Though India’s higher education system has been in existence for more than 100 years, the advent of private universities is a comparatively recent phenomenon. As a result of greater awareness, the demand for higher education has increased and aspirations have risen. Already crumbling under a terrible resource crunch, existing higher education institutions have further had to negotiate the pressure that the principle of a universal school education inadvertently generates. Socio-political pressures have led to a fall in standards.
With this reality as backdrop, the private sector was invited to contribute towards the endeavour of setting up universities. Their help was also sought to facilitate laws passed by various state governments. The Knowledge Commission set up by the government estimated that the country would require over 1,500 universities by 2020. Presently there are roughly 559 universities in the country, out of which approximately 139 belong to the private sector. This is roughly 25% of the total number and that share is growing steadily.
Indian students going to the United States, Britain, Australia and other countries study in private universities there. But when it comes to private universities in India, many raise their eyebrows, especially those who have benefited from the older order. For the higher education sector in India, the Yashpal Committee has identified the following challenges — need for a division between research bodies and universities, the erosion of democratic space, a lack of learning across disciplines, the undermining of undergraduate education, a lack of quality teachers and teacher education, a fine balance between quality and affordability, resource management, financing, poor governance and most importantly, a subversion from within. Unfortunately, the solution provided by the committee — an overarching National Commission on Higher Education and Research — seem to contradict its own basic premise of an autonomous university.
It seems essential to note that the criticism levelled against private universities does not seem to faithfully represent an evolving reality. While private universities are contributing significantly in the fields of education and policy framework, enough has not been done to ensure that regulatory mechanisms help encourage quality education through these institutions. The real challenges before private universities, it could be argued, prove even more complex.
Firstly, there exists a mindset among policy-makers and regulatory bodies, which assumes that ‘private’ is bad and the ‘government’ good. While government universities can function out of hired premises and in ramshackled sheds for as long as 15 to 20 years, private universities are asked to set up their campuses on at least 50 acres of land and are compelled to have an infrastructure in place from day one. In this era of technology, such strictures do sometimes seem ridiculous.
State governments have their own norm of deposits for setting up private universities, which range from R5-10 crore, but over and above this, regulatory bodies seek their deposits separately. Instead of locking this additional security, the same can be used for developing infrastructure. Funding agencies hesitate when asked to fund society. They appear more comfortable with a company, and whenever they decide to fund a non-profit society, interest rates range from 14% to 16%, which is equal to any industrial enterprise.
The university, however, is still expected to pay salaries that are at par with those given to the highest paid academics in the country. They must also charge a minimal fee from students. All such finiancial transactions are then regulated by more than one agency. Even the Association of Indian Universities asks private universities to wait for five years, before according them membership. Usual challenges of finding good faculty members and creating good infrastructure, especially for research, continue to remain pressing as problems. From notification to academic freedom to infrastructure creation and governance, challenges seem to abound. But so do opportunities. This is not to suggest that private universities have not been at fault in some cases, but basic ideals must not be governed by principles of blame and elimination. Private universities must also find space on India’s path of growth.
Santosh Choubey is Chancellor, AISECT University and Dr CV Raman University
The views expressed by the author are personal