Saturday, August 27, 2005

Private sector in higher education

Here are a few key links

Over at Education in India, Satya has a summary of the Supreme Court verdict. His commentary (which was published as an op-ed in Financial Express) is here.

The Economic Times story on the verdict is here, and it wrote several editorials. Narendar Pani's op-ed has some nice arguments. ToI had a commentary by Biswajit Bhattacharyya.

The Hindu has a balanced editorial; it has another one on the judiciary vs. legislature debate that arose from this issue.

The Supreme Court's recent verdict has clarified the role of private sector -- vis a vis that of the government -- in the field of not just professional education, but higher education in general.

First, a little bit of background. Up until this academic year,

  • the government appropriated to itself a certain proportion (typically, 50 %) of the seats in private professional colleges; this 'government quota' had reservation -- or, affirmative action -- for socially deprived sections of society
  • the government also set the tuition fees not just for the students under the government quota, but also for those under the 'management quota'.

The Supreme Court verdict has ended both these practices, offering private colleges new freedoms to fix their fees and select their students. These freedoms now come with some constraints as well: they should not take capitation fees, they are subject to government regulation, and students are to be selected through a transparent, merit-based system.

An immediate upshot of the verdict is that a huge number of seats will now revert back to the college managements (for example, in Tamil Nadu alone, the government stands to lose some 35,000 seats). While this is a good thing for the private colleges, it is a disaster for the government; a cozy, comfortable scheme (for which it did not have to pay) has now been snatched away.

For the politicians, the main issue is, not surprisingly, reservation; they are not particularly worried about the loss of the 'government quota'. However, being politicians, they are looking for a short cut. So, they are considering new legislation to force reservation (and, perhaps, lower fees) down the throats of private colleges. I see at least two problems with this route:

  • an immediate problem is that the industry will oppose it tooth and nail; if private colleges are forced to gulp the 'R' word today, private industry is sure to be hit tomorrow!
  • a medium term problem is that such a legislation is likely to be constituionally suspect. After all, the reasoning behind the recent verdict is that these colleges are 'private', and hence the government has no right to meddle in their functioning.

In spite of these problems, there is something nice -- er, for the politicians -- about the legislation route: they can make a lot of noise about it without doing anything. Any resemblance to the Women's Reservation Bill is not at all coincidental!

Bottomline: I suspect that there will be a lot of hot air, but no firm action. The 2006 admission cycle will proceed according to the (un-amended) Supreme Court verdict.