Medical colleges overcharge students by the millions but face no consequencesAs most college operators have close relations with political parties, they face no action for charging exorbitant fees that are against regulations.
Prithvi Man Shrestha
Students have long complained of the unnecessarily exorbitant fees that private medical colleges charge, but in June, the colleges themselves admitted as much before a parliamentary sub-committee.
After students complained that private schools were not abiding by governmental regulations regarding fees, a sub-committee at the Parliamentary Education and Health Committee had called the schools to discuss the matter.
The schools brazenly admitted to charging students extra fees than those mandated by the government, saying the governmental fee structure was inadequate to run their institutions.
Students have protested, governmental bodies have found the colleges guilty of overcharging students and the government has publicly said that the colleges will be required to refund the additional fees. And yet, private colleges have faced no consequence and have not returned anything, largely because of the political patronage they enjoy, say lawyers.
On November 10, the National Vigilance Centre, an anti-graft body under the Prime Minister’s Office, said in a report that numerous medical colleges across the country had collected over Rs3 billion in additional fees from students for arbitrary reasons. Responding to the student protests and the vigilance centre report, Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, Home Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa and Education Minister Giriraj Mani Pokhrel all made public statements that medical colleges would be required to return the additional money.
Advocates, however, say that there has been no action on the ground since all private medical college operators have some kind of nexus with various political leaders.
According to Shree Hari Aryal, a senior lawyer and former chairperson of Transparency International, most medical college operators enjoy political patronage, with some of them closely linked with the parties.
“Some may have funded the parties or individual leaders during the elections,” Aryal told the Post. “If they didn’t have political patronage, they would’ve faced governmental action by now.”
Aryal says that even if the medical colleges have gripes regarding the governmental fee structure, they need to charge fees transparently and for valid purposes.
“If they claim that the fees set by the government are not scientific, why are they not transparent about why they are charging more?” said Aryal. “They are not charging these additional fees legally. They are blackmailing students.”
Following complaints that colleges were charging students exorbitant fees, the Cabinet on October 12, 2018 had decided to fix a strict fee structure for private medical colleges as per which colleges in Kathmandu Valley could charge up to Rs3.85 million while those outside the Valley could charge Rs4.24 million 2018-19 for the academic years. The Cabinet had decided that it would make upward revision in the academic year 2019-20 in line with the annual inflation based on the central bank data.
However, most private medical colleges have found new ways to circumvent the ceiling. According to the National Vigilance Centre, students “were coerced” into paying extra fees without providing them with receipts on the grounds that they could be denied identity cards, library cards—and even failed in internal exams.
In an interview with the online portal Setopati last year, former chairperson of the Special Court Gauri Bahadur Karki said that medical colleges’ political patronage begins when the college is first established and it requires university affiliation.
“They spend a little on politicians to get affiliation despite not having the required infrastructure, and then they bribe the Nepal Medical Council (NMC) to get seats allocated to them,” said Karki, who is also the former head of a governmental commission that looked into medical colleges and their affiliations. “One can rake in billions after that."
According to Karki, if the government was serious about holding the private colleges to account, the universities that provided the affiliations could themselves take regulatory and disciplinary action. But all too often, the operators of medical colleges have political connections that go all the way to the top.
For instance, Basaruddin Ansari, managing director of the Birgunj-based National Medical College, has close relations with Prime Minister Oli. Ansari, who is also president of the Association of Private Medical and Dental Colleges, had even stood for mayor of Birgunj Metropolitan City from the erstwhile CPN-UML, Oli’s party that has now merged with the CPN (Maoist Centre) to form the ruling Nepal Communist Party. Ansari lost to Bijaya Sarawagi from the erstwhile Sanghiya Samajbadi Forum, which is now the Samajbadi Party.
Just ahead of the mayoral elections in 2017, the Tribhuvan University Executive Council had withdrawn the affiliation for Ansari’s National Medical College based in Ghattekulo, Kathmandu.
According to the university, the college had failed to provide necessary physical infrastructure, faculty members and patients. Oli had publicly backed Ansari, saying that the then government led by the Nepali Congress had placed pressure on the university to scrap the affiliation.
Time and again, there are efforts to take action against colleges breaking regulations, but they are often quashed by higher authorities.
The high-level commission headed by Karki had recommended disciplinary action against 43 individuals, but none faced action. On July 6 last year, the commission recommended action against immediate Tribhuvan University Vice-chancellor Tirtha Raj Khaniya, Rector Sudha Tripathi who is now acting vice-chancellor, Registrar Dilli Upreti, Dean at the Institute of Science and Technology Ram Prasad Khatiwada, and immediate Dean at the Faculty of Law Tara Prasad Sapkota, among others, for their roles in granting affiliations to medical colleges that did not meet standards.
According to the National Vigilance Centre, of 12 colleges that were charging additional fees, Pokhara’s Gandaki Medical College charged students an extra Rs519.82 million. The chairperson of the college is Khum Prasad Aryal, who has close relations with the Nepali Congress and was one of the party’s candidates under proportional representation during the second Constituent Assembly elections in 2013.
In March last year, the Nepal Police’s Central Investigation Bureau attempted to arrest the college operators, including Aryal, after students filed a complaint. Police took Santosh Khanal, CEO of the college, and examination controller Laxman Prasad Sharma into custody.
Aryal, chief administrative officer Krishna Ghimire, principal Rabindra Prasad Shrestha and account chief Yubaraj Sharma were at large. Nothing came of the police’s investigation. As of now, the bureau is not conducting investigations into any medical colleges, said spokesperson Superintendent Bel Bahadur Pandey.
Similarly, Nobel Medical College in Biratnagar is alleged to have collected Rs354.74 million in extra fees. College’s Managing Director Sunil Sharma was even accused of possessing a fake degree from the Bihar Intermediate Education Council by the Central Investigation Bureau. But Sharma was a candidate for the House of Representatives from the Nepali Congress in Morang-3 in the last parliamentary elections.
Again, Suresh Kanudiya, managing director of Nepalgunj Medical College, which is accused of cheating students out of Rs219.12 million was the Nepali Congress candidate for mayor in Nepalgunj during the last local elections.
According to consumer rights activist Jyoti Baniya, the decision to allow medical colleges to operate as private companies was the policy mistake that paved the way for medical colleges to collect arbitrary fees.
“As medical college operators have great influence on political leaders, the government can't do anything against them,” said Baniya.
On November 12, the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology directed the medical colleges to return or adjust the extra fees within 15 days. Otherwise, the students and parents would register complain at the concerned District Administration Office, which would then take action. But former Special Court chairman Karki said that the notice appears to be aimed at tiring out the students instead of taking action against the colleges.
"There is a direct route to take action against such colleges. The concerned university can take steps towards scrapping their affiliation,” said Karki. “But none of the universities have done this."