Education Up For Sale?

India does not have an exemplary higher education system. Apart from a handful of (less than 12) colleges, there is no international recognition of Indian universities.

In 1997, the Government of India’s discussion paper on Government Subsidies in India had deemed higher and secondary education in India a “non-merit good”, while classifying elementary education as a “merit good”. As such, Government expenditure on higher education was to drop. This paved way for an unprecedented rise in the number of private colleges and universities. Jandhyala Tilak in his essay on privatization of education India points out that in 2001 the state of Andhra Pradesh had 95 private self-financing engineering colleges, compared to 11 government engineering colleges; and 303 self-financing medical colleges, compared to 25 government medical colleges. The situation in 2008 is very much the same and in some ways, worse.

Post economic liberalization, the country has also seen international universities setting up franchise centres across the country. Most of these centres offer market oriented courses, some of which are not even recognised in these colleges’ parent countries. Certain certificate and diploma courses offered in fashion and design etc. are just money-making mechanisms to lure Indian students, who already have an affinity toward the West, into taking these courses. Full-page advertisements in the newspapers; claiming to offer a free laptop and a trip to a foreign country are again amazing marketing strategies. And it is mostly second and third rate private institutions who are involved in this quick money making scheme, because the quality of education imparted isn’t exactly laudable.

The state governments have been lethargic in their attitude to impart quality education. Their only interest now seems to be to produce technically sound manpower for export. The rapid growth of private Engineering and Medical colleges has failed to produce high-quality scientific manpower; instead they have produced IT-masons, who in Chicago and California are referred to as ‘skilled labourers’ (implying specifically the Indian IT technician). In 1995, a Private Universities Bill was introduced in the Rajya Sabha; but remained unimplemented, simply because the private investors were unhappy with certain clauses in the Bill, the most significant ones requiring the formation of a permanent endowment fund of Rs.10 crores (about U.S.$2 million), provision of full scholarships to 30 percent of the students, and Government monitoring. The Government has since then, taken steps against the direction of privatization of higher education in the country. The title of a ‘ Deemed University ‘ given to certain private institutions is an example.

The desirability of privatization of higher education is apparent in the same arguments as that of liberalization of an economy. Funding of education is taken care of. Competition improves quality. Foreign investment is a necessity for the Indian economy in 2008. We know the arguments.

Now here is the catch.

Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), to which India is a signatory, provides that higher education shall be made equally accessible to every student on the basis of merit. Agreed, it is not possible for everyone to have access to higher education; but it should be available to every meritorious student. Now, India being a signatory to the UDHR, it is in the State’s interest to ensure that a meritorious student is not denied admission to a university, due to other considerations.

Has the state been able to ensure that? No, it hasn’t. Even the admission procedure of the IITs has been questioned under the Right to Information Act and failed to provide a credible answer earlier this year. That every year, students with enough money pay their way through the admissions into Government and Private Colleges is a known fact. Some private colleges are also quite open about it. In the light of such facts, is it constitutionally permissible to have a large sector of the higher education privatized?

The government colleges lack the facilities that private institutions have to offer. For more money, private institutions offer a global exposure. Both these things are essential in our age, without which a student’s higher education is well near being worthless. So is higher education only for a student who gets 67% in Class 12 board exams, but has 35 lakh Rupees to pay to the admission office of a private Medical college? Is it not in State’s interest to ensure some sort of quality control over all its universities? One sad fact is that the syllabus for the same subject and same course sometimes differs from state to state. The quality of teachers and the quality of education found in various universities differ drastically, even among different colleges within the same university. Over the years, library and laboratory grants given to colleges have not increased, even though the necessity for better lab equipments grows every year. Maintenance grants are inadequate; hostel facilities in Government colleges are non-existent. The colleges are left to raise their own funds. As such, after a certain number of meritorious students have been admitted, it becomes entirely in the college’s interest to ask for large sums of money from people who can pay.

The obvious legal implication of such limitation is a hike in fees. This in itself makes higher education that much more inaccessible to the common man. One argument that has been repeated time and time again is this: most people come to places of higher education regardless of their interest in studies; they do not attend classes; they are not interested, as education is almost free anyway; so, it does not make sense for the public exchequer to pay for these upper-middle and upper class students. The administration easily forgets the common man in all this: if there is an opportunity to make more profit, it should not be let to pass unexamined.

Privatization has brought in a lot more: interaction with the market and market oriented courses: a one-year diploma in Set/ Interior Design is more sought after today than a PhD in Sociology. This coupled with a reduced interest in modern Indian languages, in my opinion, defeats the purpose of the kind of education we have traditionally praised.

I have just pointed out a few of the pros and cons of the issue of privatization of higher education in India . It is just the tip of the iceberg. Is equality for those who can afford it? Recent ventures, like the much talked about, Times of India Teach India initiative look like steps into a brighter future for the education environment of our country. Much can be speculated now, much more remains to be seen.

Vipul Ralph Shah

Image Source: [ ]