Sunday, June 08, 2008

To all those who keep whining about government monopoly on higher education

... here's news for you:

Even without a legislation during the the 10th Plan, the share of private unaided higher education institutions increased from 42.6% in 2001 to 63.21% in 2006.

Their share of enrolments also increased from 32.89% to 51.53% in the same period.

Our current problem is not that there are no private players, but that they have among them too many crooks, politicians and thugs whose primary motive is demonstrably something other than education. So the real issue is this: What changes do we need in our higher ed regulatory structure so as to attract the 'right' sort of private players -- philanthropists -- in larger numbers? And, how do we keep the undesirable sorts out?


  1. Anonymous said...

    The undesirable players thrive because of two reasons. The first is a supply constraint; where else can students go? The second is the complete lack of information about the functioning of such places. Add to this that there are no open available benchmarks for deciding which place is better/worse which only aggravates the situation. If we want to remove the rot, we need a way to clearly and openly demonstrate that a player is subpar.

    All universities/technical institutions currently need to obtain permission from UGC/AICTE to award degrees. This gives a lot of space for malicious, corrupt and indifferent behavior. A prime example is ISB which cannot even award a diploma(forget a degree), since it is unrecognized by AICTE. So the first step is to remove the need for such permission. This might raise images of institutions freely swindling the students.

    This is where the crucial second step comes in. Make it mandatory that the institution releases information about all aspects of its functioning to the public. Stuff like number of full time faculty, educational pedigree of faculty, laboratory equipment per student, number of students, research expenditure, number of publications, the whole works.

    Allow institutions to set up their own curricula, but make it mandatory to release a detailed bulletin.

    Third, rate the institutions on each of these fronts through pre-defined objective standards and release the complete information publicly in the form of a book and for perusal on the web. Make an effort to make it readable. There is space for private players on that front.

    All these steps would provide ways to allow the students in making an informed choice. It would thus provide a way for the good players to differentiate themselves from the rot. It would also allow the players to follow their own different philosophies and be creative.

    Making it a free for all would bring additional ruin , but combine it with transparent and comprehensive rating will provide a way to tell the difference between wheat and chaff. I am confident, people will choose the wheat.

  2. Animesh said...

    Seeing from my experience in a "private" university in the US [USC], and knowing of other private univs here that are world class [Stanford, for example], I approach this problem from a different angle.

    You ask:
    "What changes do we need in our higher ed regulatory structure so as to attract the 'right' sort of private players -- philanthropists -- in larger numbers? And, how do we keep the undesirable sorts out? "

    And I ask:
    "Why are non-philanthropists the 'wrong' sort? and Why do we need to 'keep out' the undesirable sort?"

    Our objective is to give quality education to the youth of India, and I am personally OK with approaching this in the free market way. If someone wants to make money by giving good education -- so be it, as long as the education _is_ good. And if we feel that there are some who are "undesirable", let the market weed them out -- why should there be external interference. USC makes money, and teaches students who go on to start their own companies, invent stuff, change the world etc. Univ. of Phoenix also teaches for money-making, and we all know that it is nothing compared to USC.

    I think the point we are missing is the Indian industry, which is the largest _consumer_ of the education sector. If the industry were to settle for nothing less than the best trained students, a private player would have an incentive to give good education. I feel that this will be the defining reason for the private education sector to change its style of functioning.

    Alas, it is a chicken-and-egg game. From what I know, the Indian industry has resigned to the fact that noone produces quality graduates, and has chosen to train the kids themselves, post hiring. The only way I see this changing is for a private education enterprise to say

    "Hey company X. Hire our kids, and save on the money you will spend on their training. Sound business decision, isn't it?"

    I will eagerly await the day when that happens.

  3. Anonymous said...

    USC is a private but not a for-profit institution, huge difference. It charges nowhere close to the full operating cost of the education of an undergraduate or graduate student.

    Comparing USC to University of phoenix is a poor target. First University of Phoenix is aimed working adults,on average of age 35. They have a different set of requirements.

    Second , it would be instructive to look at USC' history. It was opened in 1880 when it was a small school and it remained so for the next 50-60 odd years. It only became a major research university with a national profile in in the 50's and 60's.

  4. Anonymous said...

    We have "too many crooks" precisely because of excessive government control which leads to corruption. Just because the number of private colleges is increasing does not mean that those controls have disappeared. Most of these colleges are run by politicians or their goons because they know how to manipulate the system with money and influence.

  5. Pratik Ray said...

    My 2 cents:

    Rather than look to cut out crooks from amongst private investors. try cutting crooks and more importantly cronies from accredition bodies.

  6. Abi said...

    AS: Mandatory disclosure of all relevant information is something that has been brought up several times in this blog and elsewhere (and in particular, Satya's Education in India blog). FWIW, I just aired that idea again in a follow-up post.

    Animesh: In addition to what AS said in response to your comment, let me just add a couple of points. I have no preference in the debate about public vs. private universities. But I do have one when the choice is between a for-profit corporate university and one run by a non-profit foundation/trust.

    My preference has nothing at all to do with profits, but it has to do with how they are used (and how their use determines the incentives for the institution as a whole). For example, I have no problems at all if a private university makes a profit as long as it's ploughed back into the institution or its endowment. The corporate behaviour -- look at all the ethical issues in med schools and the recent fiasco at VCU -- doesn't inspire enough confidence in me to support something like a University of Phoenix. Academic freedom -- and all the good things that flow from it -- is best preserved in a non-profit university. And I'm scared of what terms like cost-cutting and share-holder value will do to the very concept of a university.

    PC: You say, "excessive government control leads to corruption." But what do you mean by excessive government control? I'm interested in specifics here. Any pointers?

    Also, it still doesn't answer the question about why philanthropists keep themselves out of play here. Which specific regulations prevent them from participating in this sector?

    Pratik: Good idea! I haven't (directly) addressed corruption here, but you are right. I too have heard horror stories about corruption in the accreditation process.

  7. Animesh said...

    @as: I stand corrected. USC is a non-profit. That said, the tuition here is definitely much more than the UCs.
    Also, thanks for pointing out the fact about USC's history. I'll look more into it while I am here.

    @Abi: While I agree that a for-profit enterprise might curtail academic freedom, we should remember that what is needed today in India is both research _and_ training -- and the latter can easily be given by for-profit institutions, provided the industry demands it, and nothing less. The "research" can be left to non-profit academic institutions.

    To reiterate, I strongly feel that the producer-consumer relationship between univs and industry is not being focused on in this discussion -- and that should not be overlooked.

  8. Anonymous said...

    I feel the "Government control" as it exists today is not unjustified. What we need is not just red tape but better controls. Here is an anectode of someones last week's visit to a "private" university counselling. The post is written by a student and not well organized, but brings out some excelent points on how things can go wrong.