Higher education in India has seen exponential growth since Independence, but, more so during the past two decades. A large number of problems related to regional imbalances, inter-social group disparities, enrolment rates, quality assurance and under-financing of higher education have come to the fore. Consequebtly, higher education has become an important theme of discourse at the national level. It is generally said that the whole process of higher education has become warped because of its sudden expansion and shrinking resources.
Shrinking Resources, Expanding Demand
In 1997, the Government of India declared that higher education was a ‘nonmerit good’ , while elementary education was categorised as a ‘merit good’. Thus, higher education could not be subsidised by the state at the same level as ‘merit good’. The government now had to frame policies to provide alternative means to access higher education, even as the Indian demographic pattern created tremendous demand for higher education institutions.
Our administrators and the bureaucracy could not foresee this requirement in time and were forced to accept private sector participation in higher education. Privatisation of higher education in India did not come about as a result of an ideological commitment, it was rather forced upon the nation.
The entry of private sector in higher education was seen with lot of scepticism by the regulatory bodies. They were suspicious of the monopolisation of higher education by the private sector. The government gave its go-ahead, but the regulatory bodies treated the entry of private sector as a necessary ‘evil’. And geared up to deal with this ‘evil’. Rules and regulations that discriminated against private institutions were framed. For instance, the Association of Indian Universities adopted rules that prevents such universities from obtaining its membership till they complete five years of operation. Despite the fact that private sector is the major education provider in the country, a pseudo ‘caste system’ has been created wherein public institutions, irrespective of their quality standards, are generally rated a notch above them.
The general awareness of Indian public on regulatory mechanism for higher education is rather poor. An average Indian is unable to distinguish between a state private university and a deemed to be university. The general public is not conversant with the roles and functions of some of the major regulatory bodies like the UGC and AICTE. Consequently, some of the statements issued by the regulators and the politicians create anxiety in the minds of people. The changed paradigm in higher education sector also complicates the
scenario. Gradually, it has morphed from charity to an occupation. Some of the recent judicial pronouncements have described it as an ‘industry’. Indian courts have ruled that establishing and administering an educational institution for imparting knowledge to students is an occupation, protected by Articles 19(1)(g) and 26(a) of the Constitution. But, the courts have also ruled that even though reasonable profit is permissible there should be no profiteering. At the international level the WTO has accepted that provision of education can be categorised as a service.
Licence Raj is still flourishing in the higher education sector. It would not be an over-statement to say that Indian higher education sector is overregulated but under-governed. Instead of an enabling regulatory mechanism we see a stifling environment that inhibits growth of the sector. Introduction of a bill in the Parliament to set up National Commission for Higher Education and Research that will subsume the UGC is a step in the right direction. Further, some of the states have set up their own regulatory commissions to oversee the functioning of only private universities. Interestingly, the government owned universities have been kept outside their ambit.
It is obvious that there exists a lack of mutual trust between the regulatory bodies and the private higher educational institutions. We need to learn from the experience of the European universities. Till the last decade of the 20th century, most of the governments in Europe were engaged in micro-managing the universities that inhibited the growth of the latter. On the other hand, the universities in the USA flourished because of the autonomy they enjoyed. Today, Indian higher education sector needs an enabling regulatory mechanism with an emphasis on self-regulation and an environment of mutual trust and respect.
Role of Indian Middle Class
The Indian middle class considers higher education as the swiftest elevator to the pinnacles of opportunity and prosperity. But, access to the publicly funded higher educational institutions is severely limited. Logically, considerations related to social returns on higher education should prompt government policies to be driven by the needs of the middle class which are basically quality-education and affordable fees. Unfortunately, that has not happened. The policies adopted so far have stymied the market responsiveness of higher education. Successive governments, trying to play on the sentiments of the middle class, have tried to regulate fees being charged by private education providers irrespective of the input costs and have spawned the coaching-centre industry. Consequently, the government policies instead of furthering the interests of the middle class have had exactly the opposite effect. Indian policymakers should be laying emphasis on quality education and introducing measures that enhance the credibility of degrees awarded by Indian universities.
Learn from the Past
It is said that nations that do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it. India has seen numerous invaders who came and exploited our national ethos of infighting. Now the foreign universities are knocking at our doors. Instead of acting as policemen and pitting public universities against the private ones, our regulators would do well to complement their relative strengths and work on improving the quality of education.