Friday, April 04, 2008

After Shashi Tharoor, it's the turn of ET editorial staff

... to push the idea that private colleges/universities are also businesses. In an editorial today on the IIT fee hike, they say this:

Agreed, one cannot compare publicly-funded institutions of higher education with those in the private sector where profit is the main motive

As I said in my rant about Shashi Tharoor's clueless assertions, the land of apple pie and private enterprise may have a few for-profit institutions; but can ET editorialists name a single institution among the top 50 private colleges and universities in the US that are for-profit businesses? In India too, there are tons of private colleges; in fact, a huge fraction -- over 75 percent, by some estimates -- of students in engineering, management and other professional courses study in private institutions. For all practical purposes, many of these institutions are like profit-oriented businesses: they charge exorbitant fees (bribes, really, since no receipt is issued), with electronics engineering attracting a higher 'price' than, say, civil engineering. Legally speaking, though, they are run by non-profit trusts, and the perception that they are businesses is primarily because many of them flout Indian laws with impunity.

There's a lot of blame to go around, and a lot of people -- college 'promoters' and administrators, politicians, regulators, accreditation bodies -- are in this shameful game.

On the other hand, there are also many private institutions that play by the rulebook, and have earned a reputation for quality education. I can cite Chennai's SSN College of Engineering as an example; given the philanthropic backing it has from the HCL Group's founders, I see a great future for this place. ET editorialists insult such fine institutions by claiming that profits are the main motive for private institutions. They want us to ignore the highly desirable outcomes -- Harvard! Stanford! -- that arise when private education is backed by philanthropy, and try to sell to us the snake oil of for-profit higher education.

Of course, ET people may have an agenda: drum up support for for-profit educational institutions. I have just two observations:

  1. For-profit institutions may have a place in higher education, but India's own experience with illegal businesses disguised as colleges (and that of the US with legal entities) should caution us: they are not the solution -- at the least, they are not the only solution -- for the problem of lack of quality higher education for India's youngsters.
  2. In the area of professional courses (engineering and management, primarily), where private colleges account for a vast majority of graduates, it is still the case that a student has a far higher probability of receiving a decent education in publicly funded colleges (even with all their other problems) or in private colleges with a philanthropic backing than in private colleges that are run as illegal businesses.

Let me end with my request to ET editorial staff: Stop this nonsense, particularly if you wish to avoid gaining Shashi Tharoor's reputation for cluelessness.


  1. Anonymous said...

    Dear Abi,

    You come across as having a fundamental misconception of what a for-profit/non-profit business is. In case you did not know, it has nothing to do with making/not making a profit. Any private facility has to incur a revenue in excess of expenses to survive. Not only that, it must find ways of raising capital if it wants to expand, offer better facilities and stay competitive. The difference between the two is simply about who owns them and how they go about raising capital - in non-profits, consumers or philanthropists would be expected to contribute whereas in for-profits, the institution would approach the shareholders.What you are referring to - folks setting up institutions where they offer inadequate training whilst charging exorbitant fees - is something that can happen equally in either kind of institution. The state can certainly step in to regulate fees and reduce the possibility of that happening; alternatively, such an incentive will lead to the proliferation of a large number of 'degree shops' eventually devaluing the product and driving prices down.