India needs 1500 universities, Kapil Sibal, its Human Resources Minister, muses, and follows it up with some complicated statistical comparison with the United States. This is still a long way to go from its current 564 degree granting institutions. He is obviously making a subtle argument in favour of more private participation, even investments from foreign companies. However, his problem lies elsewhere: The challenge that lies ahead relates to quality, not quantity. None of the Indian universities feature in the global lists, whichever list one may refer to, including even the lists that get published for young universities. Private sector investment isn't going to solve that problem. Not even getting some of world's top universities into India will help: That, if it ever happens, will only create the additional problem that some of India's best institutions, chronically underfunded, will end up losing their star talents, making the problem of quality even worse.
As Mr Sibal would acknowledge, there is one thing worse than inadequate provision for higher education: It is bad higher education. India badly needs to expand its Higher Education capacity in order to absorb its growing young population into the productive workforce; however, getting them to schools that teach them nothing and creates misfits will mean creating a huge swathe of population who can't find appropriate work and meaningful life. This is a terrifying prospect, which should keep every Indian policy maker awake at night. There is evidence that India's Higher Education system is heading towards failure: Despite the great expansion of higher education institutions, 33,000 by the last available count, the Gross Enrolment Ratio refuses to budge, and remains far lower (less than 20%) than any major nation in the world. In fact, if anything, the government's attempts to solve the problem through encouraging private investment is failing spectacularly. Last year, more than 100 private institutions filed for de-recognition, and the first few failed colleges got snapped up by private equity and foreign funds. Judging by the emails floating around inviting buyers for Indian colleges, a second wave of failures seems to be around the corner, and this time, it may involve disenfranchised students and greater pain.
The higher education policy is failing to work primarily because of India's complicated politics and because of the vested interests that block all possibilities of innovation because higher education is a great money-making machine. The sector, though usually left alone by the media, is one of India's most corrupt, and going by the country's current reputation, that means something. However, it makes sense to recognise that corruption and meddling by politicians is not the only problem, and de-regulating the market and bringing in free enterprise will not be the panacea.
The starting point of arriving at a solution is to look beyond statistics and recognise the demographic challenges of Indian Higher Education. The oft-repeated observation - from outside, India looks a huge multiplier effect; from inside, it is a game of infinite divisions - remain true for education. Besides, India's education challenge lies at different levels: The current coinage of a two-tier system of vocational and higher education may not be sufficient, or even effective, to address the diverse requirements of its growing industry. If anything, such approaches are informed by India's past, its ingrained caste system, which treats the physical work (vocational) as inferior to work of the mind (higher ed). In fact, India needs to create a system based on inter-operablity of these two paradigms, and to create a Higher Education system which is vocationally relevant. It also needs to recognise its regional and economic diversity, the continuing need of affirmative action, its largely constrained female population (where the Higher Ed challenge is even greater and possibilities are world changing) and create an education sector which is diverse in its offering, structure and reach. Private sector alone can not solve the problem: It needs to be met with a coordinated policy to encourage public, private and third sector participation in creating the sector from scratch.
Let us think for a moment how this could be done. Government is investing in creating new universities and elite technology institutions, which should continue. It should also make an enhanced commitment to research funding, funding more research facilities and even supplementing private sector research with matching grants. The government should also actively invest in building the Higher Education infrastructure - Mr Sibal usually ducks the question how a sufficiently large pool of academics to be found if the country suddenly has three times as many universities - and particularly in training and setting standards for teaching.
At the same time, it should unshackle the private sector from its current regulatory burden, and allow them to tap capital markets or foreign funds more effectively. Private sector tends to remain in the realm of vocational and professional education, as the investment horizons of higher education is often unpalatable for their investors. Beyond this, the government should actively encourage not for profit educational institutions, which may be set up by religious or other special interest groups, as long as they conform to certain basic values of fairness, diversity and secularism. All the three sectors should be free, and even encouraged, to invest heavily in lifelong learning and distance learning programmes, as this is where the demands for the missed generations will need to be absorbed.
In conclusion, my view is that private sector education works, but only when a sufficiently diverse system has been devised around it. The profit-maximising motives of private investors usually makes it focus on narrow areas of professional and vocational education, which leaves out the task of creating education infrastructure, building research excellence and developing softer subjects to public or not for profit institutions. A policy that recognises this can create a Private Higher Ed sector that works for India. However, this needs boldness in thinking and imaginative problem solving, which Mr Sibal and his colleagues in government are failing to provide.
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