Education is “not a business” but a “noble activity”, Constitutional Bench of Supreme Court


Underlining that education is a “not a business” but a “noble activity” aimed at empowering people, a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court Monday ruled that the State is authorised in law to regulate admission, fix fee as well as lay down any other regulatory mechanism that promotes merit and curbs commercialisation in institutions of higher education.

The Bench, comprising Justices Anil R Dave, A K Sikri, R K Agrawal, Adarsh K Goel and R Banumathi, also upheld the validity of a common admission test (CET) to be conducted by state governments as well as the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) for admission to medical colleges.

 The court said that when the central government issues a notification for NEET and the state governments also want to conduct their own CETs, the issue could be resolved between them by relying upon Article 254 of the Constitution. Under Article 254, higher education has been placed in a concurrent list with both the state and central governments having powers to make laws. But when the central government makes a law or issues a notification such as NEET, it would override the state governments’ laws.

The Constitution Bench judgment, therefore, overrules the 2013 judgment by a three-judge bench, which had given minority institutions the right to have their own admission process. The 2013 judgment, which had by a majority held NEET as unconstitutional, is presently stayed and a batch of review petitions are awaiting final arguments. Meanwhile, the court also set up a committee comprising former Chief Justice of India R M Lodha, former CAG Vinod Rai and Shiv Sareen, Director, Institute of Liver and Biliary Sciences, to oversee all statutory functions under the MCI Act. Further, reproaching the Medical Council of India (MCI) for representing “neither the professional excellence nor its ethos”, the Bench said that all policy decisions of the MCI will henceforth require approval of this committee, which will also issue appropriate remedial directions until the central government puts in place any other appropriate mechanism.

The bench was hearing a batch of appeals by private medical colleges of Madhya Pradesh, which had challenged the state law on regulating admission and fee in the colleges. The colleges argued that by the impugned legislation, the state government sought to wipe out the choice available with them to devise their own admission procedure and fix fee, even though they had a right under Article 19 (1) (g) “to practise any profession, or to carry on any occupation, trade or business”.

Authoring the judgment, Justice Sikri rejected the private colleges’ contentions, pointing out that private colleges indeed had the right to establish and administer educational institutions, but education at best could only be considered an “occupation” and never a “business or a “profession”. Education, the Bench said, subserves the larger public interest of ensuring that the nation develops and progresses on the strength of its highly educated citizenry and, hence, the fundamental rights of both minority and non-minority institutions has to be balanced by ensuring that high standard of education is available to all meritorious candidates. “…the only way to achieve this goal, recognising the private participation in this welfare goal, is to ensure that there is no commercialisation or profiteering by educational institutions,” it said.

Noting that the government would be empowered to regulate admission by prescribing a CET or NEET and also “forbid capitation fee and profiteering”, the court said that the object of setting up educational institutions cannot be to make a profit. “Education is treated as a noble ‘occupation’ on ‘no profit, no loss’ basis. Thus, those who establish and are managing the educational institutions are not expected to indulge in profiteering or commercialise this noble activity,” said the Bench, adding that the State can lay down regulatory measures for private aided or unaided, minority or non-minority institutions.

About drafting of laws by the governments to regulate admission, the Bench said: “The Court proceeds on the footing that the Legislature understands the needs of the people. The Constitution is primarily for the common man. Larger interest and welfare of student community to promote merit, achieve excellence and curb malpractices, fee and admissions can certainly be regulated.”

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