Monday, March 03, 2008

Shashi Tharoor on for-profit foreign universities

In a horribly bad column yesterday, Shashi Tharoor sets a one point agenda for India's higher ed system: allow foreign universities in, even (or, especially?) if they are businesses that exist for making a profit for their investors.

He has such a strong faith in the ability of for-profit foreign universities to take India to higher ed nirvana, that he uses the following as a supporting argument:

Whatever one may think about the US, there's no arguing with the fact that it has the best and most efficient higher education system in the world, much of it runs in the private sector and for profit.

Yes, you read it right. "... Much of it runs in the private sector and for profit." This is laughably false -- unless "much of it," "private sector," or "for profit" is open to some creative interpretation! The Harvards and the Yales get so much of our mindshare because of many reasons (you figure them out!), but educating a huge fraction of American students is not one of them. And, they certainly are not businesses. (They may appear to be, but that's a different story ;-)

Let's repeat that for the benefit of Tharoor who is badly in need of some education here: Yes, Harvard and Yale are private, but they are not profit-oriented businesses!

* * *

Just to be sure, I'm not at all against the entry of foreign universities into India. But the idea that their entry alone is enough to transform India into a higher ed powerhouse is so full of crap (particularly when Tharoor specifically ignores reforms of the existing university system or ways of getting more philanthropic money to flow into institutions), that the rest of the article is not even worth debating with.

And, remember, he's the one who wrote that howler in the quote above.


  1. Anonymous said...

    Why am I not surprised that Tharoor has written a bad column

    Off topic, did you get a chance to read the NYT magazine story --

    on separate classes for boys and girls.

  2. Arun K. Subramaniyan said...

    According to Shashi Tharoor's website, he did his PhD in Tufts University, which is a Private - NOT-for-profit university. Guess he "forgot" about his own alma mater!

    For some reason, as pointed out by Abi before, private endowments have been quite small in India. Not that endowments would solve the problems faced by higher education institutes in India, but, there is a glaring shortage in the number and amount of endowments when compared to the US. Any thoughts on why this is so?

  3. Toon Indian said...

    ....For Profit Universities will not solve the problem but aleast help in mitigating it to some extent..these institutions will attract the best faculty,will have the best R&D facilities which are practically non-existent in our colleges(except IITs)....

  4. Anonymous said...

    Abi is right in that Tharoor fails to distinguish between "private sector" and "for profit." I tried googling for a list of US "for profit" universities and came up with a wikipedia link:

    Note that this list has both US and non-US universities and is self-admittedly incomplete; the point, though, is that not a single one is recognizable as being outstanding for academic merit.

    We need to allow the existing universities to do their jobs with more freedom as well as encourage the private sector to come into this field. This is the point I think Tharoor wants to make but does it badly.

    Why the government doesn't allow this to happen is not clear but I guess as in many other instances, politicians and bureaucrats are reluctant to give up their power easily. That is understandable.

    It is worth noting that in places where the private sector has come in - admittedly to make money and not serve the "noble cause of educating young minds"- it has nonetheless served a social purpose. Arvind Panagariya, for instance, has noted how the proliferation of private medical colleges in Karnataka has increased the supply of doctors in that state and how that has served it well:

    (That blog is recommended to all, incidentally.)

    This lesson, incidentally, is very hard to drill into the minds of some of our policymakers, especially on the left. The idea that we can have a college/university run by someone who is just there to make money seems so "radical" that they are willing to tolerate a greater evil (not expanding the supply of higher education at all).

    So, I guess what we should encourage the private sector to come into the higher education sector - not in expectations that it will produce a Harvard or MIT soon because that will not happen (and even our own private engineering and medical colleges document that) but because it is an imperfect solution to a problem that confronts us now - the yawning gap between supply and demand.


  5. Anonymous said...

    As prof. abi, pointed out Tharoor makes a bad point there. But the optimist's thinking that our existing college and univ. system can be meaningfully reformed is so full of crap and illusion!


  6. Anonymous said...

    Private universities, run for profit, can't ever attract the "best" faculty. How do you attract the best? By paying oodles of money, investing in a superb library and other infrastructure? If you pay a huge sum to the faculty, invest heavily on infrastructure, where goes your profit? If, to spend big, and yet make a profit, you charge an exorbitant amount from the students, you are most likely to get a bunch of rich-don't-care-to-work kids, for whom even the top notch faculty can do precious little.

    Top class higher education has always been, and will always be "not-for-profit" enterprise. Not for nothing is academics, in the truest sense of the word, considered a "noble" profession.

  7. Anonymous said...

    I dont think you are right about this. There are lots of for profit universities in the US who do charge exorbitant fees, and many of whose students are rich. However, even these rich kids are not exactly the "dont-care-to-work" type. Besides, there are other ways of dealing with issues of fees and the like. It is pretty clear that the supply of quality education in India is far less than the demand at all levels. It is also clear that there are people willing to pay for quality education, and finally that the govt does not have the will or the resources to significantly improve this situation. Given this, I dont see what is wrong with allowing for private sector investment into higher education and into setting up universities. After all, most of the software boom in India is driven by many graduates of private engineering colleges, among others.