Assam’s Education Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma has made the significant announcement that henceforth higher education is to be free for all poor students in Assam, and that 60,000 students with an annual family income below Rs 1 lakh are to benefit in the first year of the scheme. In keeping with this commitment, he has instructed all colleges that have already accepted college fees from poor students to refund such fees and claim it from the government. The education minister has stated that in the first year, the State government will have to spend Rs 70 crore to reimburse the revenue loss that will be incurred by colleges implementing the scheme. “Around 310 government and provincial licensed colleges will offer the scheme. Salary slips, certificates from the employer, circle officer and mauzadar will be accepted as proof of income. In case a student can’t produce these documents, he or she can testify before the college principal or the admission committee and convince them to avail of the benefit under the scheme,” Sarma said. He added that college principals have been told that the revenue loss that the institutions will incur will be reimbursed within two months of completion of the admission process. He added that a similar scheme for students in universities, medical and engineering colleges in the State is also in the pipeline.
It has been quite a few years since we added the right to education as one of the fundamental rights of our Constitution. This right was confined to secondary education. As such, the policy of making higher education free for poor students is a commendable extension of what was envisaged in making education a fundamental right. The Education Minister will be hailed for taking such a laudable step at a time when education has ceased to be a mission and become a business undertaking. There was a time when the State did not have any English-medium schools, and the best schools in those days were the government schools where the medium of instruction was the mother tongue. Education was not free even in the government schools since students paid a nomil tuition fee of Rs 4 even for classes IX and X. It has become important to make a reference to secondary schools because one can hardly think of good higher education without the foundation provided by good secondary education. And that is precisely why it has become important to monitor the kind of free education that poor students are likely to get in colleges after higher education has been made free for them. This need not be a matter of concern in a welfare state like Norway or Sweden where all education is free for everyone. Such advanced democracies (notiolly listed as constitutiol morchies) have a uniform system for everyone seeking higher education with special facilities for the truly deserving and meritorious students. Here, the new dispensation of free higher education for poor students is going to create some kind of a division between fee-paying students and those who receive higher education without having to pay any admission or tuition fees. There is thus a tural fear that the quality of education is likely to suffer in colleges with a large number of students who do not have to pay any fees. In addition, there is also the fear that anything directly handled by the government to make it easily available to people has a tendency to get diluted and compromised to a certain extent. We cannot allow this to happen to higher education merely because it is being offered free to a section of the population. The crux of the matter is that good education at any level is possible only with competent and dedicated teachers. It would now be the duty of the State’s Education Department not only to find an expeditious solution to the chronic shortage of teachers at all levels but to recruit competent and dedicated teachers for our colleges so that free college education for some students does not become compromised higher education for those who are uble to pay tuition fee or those who have been exempted from paying any fees without their having made any demands for such exemptions. In an age when education has become business, the authorities would do well also to appreciate that the best teachers will turally go to institutions that can afford to pay them what they deserve.