proposed governmental control over private school appointments while providing assistance. However, the Supreme Court struck down partial clauses. When the act was eventually enacted, the provision to hand over the appointments to PSC was omitted from it.
Usman said the KPCMA calls DPA the Magna Carta of aided colleges. “They are part of the university acts. There is no question of repealing the DPA. Without a DPA, there is no aided college. That is why we call it the Magna Carta,” he said.
Very recently, former minister and senior CPM leader AK Balan, who is believed to be close to CM Pinarayi Vijayan, ignited the debate over appointments to aided institutions. He opined that it should be handed over to the PSC. Following this, SNDP and MES said they were ready to accept if the government made a move. However, Christian management and NSS raised the alarm. They were at the forefront of the Liberation Struggle (Vimochana Samaram) against the CPI government in 1959. The Education Bill was also a major trigger for the violent protests which ended with the union government invoking Article 356 of the Constitution to dismiss the state government.
As Balan’s comment triggered debate, CPM soon clarified that they are not planning to make a move to take over the appointment to aided institutions. As a result of handing over the appointments, the government will be forced to invest more money in infrastructure development in schools, thereby worsening its financial situation. It is a risky decision to make, politically and financially.
Reacting to the stand of SN and MES on the matter, Usman said the association has only one opinion. “I don’t know in what context MES and SN made those comments. They may not have understood the implications properly. Or they may have taken a populist stand,” he said.
When asked if handing over the appointment to PSC was possible in the future, Sudhakaran said it was not impossible. “The government has to reach a consensus with management. However, it is not the priority of the government at present,” the former minister said.
KC Joseph also resonates with the need for a change. However, he is sceptical of PSC. “Transparent appointments were a demand of our protest. We are yet to achieve it. However, I doubt if PSC would do any good. Look at what is happening at Kannur University. CPM is appointing whoever they wish. Some tweaks to the present mode of appointments to aided colleges can ensure merit,” said Joseph. He was referring to the controversy of the selection of Priya Varghese, wife of KK Ragesh who is a former MP and the current private secretary to the chief minister of Kerala, as an associate professor at Kannur University. However, this appointment is not made by PSC. The university directly recruits its faculties to the departments as per the UGC guidelines. PSC handles appointments to government colleges and other institutions.
In the said article, Sudheeran had stated that accepting ‘bribery’ for appointments and admissions had ended with the implementation of DPA. However, that did not really happen.
Teachers' organisations, from time to time, have passed resolutions demanding to hand over the aided institution appointments to PSC. They are just policy statements and do not mount any pressure on the state.
Further, activist OP Raveendran alleges that the boom of self-financing colleges in Kerala in the 2000s was the result of the profit the college management made from running the aided colleges.
Usman denied the allegations. “There are around 800 self-financed colleges in Kerala. Most of them are under individual management. They compete with us in the sector. They have gone to the Supreme Court against granting self-financing courses in aided colleges. If they were handled by the same management, would this have happened?" he asked.