In April, at least four weeks before the class 12 results were to be declared for the central and state board examinations , a 48-year-old father walked into a leading engineering college in Chennai, with money in his possession. His daughter had been performing well in her school tests so far and was confident of scoring over 90% in her board exams. And yet, that hot afternoon, Mr. Thangavel* says he handed over Rs.3 lakh to a member of the college staff. In return all he received was a small chit with a number on it, the only proof of payment for the seat.
"They had asked for Rs.4 lakh initially but I bargained for lesser because she was confident of scoring well," he tells TNM. "Four years back, I did the same for my son. I paid Rs.5 lakh at an engineering college in Chennai. This was before the results came out," he adds.
While efforts to pay for admission when the marks are below the cut-off set by institutions is an open secret, another phenomenon which is less discussed is the 'booking' of engineering seats even before students get their results. Parents are paying lakhs as 'booking fee' and this amount is not part of the fee or donation that they have to pay at a later stage.
"The colleges prey on the anxiety of parents," says a former chancellor of Anna University, on the condition of anonymity. "The phenomenon of booking seats began around 2010 and it is only done in the city's top 10 colleges. Parents think it is difficult to get admission in these institutions and that belief is constantly exploited by the management," he adds.
According to the former chancellor, the institutes admit students who 'book' seats into both the management and regular quota.
"They fudge details in order to ensure that it cannot be traced easily. It happens with the top management's knowledge," he alleges.
Jayaprakash Gandhi, a career counsellor who has been observing trends in the education market for 20 years now, points out that top colleges don't go in search of students because they start getting offers to book seats from January.
"If you notice, low level engineering colleges have also made their professors part time marketing persons because they don't get admissions," he explains. In fact, across India, the demand for engineering seats have been dipping. Recently, the regulatory body for technical education, AICTE, cut down a massive 1.64 lakh engineering seats nationwide in both UG and PG courses. Even the student intake has been cut by half in colleges where admissions in the last five years were less than 30 per cent. "But somehow the top colleges don't have this problem. That is because from even before the exams happen, you have parents lining up to book seats for the rate the college fixes. Right after Pongal colleges open their doors for anxious parents who start paying money for the seats," he adds.
According to the counsellor's observation, every year prices change based on the demand for the stream. Five years back, mechanical engineering which was the most coveted course was pegged at a minimum of Rs.5 lakh. Right now however, with the demand for the degree itself plunging, prices for a seat ranges between Rs. 3 lakh and Rs.7 lakh. Currently computer science which is the most sought after course, attracts Rs.7 lakh per seat, followed by Electronics and Electrical engineering for which parents will pay close to Rs.5 lakh. Civil and Mechanical engineering meanwhile have dropped in demand.
While discounts are offered if the students assure a score above 90 percent, the money is mostly non -reimbursable. Thangavel for instance, now, wants to consider another college for his daughter, but is afraid that he will lose out on the three lakh he has already paid. His daughter has scored 95%.
But for others, who are not confident about their scores, 'booking' a seat is an easy way out. According to Devi*, who received an Electronics and Instrumentation degree from a city college in 2014, it was the only way she could get an admission.
"I belong to a forward caste and knew I will not score over 80%. With cut-offs so high, we had to act fast," she says. "It was a very easy process. We just walked into the college and enquired about admissions from the security. The guard himself then asked us details about the course, copies of my 10th marksheet and for the money. I gave Rs.3 lakh and in return I got a small chit with my name, a number and a sign. And after that, it was a huge relief because neither my parents nor I had to worry about how much I would score. I already had a seat unless I failed, which was not a possibility," she adds.
Former college staff and educationists predict that at least 30% of seats in top colleges are filled based on payment of money for an admission.
"The quality of students definitely suffers due to this practice. Even recently we saw that only 31 private engineering colleges affiliated to Anna University managed to get a pass percentage of more than 60% in the last semester,"," says the former Anna University Chancellor. "The only solution to this is making all methods of admissions completely streamlined. These institutions thrive on confusion and lack of transparency."
**Names changed to protect identity