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Streamlining Higher Education

With government institutions of higher learning not being able to meet the demands of a growing number of aspirants to higher education, should private participation, albeit with certain safeguards and riders, be allowed to a greater degree? Maybe, yes.

 

It is believed that if the current enrolment in our colleges and universities of 7-8 per cent of youth in the age group of 18-23 years has to be increased to the desired level of 15 per cent by 2015, we need to increase the number of colleges by thousands and that of universities by hundreds. The Chinese seem to be thinking of expanding their higher education system on an unprecedented scale with adequate financial resources for top class infrastructure, especially for undergraduate education. What do we have to do to sustain a massive higher education network?

Spending on education has not exceeded 3 per cent of our GDP in the foregone Plan periods although the target was about 6 per cent. As suggested by the National Knowledge Commission and as endorsed by the Planning Commission, there is an imperative need to augment budgetary allocation for education to nearly 6 per cent of GDP during the XI Plan period. Even if the Governments are able to accomplish this seemingly difficult task, given the fact that a large proportion of this money has to be diverted for improving primary and secondary education, what will be left for supporting higher education is anybody's guess. Central assistance even if increased, will be largely utilised by the existing and future establishments like central universities, IIMs, IITs and IIScs, leaving others, as usual, being starved of funds. Do our State governments have the resources to ameliorate the appaling conditions of our colleges and universities?

There exists a popular, if not pragmatic, theory that the Centre-State government co-operation is obliged to make higher education both accessible and affordable to all (regardless of class or caste) those who desire it. It is held that the fees charged by aided institutions should not exceed 20 per cent of the operative cost. It is further argued that not only should the number of admissions be increased but also the number of higher education centres should be expanded substantially to help weaker sections and OBCs gain access to specialised training. The objective sounds reasonable and justifiable but the modus operandi was seldom explained satisfactorily nor adequate resource mobilisation addressed vigorously. Similarly, how high quality of teaching and research could be nourished without excellent infrastructure and faculty has remained unanswered.

In many areas of our operation, planning is good but execution is poor. Management of higher education is no exception to this syndrome. World class higher education (we cannot settle for anything less in the present competitive world looking for competent people) calls for massive capital investments and high running costs.
First and foremost, we need to educate the stakeholders on these issues and tell them clearly to what extent, as a policy decision, the Central and State Governments put together could subsidise. People should be taught to pay for good services (higher education is indeed included in the service sector) and to accept the reality that any expenditure on the part of citizens should be treated as a wise investment with the promise of rich dividends in future.

Liberal loans

Instead of the populist approach of rendering higher education cheap, the Governments should introduce liberal loan and scholarship schemes to help talented but economically poor students. A review of the existing loan schemes of the Nationalized banks is a must to verify whether these public financial institutions support only the traditional professional courses or have identified a host of new ones in emerging areas of science, technology, management, health care, tourism, hospitality, animation and so on. It is very pertinent to mention in this context that if the present loan and scholarship schemes are found faulty or inadequate, a separate new system, say, Higher Education Development Corporation / Bank with a nation-wide network could be established. The modalities of functioning of such an organisation, including mobilising deposits from NRIs and Corporate Bodies on a low rate of interest, could be worked out by an expert committee of financial wizards, industrial magnates and eminent academic administrators. When there are so many Corporations and Boards for meeting societal needs such as housing, infrastructure, roads, power, forests and environment, the case for a similar set up for higher education is certainly not out of place.

With respect to higher education, the Governments should act as facilitators to help those who wish to help themselves. In the current scenario, the potential for earning by the competent graduates and postgraduates is high. In a progressive economy, the beneficiaries should be partners of the State is sustaining top quality higher and professional education. Motivating people to believe in paying (despite several constraints) for good education, at least through loans and scholarships is a crucial step in extending higher education to larger segments of society.

The controversy

There has been a lot of controversy and confusion on private initiatives in higher education. Those who are opposed to the practice, contend that privatisation leads to mere commercialisation wherein the profit motive outweighs social concerns of accessibility and equity. However, in our country, we have seen private participation in higher education (e.g. establishment of a good number of science and technology schools by the Tatas and Birlas) even prior to independence. In those days, a part of the profit earned by the industries used to be earmarked to maintain educational institutions, temples, planetaria, community centres, etc. The trustees of these bodies were good custodians of money and used to spend/ invest it wisely. Therefore, the concept of private sector playing an important role in promoting higher education is not something new.

We also have people who vociferously argue that our youngsters need high quality education, and 'who provides it' is a secondary question. These votaries maintain that in every sphere of activity, people around the world pay for services, the extent of the payment being dependent on the nature of service desired. Ours is a free country, and the people have a right to choose from the available avenues. Hence, it is argued that there is nothing wrong in private institutions (either at the primary or secondary or higher education level) charging fees that appear exhorbitant. It is relevant to note that running a good institution without much Government support either for recurring or non-recurring expenditure is a great challenge demanding considerable effort and planning.
The role of the private sector in higher education is not something unique in India. Some of the best centres of higher learning in the world such as Harvard and Stanford Universities in the US are privately managed. Of course, they are eligible for government support in terms of various schemes and research projects on a competitive basis. The author is aware that it is difficult to draw parallelism for, the civil society and the per capita income in USA are different from those of India.

If Government institutions are not able to meet the demands of people for quality education in relevant and emerging areas, what are the options? How to find an amicable solution for the Governments' limitations on the one hand and the so-called exploitation by the private operators on the other?

Autonomy

One tangible and meaningful approach is to increase the spending on education including higher education significantly keeping in view the importance of empowering young people (approximately more than 55 per cent of our population at present) in nation building. Even if this is achieved by some means, as mentioned earlier, it may not be possible to meet the aspirations of millions of students (about 11 million with three million fresh admissions) who would like to study in our colleges and universities.

Under these compelling circumstances, it is wise to allow private participation with certain safeguards and riders. For instance, the practical approach could be to allow a reasonable period of five years for a private institution of higher learning to metamorphose. Thereafter, every such centre shall have to submit itself to academic audit by way of accreditation.

One hundred per cent autonomy should be given to nascent institutions and the archaic system of affiliation should be totally dispensed with. The next step is to bring such institutions under a facilitating mechanism wherein they are obliged to provide a fixed proportion of admissions to socially and economically backward students to ensure equity, accessibility and affordability. Of course, the parameters for social and economic backwardness must be well defined as is currently argued in the Supreme Court. To partially compensate for the loss of income because of differential fee structure, private institutions should be encouraged to submit proposals for Central-State grants through non-plan schemes on competitive basis. In any case, a viable approach must be devised wherein private operators including NRIs are encouraged to build institutions of excellence. Their social obligation should percolate as a consequence of accured resources and not as a result of too much control and policing. We certainly do not wish to revert to the Licence Raj.

 

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