The serious business of higher education

“Our youth can be an asset only if we invest in their capabilities. A knowledge-driven generation will be an asset. Denied this investment, it will become a social and economic liability. Hence, we must invest in building the knowledge base of our coming generations.” Dr Manmohan Singh-August 2, 2005-remarks at the launch of the National Knowledge Commission

Our country has a rare opportunity to harvest a demographic dividend. One the cornerstones of that outcome is our ability to expand our higher education facilities rapidly and open up the opportunities to our brightest talents regardless of their financial ability. The higher education sector needs urgent and thoughtful reforms to deliver on that promise.

The recent scandals of “capitation fees” “auctioning of medical college seats” and “management quotas” in engineering and MBA institutions are only tips of the iceberg. The malaise is deeply rooted in corruption, in the lack of transparent and independent regulations, inefficiency, political interference and unbridled proliferation of “deemed universities” and institutions of higher learning set up by sharp “Education Business Entrepreneurs” (EBEs).

The retreat of the state in higher education and research and the march of a section of unscrupulous and dishonest EBEs are causing enormous damage to the ecology of our system of higher education.

The colleges and “deemed universities” controlled by EBEs are generally organized as societies or, in some cases, trusts. Even the privately owned ones enjoy a tax-free status. Most EBEs have close connections with politicians and bureaucrats. Often they control large land banks acquired from the government at throw-away prices. One look at their governing boards will reveal their patronage links. They generate funds by charging rich parents of underperforming kids “capitation fees” and “donations” for “management quotas” and “reserved seats”. Some of them inflate expenses on construction and procurement and siphon money from the society or trust through kick-backs. The other ploys are to employ family members at exorbitant salaries and use family-owned entities to charge for outsourced services which may even include the deployment of faculty.

There is some merit in the argument that had it not been for the enterprise of energetic promoters, we would not have been able to scale up our capacity in delivering higher education. It will also be unfair to tar all private institutions with the same black brush. Some of our finest educational institutions have been founded by philanthropists, missionaries of every faith and visionary business leaders who were willing to give back to society. It is important to separate the wheat from the chaff.

The government-funded institutions have a different kind of problem. In many cases they are under-funded and over-meddled. Recruitment of good faculty becomes a challenge due to a combination of poor compensation, political interference in appointments and bureaucratic rules that slow down the recruitment process.

There are numerous institutions of higher education today both in the government and in the private domain which provide shoddy education, have deplorable infrastructure and an inherent inability to produce educated young people ready to build New India.

Here are a few recommendations :

First, the National Knowledge Commission (NKC) had suggested that an Independent Regulatory Authority for Higher Education (nicknamed “IRAHE”) should be established by an Act of the Parliament. It also recommended that both public and private institutions should be regulated by IRAHE according to the same transparent norms and with equal vigour. More importantly, IRAHE should be the sole agency that would be authorized to accord degree granting powers to higher educational institutions. It recommended that the University Grants Commission’s role be re-defined as a disbursing agency and all regulatory bodies (e.g. AICTE) be folded into the proposed IRAHE. These suggestions have been raised in many platforms including by the Yash Pal Committee. Powerful lobbies have throttled these suggestions made to the Prime Minister by many including the NKC appointed at the behest of the Prime Minister himself.

Second, the plan was to invest at least 6% of our GDP in public education of which 1.5% would be in higher education. We are limping at less than half the run rate and it is time to play the slog overs now to catch up.

Third, India has emerged as one of the leading countries of origin of foreign students in North America, Europe and Australia. It is believed that students of Indian origin spend between $3 billion and $4 billion annually to study abroad. There is absolutely no reason why we should not permit entries of reputed foreign universities into India either on their own or with another Indian group. This legal change will trigger a shake- out and consolidation and improve the quality of higher education in India.

And finally, the issue of scale and of bold vision. Most experts have suggested that our goal should be to have around 1000 new universities nationwide in the next 5 to 7 years. This would require a quadrupling of our existing capacity. It is indeed a herculean task. As we wish him well, we have every hope that the Hon’ble Minister Mr. Kapil Sibal will proceed rapidly with a sense of urgency.

(Roopen Roy is the Managing Director of Deloitte Consulting, India. The views expressed in this article are his own)