Saturday, October 18, 2008

St. Bede’s in a bind

The 104-year-old women’s college in Shimla faces the threat of closure after the state government slashed financial support to the premier institution. Pratibha Chauhan reports from Shimla

IN 1967 the management of St Bede’s College wanted to move out of Shimla, but the Himachal Pradesh Government stepped in to stop the relocation. Four decades later, now it is the management of the college that wants the state government to intervene and prevent the closing down of the 104-year-old institution.

St Bede’s, one of India’s first women’s colleges, is facing a severe resource crunch and is on the verge of closure. The college is trying to get the government to bail it out.

Over 40 years earlier the then chief minister, Dr Yashwant Singh Parmar, had made a special request to the college authorities to stay put and keep going. At that point of time the management had been considered closing down the college to open another one in Delhi. But it had agreed to the government’s request, as several dignitaries in the state did not want such a reputed college to close down.

Today the college management, run by the Congregation of Jesus and Mary, wants the state government to bail them out of this financial crisis.

Sister Molly Abraham Principal, St. Bede’s“But is it fair to equate a college with a 104-year-old illustrious history and contribution towards women’s education and empowerment with a practically unknown newly opened college that is still finding its roots.”

— Sister Molly Abraham
Principal, St. Bede’s

Since the college relies heavily on the government help, the threat of closure looms large over it because the 95 per cent grant-in-aid being given to it has been reduced drastically, leading to a grave financial crisis. The decision to reduce the grant has come in wake of a High Court order after another private college filed a petition seeking a similar amount of aid as is being received by St Bede’s College. The order directed the state government to treat 18 other private colleges in the state on a par with the four educational institutions, including the renowned St Bede’s College, with respect to 95 per cent grant-in-aid. Till March this year only four private colleges received 95 per cent grant, while all the others received much less.

"But is it fair to equate a college with a 104-year-old illustrious history and contribution towards women’s education and empowerment with a practically unknown newly opened college that is still finding its roots," asks Sister Molly Abraham, Principal of the college. Though anguished over the government decision to reduce the grant-in-aid to 50 per cent, closure of the college would only be the last resort in case things do not work out, she says.

"Closing down a century-old-college is not easy but then where do I get the money to pay the salaries of the 53 members of the staff having the UGC scale," she inquires. The pain of almost everyone who has ever been associated with the college in any capacity is understandable as over the years St Bede’s has successfully tread the path of value education, without which education is practically worthless.

The alumni, too, are pained at the very thought of their college closing down but at the same time feel the management could certainly explore other options. "It is an institute which gave us a strong foundation, based on moral and ethical values. It feels sad to hear such kind of news but the college authorities should focus on resource mobilisation rather than considering closure," says former student Parminder Mathur, Additional Chief Secretary of Himachal Pradesh. She had passed out in 1969.

There are others who echo similar sentiments while giving full credit to the college for having come such a long way. "Why should private colleges look towards the government for support, more so when a college like St Bede’s can take advantage of its long standing and elite status in the field of education," point out many government college teachers.

Those who have remained associated with St Bede’s are not only feeing nostalgic but emotional about the place where they have spent some of their most memorable years. Babli Mohan, who was the college admiral way back in 1959, feels the government should not let down such an old college, which has turned out many a teacher and students of quality. She says the alumni are willing to do whatever they can to save the institution. "How can the government remain a mute spectator to the death of an institution, which has not only contributed towards women’s education since 1904 when there were very few colleges in the region but also produced quality teachers," says Neeta Khanna, another former student from the 1971 batch, who is now heading the teacher training course in the college.

P.S. Chandel, who heads the Chemistry department, has been teaching here since 1976. "There could be a change of regime but this should not affect the running of a college which has a century-old tradition. Also in the twilight of our careers where can we go in case the college closes down," he says.

With a student strength of 1,200 and 120 hostellers, the college charges only Rs 50 as tuition fee from the undergraduate students, which, too, is deposited in the government treasury. "We are told to adopt a higher fee structure but would it be fair to do so when women’s education has been made free till the graduation level and we start charging exorbitantly," questions Principal Molly.

Efforts to generate resources through self-financing courses like Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) and Bachelor of Computer Applications (BCA) have failed to deliver the desired results. With the courses being offered by the Himachal Pradesh University (HPU) and other government institutions at much lesser fee, there are few takers. Even those who join the course, leave midway when they get admission in other colleges having lesser fee, not just wasting a seat but also seeking refund of the fee paid by them. Four such cases of fee refund are currently subjudice.

Meeting the annual salary bill of about Rs 1.80 crore to pay the 53 UGC scale holder teachers is the biggest challenge. Besides this the college has around 24 teachers on contractual basis. Faced with a severe financial crisis on reduction of the grant-in-aid, the college has enhanced the hostel fee to Rs 1 lakh per annum from Rs 62,000. "With the hike in hostel fees now there are very few takers. Against the 200 seats in the boarding only 120 have been filled," says Mother Superior, Sister Rosina.

"The Chief Minister must come to our rescue as I am sure even he would not want to see such an old institution dying for want of funds despite rendering valuable service in the field of education," says Sister Rosina, who, too, graduated from here in 1971.

The college authorities say the struggle is not just for survival but also to protect the interest of the 53 UGC scale staff so that they do not suffer at this stage in their career. Besides this the hostel staff of about 20 also gets government scales so that nobody remains underpaid. The enhanced salaries, on account of the Sixth Pay Commission, will further burden the already strained economy of the college.

Correcting some misconceptions Sister Molly says, "Our accounts are audited by the HPU and the government so there is nothing to hide and the fact that we get foreign or outside aid is simply a misconception as we manage our own affairs as an independent institution under the Congregation of Jesus and Mary."

Other staff members hasten to add that more than 50 students from the economically weaker sections are being provided free education at the college, so it is not just the college for the privileged.

The admiral of the college, Prerna Stephen, is in the final year so closure of the college would not affect her directly. But she is equally pained, "Everyone is nostalgic about their college and would not want it to be closed down but this particular closure will deny so many girls the privilege of quality education which prepares them for life," she says.

— Photos: Amit Sharma

Record of survival

St. Bede’s has produced many quality teachers, says Neeta Khanna, a former student, and head of the teacher training course
St. Bede’s has produced many quality teachers, says Neeta Khanna, a former student, and head of the teacher training course

IT was the dream and vision of Mother St Clare that saw St Bede’s make a humble beginning with a mere 15 students enrolled for the teacher-training course in March 1904. The aim was to train capable and highly efficient teachers, who could provide and maintain high academic standards in Northwest India.

She entrusted the task of running the college to Mother St Gregory from England, who was its first Principal. The college started in a building adjoining Chelsea, which, too, had started as an orphanage for the children of the British soldiers in 1864. Sister Felicity from France was in charge of the kitchen, she kept it so clean and organised that the wives of different Viceroys made it a point to visit the Bede’s kitchen as it was worth seeing.

Despite the turmoil in 1947, the college coursed through the difficult times with courage and fortitude. The heat of communal riots after the Partition was felt in Shimla, too, but it braved the turbulent days. There were some Muslim students in the college but their safe passage to Lahore was ensured.

After Independence, the college, which had catered to the needs of Christian girls till now, threw open its doors to students of all faiths. Undergraduate classes were started. In 1970 the college became affiliated to Himachal Pradesh University. A year later science course, English honours and home science courses were introduced.

With the burgeoning numbers and ever-expanding curriculum, the college grew in size and stature. Notwithstanding its image of a college for the elite and the glamour-struck, its students bag more than half of the top 10 positions in the merit list, especially in the arts stream, every year.

Official stand

THE government says it would want an institution like St Bede’s to flourish and grow further but it is constrained by various factors. Secretary, Education, P.C. Dhiman says, "My hands are tied by the court ruling which says treat all 22 private colleges on par with each other as far as the issue of aid is concerned, so there is little that I can do." He says the government does want to support the college in every possible way, but it can only do what is permissible under the rules. "When other renowned public schools like Lawrence School, Sanawar, and others located in Dalhousie and Dagshai have been able to manage their affairs, I am sure a elite college like St Bede’s should also not have a problem," he opines.