The problem

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WITH universities and other institutions of higher education significantly escalating user charges, apprehensions about ‘privatization’ of higher education have gripped our academia. Is this, as many fear, yet another fallout of neo-liberal policies advocating fiscal restructuring, this time affecting the university system? Though (surprisingly) these moves have (so far) not generated the expected howls of protests, particularly from student unions, the absence of a national policy governing the fiscal regime of the university remains worrying.

Few today would contest that our universities and colleges, including those imparting professional education, are in bad shape. Barring the rare exception, campuses across the country present a picture of breakdown – rundown and ill-maintained buildings, libraries without books and journals, laboratories without equipment, derelict classrooms, and the list can be extended ad nauseum.

Equally depressing is the intellectual environment, with teachers often not teaching and students not learning. Of course, the former complain of being ill-paid, saddled with unrealistic workloads and that too without adequate facilities, constrained by outdated and irrelevant syllabi, buffeted by an intrusive bureaucracy and politicians and, worse, denied the social respect they once enjoyed. Their critics, and their numbers are growing, paint them in less flattering colours – as ill-trained and work-shirking, forever conjuring up excuses for non-performance. Their enterprise, if at all, seems reserved for politicking and organising private tutorials.

As for the students, one often wonders what and how they learn. An unwelcoming environment, adverse teacher-student ratios, poor infrastructure and low access to learning aids, often absent teachers and frequent strikes – all contribute to engendering a crass attitude towards the university, a near exclusive focus on somehow acquiring the necessary degree, usually with the help of crammers and, for those who can afford it, private tuitions.

Only in part can we explain the above as the transition pangs of an expanding system, probably at a rate faster than what the national exchequer can afford. It must not be forgotten that notwithstanding the impressive growth of private initiatives in education – from fly-by-night teaching shops to well-equipped, though hugely expensive, capitation institutions – the primary burden for the provision of higher education falls on the state. The last five decades has witnessed more than a tenfold expansion in the number of universities (214 universities, of which 16 are central universities and 38 enjoy a deemed university status), with the number of graduate and postgraduate colleges running into thousands. Add to these the proliferating technical institutions – engineering, medicine, management – and one can well imagine the fiscal burden on the state.

For a country which, a few decades back, prided itself for being at least a Third World leader in matters of higher education, claimed to have the third largest scientific and technical workforce in the world, and hoped to piggyback its growth path on its human resources, such a situation can only be described as alarming. And while there is no dearth of committees advancing their favoured suggestions for reform, little seems to be happening.

Most reform measures recommended in the arena of higher education revolve around two major propositions – improving efficiency in the functioning of public institutions, and mobilising resources from non-governmental sources. There are of course those, not surprisingly in a minority, who advocate a much larger infusion of state resources. They point out, and correctly, that not only is the overall spending on education abysmally low, the proportion of official expenditure on higher education has been declining since the early ’80s. This they trace to a misplaced understanding, ostensibly under pressure from western institutions and think-tanks, foregrounding a trade-off between elementary and higher education. In fact, the share of recurring expenditure on higher education is today lower than what it was during the 1950s – a situation vastly different from the one obtaining in the ’60s and ’70s when budgets were, mid-plan, altered to favour higher education at the expense of primary and vocational education.

Without for a moment underplaying this regressive tendency, it is equally undeniable that respective governments (both at the centre and states) are finding it difficult to meet even the non-plan expenditures on higher education, forget expansion. The implementation of the Fifth Pay Commission recommendations have all but bankrupted the state universities. And with over 90% of the dwindling resources going towards paying salaries, where is the space for quality improvement?

Few realise that at the beginning of the planning period (1950-51), the government and private sources equally shared the expenditure on higher education, with fees accounting for nearly 37% of the recurring expenditure. This has now declined to under 15%. Equally dramatic has been the decline in endowments and other sources of income, from close to 15% to under 5%. Given these proportions, it seems some-what unlikely that the state will be able to meet its commitments for even maintenance, far less expansion.

Is an increasing reliance on privatization then the answer, be it through measures to increase efficiency (increasing workloads, altering staff-student ratio, weeding out less in demand courses) or sharply escalating user charges? Equally, should the state focus on providing basic elementary education (a constitutional obligation) and increasingly involve and rely upon the private sector to provide higher (professional) education? With many arguing against treating higher education as a merit good, claiming that private returns far exceed social returns, the favoured policy prescription is that subsidies to the sector should not increase, if not decline.

Much as this might appeal to our policy-makers and the well-off (it should not be forgotten that significant sections of our elite are now sending their children abroad, and private institutions are increasingly linking up with foreign institutions), the social implications of a declining state presence in higher education can be damaging, most of all in further narrowing our already narrow middle class base. Few are aware that even in the United States, the current favourite, state expenditure on and subsidy to higher education far exceeds that in India. Much of the growth of the Afro-American middle class after the War can be traced to the policy of subsidizing ex-servicemen of colour to access university education.

Reliance on capitation fee colleges in turn creates multiple distortions. At one plane it encourages only certain professional courses, those which improve the chances of moving into well-paying jobs. What then will be the fate of humanist, liberal education? At the other, it mitigates against considerations of equity, since ‘ability to pay’ is favoured over merit. Within the state sector too, shifting the burden on beneficiaries will work against poorer students. More so since schemes of low interest loans or scholarships to the meritorious poor have nowhere worked well.

Fiscal solutions, thus, have to be sought more through ways that enable institutions to earn additional incomes and attract private donations – a process so far stunted by the byzantine rules governing the universities. It anything, for a long time additional incomes of universities were adjusted against promised grants. No wonder, our state institutions made no effort to enhance their revenue streams. There is also the proposal of introducing a graduate tax, i.e., get the users (employers) to share the burden of producing trained manpower, though such a move might well create distortions in the employment market.

It is not that these and other solutions have not been advanced earlier. The tragedy is that we have few data-based, empirical studies which map out the impacts of different policy mixes – be it fee hikes (across the board or for certain courses), introducing loans for students, or creating a more liberal regime (tax reductions, subsidized land) for private institutions. We need many more studies of private capitation institutions, of entities such as the NIIT, particularly on the background of students and the quality of education imparted. As also on the implications of involving private industry for upgrading infrastructure in public institutions. Witness the latest tangle about the IBM Research Centre at IIT, Delhi.

Equally there is a need to move beyond fiscal preoccupations to effect improvements in our higher education institutions. Does greater autonomy to colleges help, both in curricular as also in management matters, such that those desirous of experimenting with new courses, teaching and evaluation methods, and involving different kinds of teachers are enabled to do so? It is dimly realised that, unless the quality of education offered by our institutions markedly improves, any escalation in user charges is likely to be resisted.

We also need to debate the efficacy of considering education as a fundamental right, particularly beyond the school level. Creating conditions such that all those desirous of self-improvement can do so is eminently worthwhile, but confusing it with a right to be taught at all levels is a sure recipe for disaster. Probably, instead of mindlessly increasing the numbers of colleges/universities or demanding that student intake be raised what we should experiment with is strengthening the library system, improve access to it and expand the distance education system through correspondence courses and setting up open universities.

As the market settles down, we are likely to witness a mix of the above – both moves to increase efficiency as also improve cost recovery. Equally marked will be the growth of the private sector. The danger is that in the absence of research-based debate we may well continue with the current scenario of laissez faire, no clear policy framework and a bewildering maze of rules designed more to help bureaucrats exercise control and entrepreneurs make money than those involved with the enterprise of education – teachers and students. This issue of Seminar is a small step in the direction of a reasoned debate.