Why do we need private universities?
Higher education in India has largely been the preserve of the Government till recently in terms of both funding and provision of education. But for this to continue, the Government should continue to be in a position to pour in large sums of money to fund higher education. Today, the Government is unable to find the funds even to keep up its own commitment of spending 6% of GDP on education. There is also a clamour to spend more of what little funding the Government has allocated for education, on primary education than on higher education, and quite rightly so, given that many children don't even get a basic primary and secondary education today. Thus the Government spending on higher education as a percentage of overall government spending on education is only likely to decrease further in the coming years.
But the demand for higher education is continuing to increase with more and more students wanting a higher education today than ever before. How can we bridge the gap between increasing demand and decreasing government funding for higher education? The only option is to tap the private sector to participate in the funding and provision of higher education. The process of increasing private participation in higher education has already begun with a few states like Chhattisgarh and Uttaranchal having passed legislation to permit the setting up of private universities in their states. Indeed the private sector has been funding higher education in India for a long time, albeit on a very limited scale. The Birla Institute of Technology and Science at Pilani in Rajasthan, which is funded and run by the Birla Group Trust, became an officially recognised university as far back as 1964. Other institutions like the Manipal Group in Manipal in Karnataka have been running private colleges since 1953 and the Manipal Academy of Higher Education became a deemed university in 1993. Many other self-financing colleges were set up in the early 1990s and a few of them have now become deemed universities.
Problems arising out of poor regulation of private universities
After the passing of legislation in Chhattisgarh in 2002 (and subsequently in other states like Uttaranchal), to facilitate the establishment of private Universities with a view to creating supplementary resources to assist the State Government in providing quality higher education, there was a spate of private universities that were set up under the Chhattisgarh Act. The Chhattisgarh legislation was passed in a hurry without much care, leaving many loopholes in the Act, which were quickly exploited by many organisations that set up private universities, without a serious commitment to higher education. Many of the private universities set up under the Chhattisgarh Act did not have either the infrastructure, or a campus, or the funds to provide quality higher education, and functioned out of one-room tenements. The Chhattisgarh Act did not provide for proper regulation and maintenance of standards by these universities and moreover, the Chhattisgarh Government did little to ensure that the private universities did what they were expected to do according to the legislation. Students who signed up for courses offered by private universities set up under the Chhattisgarh Act were being taken for a ride by many private universities who had no capability to offer quality courses.
Prof. Yashpal, former chairman of the University Grants Commission, petitioned the Supreme Court in 2004 to declare the Chhattisgarh legislation unconstitutional and the Supreme Court after due deliberation concurred and declared in February 2005 that all the private universities set up under the Chhattisgarh Act were illegal, putting the careers of all the students who enrolled in the institutions set up by the private universities in jeopardy. But to protect the interests of the students, the Supreme Court directed the Chhattisgarh Government to take appropriate steps to have such institutions affiliated to the already existing State Universities in Chhattisgarh. It is important to note that the Supreme Court did not state that all private universities are illegal - it has only stated that the manner in which the Chhattisgarh legislation allowed the setting up of private universities was illegal. The problem is not with private participation in higher education, but with the poorly drafted Chhattisgarh legislation and the lack of proper regulation.
Given the Government's lack of funds for higher education and the increasing demand for higher education, we simply cannot do without private universities. We have no option but to tap private funding for higher education. The task before us now is to come up with ways and means to ensure that private universities are properly regulated, yet autonomous and independent enough to flourish, and held to high standards to provide quality higher education.
How can we ensure private universities are held to high standards?
We can borrow the model from the corporate sector. Just as all companies are required by law to publish annual reports providing details of their assets, liabilities, profits and losses, the profiles of the board of directors and the management and various other financial information, every educational institution (whether public or private) should publish an annual report with details of the infrastructure and facilities available, profiles of the trustees and the administrators, the academic qualifications and experience of the staff, the courses offered, the number of students, the results of the examinations, the amount of funds available to the university and the sources of funding etc. In addition, every educational institution must get itself rated by an independent rating agency like CRISIL, ICRA or CARE and publicly announce its rating to prospective students to enable the students to choose the institution they want to enroll in.
At one stroke, this will bring in transparency and ensure that every educational institution, whether public or private, is accountable not only to those students who are studying in the institution, but to prospective students and the public at large as well. Public announcements of the financial and educational records of the institutions as well as their ratings by independent rating agencies will generate healthy competition between the various private institutions and will also put pressure on the Government funded institutions to work towards all-round improvement.
Such a system is already in place for maritime education in India. In 2004, the Directorate General of Shipping (DGS), which regulates maritime education in India, introduced a system of rating maritime training institutions in India. In 1996, maritime education was opened to private sector participation and over 130 private institutions are in operation today. To ensure that all institutions provide high quality education, the DGS has asked all maritime educational institutions to get themselves rated by one of the three reputed independent rating agencies in India – CRISIL, CARE or ICRA. The publicly announced ratings will benefit
- the students, in deciding which institution to enroll in,
- the institutes, in differentiating themselves based on their quality,
- the employers, in assessing the quality of students graduating from the institutes and
- the DGS as well, to non-intrusively regulate the maritime education sector and ensure high quality of education.
Maritime education institutes, both public and private, are now getting themselves rated by independent rating agencies and the DGS lists the ratings on its web site.
Introducing a similar model across all other sectors of higher education including engineering, medicine, arts, sciences etc. will ensure that only those institutions with better facilities, staff and infrastructure and reputations will thrive. This will go a long way in ensuring the provision of quality higher education not only in the private sector, but in the public sector as well.
The Centre and the States should pass legislation to make it mandatory for all higher education institutions to publish a detailed annual report of their financial and educational status and also be rated by independent rating agencies and publicly announce their ratings.
P.S. This is the text of an article that was published in the June 2005 issue (pages 44-47) of Amudhasurabi, a Tamil magazine . My friend Badri translated this into Tamil for Amudhasurabi. This piece is a summary of some of my previous posts on my blog..