Capitation is Corruption, and We Need to Talk About it

Candidates checking their roll numbers on the first day of the MPSC State Services Main Examination in Nagpur, 2012. Credit: ganeshdhamodkar/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Candidates checking their roll numbers on the first day of the MPSC State Services Main Examination in Nagpur, 2012. Credit: ganeshdhamodkar/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Engineering education in India is going through a crisis. Or maybe it isn’t. It depends on who’s asked. In November 2015, a study by the £1 million QE Prize for Engineering’s governing foundation stated that 85% of men and 79% of women interviewed in India were interested in taking up an engineering course. These were the highest figures among all the 10 countries surveyed. Earlier, in July 2015, the Deccan Herald reported that increasing job avenues meant good times were ahead for aspiring engineers. But on the other hand, almost 50% of the approved 18 lakh engineering seats in the country went vacant in the last academic year and the AICTE has made sounds about cancelling 6 lakh of them. Institutions are being shut down, the accreditation process is being roundly criticised and there’s talk of government plans to utilise the available infrastructure for other purposes.

If the demand exists and the supply is being under-utilised, it doesn’t take a genius to realise that something’s broken. The answer might lie in the logic that engineering courses have built around themselves. By orienting themselves firmly towards grooming students for the job market, by pinning their success and failure to the sole metric of campus placements, engineering colleges epitomised the understanding of education as an investment with a foreseeable rate of return. By taking the focus away from the actual pedagogy, they have succeeded in creating a culture where profiteering thrived and was overlooked by stakeholders as long it generated ‘results’. This is despite being caught time and time again by the news media in the act of exploiting those they’re supposed to help. These institutions have begun dodging the government-regulated fee structures in a number of inventive ways – by levying charges for extra-curricular activities, through the implementation of a comprehensive system of fines and penalties and, most pernicious of all, the collection of capitation fees for admission.

For those who haven’t had the misfortune of coming into contact with the practice, here’s a brief primer. In most colleges, the available seats are divided into quotas based on reservation policies laid down by the government. In Tamil Nadu, up to 70% is reserved for students of ST/SC, MBC and OBC backgrounds. The remaining 30% is sub-divided into smaller quotas like the NRI quota, etc. which leaves usually around 15% to be distributed on the whims of the management. This management quota is where the mischief happens. Students who haven’t secured high enough marks to qualify through the state-wide admission process can just pay a large donation in cash under the table and have a seat allocated to them.

Andhra Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Delhi, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu all have laws that prohibit the activity but their implementation is almost non-existent. The news media report the continuance of the practice at admission season every year like clockwork (here, here and here) but no action is taken either by the central regulatory authorities or the state governments.

But it’s startling that for such a ubiquitous phenomenon, locating scholarship on the subject is almost impossible. There just isn’t enough information. Historical studies of capitation aren’t available, though it has been documented in Karnataka since as far back as the 1950s. This lack of information means it isn’t possible to track the growth of the practice from its roots to the present day. So instead here’s a graph by the Google ngram viewer that shows the increase in the usage of the phrase in Google Books library. It’s a remarkably nonsensical which reflects my view accurately.


How are we to proceed when there’s so little information? It isn’t possible to show how much it’s been increasing year on year, except by picking anecdotal numbers that appear in newspaper reports that don’t explain how they got them. It isn’t possible to tell how much capitation fee escapes taxation and enters the black economy every year. All I can do is point out that numerous articles that quote a National Institute of Public Finance and Policy stating the annual total is Rs.5,000 crores. The report itself is proving to be hard to find. It isn’t possible to compare states to see where the practice is most rampant, but some data from question hour in parliament tells us from where the most numbers of complaints of capitation have been received.

Number of complaints about capitation fee payments. Source: Thomas Manuel

This lack of information is hurting everybody from students who are preyed on by scurrilous “agents” to policy makers and academics who need empirical data to push for meaningful change. Which is why the Capitation is Corruption initiative by SupportiveCities is important. It’s an anonymous survey that aims to create the first large open database around capitation by collecting information on a national level from the alumni of the offending institutions. To be truly useful, it will have to gain inputs from thousands and thousands of people.

So if you can help, you should.

Thomas Manuel is a freelance writer and playwright based out of Chennai. He curates content at the Urban History Project, where this piece first appeared.