Over the last two decades, India has remarkably transformed its higher education landscape. As government investment in the sector has failed to keep pace with enrolments, the private sector is increasingly playing an instrumental role in its growth.
Private institutions now account for 64% of the total ones and 59% of enrolment in the country, as compared to 43% and 33%, respectively, a decade ago.
Barring a few well-known universities, there is little discussion about private colleges that have mushroomed in Ghaziabad, Meerut, Dehradun, Bhopal etc, nor have the implications of increased privatisation on education and youth ever been part of the public discourse.
In the late 1990s, following neoliberal economic reforms and World Bank dictates, the Indian government – to promote self-reliance – declared that higher education institutions should make efforts to raise their own resources through higher fee levels, private donations, consultancy and other activities.
This policy framework (which also includes the ‘Birla Ambani Report‘) restructured higher education in unprecedented ways in modern India.
This article focuses on how this kind of commercialisation has led to the effective dismantling of higher public education in Uttar Pradesh and has been replaced by a system of private education.
Private sector and expansion of higher education
Chaudhary Charan Singh University (CCSU) was established in 1966 and until about two decades ago was the only public university in the five districts of western UP.
Things changed dramatically in the early 2000s when the university, following changes in government policy including dramatic budget cuts and neoliberal reforms, started raising funds by handing out certificates and other forms of approval to run self-financed vocational courses – first within the university departments, and later in affiliated state-run colleges.
The newly-created institutional structure of the university provided an initiative to give out certificates to private parties to run professional courses, and led many local industrial houses and entrepreneurs to open colleges.
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This initiative attracted local political leaders who had access to the university bureaucracy, the political class and an established network across parties. Overnight, many one-room coaching institutes were converted into vocational colleges.
Hundreds of acres of public land, which had been snatched from farmers at throwaway prices, were allotted to industrial houses, local entrepreneurs and politicians by local authorities. These local industrial houses and politicians set up colleges under charitable trusts (more than 100 charitable trusts exist around Meerut).
This helped them invent ways to convert “black money into white” and evade taxes in the name of social service.
Within a decade (2003-2015), more than 350 private colleges were set up in rural and urban Meerut and nearby towns. CCSU gave certificates to these colleges to run various courses in engineering, management, hospitality and pharmacy, and to offer Bachelors in Education degrees (B.Ed).
These colleges are only interested in teaching courses that prepare the degree holders for the job market. Thus, critical thinking and research skills are no longer a priority.
The result is that CCSU has been reduced from a large and comprehensive public university into a machine that distributes certificates for profit-making private colleges. In short, it was, in fact, the government that was providing public resources to fund private education.
Degrees without skills
Certainly, private investment in higher education enhanced the chances of some students to access higher education while creating new inequalities of access for the poor. The situation, however, is much more complicated.
While there were and are some good private colleges, a majority of them are merely degree shops offering little in the way of genuine knowledge, skill delivery or other training.
The degrees themselves are hardly worth the paper upon which they are printed. Field experience has shown that the state has woefully failed to regulate the commercialisation of higher education in India over the past two decades.
The state’s dismantling of public higher education and the emergence of a burgeoning private sector has had many perverse consequences on the quality of education and social justice.
In the beginning, many institutions were set up and run without fulfilling the guidelines laid down by the government for opening a private college. This resulted in hundreds of institutions being run without proper infrastructure or qualified teaching staff in Meerut and its vicinity.
The faculty in these places is mostly part-time and low-paid. Teachers with M.A. and M. Phil degrees who teach B.Ed students are being paid Rs 9,000 per month. This figure was confirmed by a few college owners who run four B.Ed colleges in western UP.
Moreover, because there is a serious shortage of faculty in institutions of higher learning, some qualified teachers end up renting out their curriculum vitae to more than one college.
Profiles of qualified teachers on the college website also attract students. Further, there are institutions in which students are registered on paper, but no classes are actually being held.
Every college boasts of 100% placement but the reality is starkly different. After the completion of Bachelor of Computer Application (BCA) or Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA), young recruits get paid less than Rs 9,000 per month.
In addition to the tuition fee, students are forced to pay several unaccounted arbitrary charges such as for travel and tour, annual development, personality development, practicals etc. Delay in payment of these additional charges has resulted in harassment in classrooms – for example, one teacher would not mark attendance even if the students were present in the classroom, barring them from writing annual exams.
Even after paying all this money, many of these students have failed to get any kind of job and either enrolled for another course or appeared in a test for a government job.
Money minting machines
Bypassing existing rules, several of these colleges charge huge capitation fees – or donations.
In order to help poor and lower class/caste students, the government offered fellowships and subsidies to institutions that admitted Scheduled Caste (SC) students to vocational courses. But rather than promoting social justice, this has benefited private colleges that have tailored the programme for their own profit.
A big chain of brokers (dalal), private colleges, coaching centres and student leaders has emerged over the past two decades. All these actors survive on students’ money.
In the wake of the announcement of subsidies by UP government’s Social Welfare Department, many colleges and institutions hired so-called “consultants” (brokers) to prepare lists of SC students by going door-to-door in villages and urban neighbourhoods around Meerut.
These students were asked to enrol in vocational courses that qualified for government subsidies. In many cases, the students were not interested in these courses, but were enrolled on paper anyway. Further, many students were admitted to more than one college without their knowledge.
In the former case, students benefited from the fellowships by obtaining degrees without attending classes, while the college owners received huge subsidies from the state. In the latter case, the college owners and consultants were beneficiaries with no benefits to the students.
In this way, huge public funds were laundered into the private sector under the guise of social justice.
The number can go in hundreds in one block or tehsil and can multiply at the district level. These are the ways in which the private colleges are accumulating money and sustaining themselves financially. Private colleges and universities have become profit machines.
Private colleges are also used to build political profiles of leaders and to accumulate votes.
In reality, public resources have been used to fund the expansion of the private sector in India. Thus, the Indian state has morphed into a ‘broker’ state.
Not only has this privatisation created a rich class of college owners belonging to the upper and middle class, it has also aggravated inequality of access to higher education. Students belonging to marginalised groups are finding themselves stranded in the maze of private colleges.
While the author observed this phenomenon in Meerut and parts of western UP, the privatisation of public education elsewhere in India is bound to have similar consequences. This resembles the worldwide trend of public goods being transferred to private players while the state may be seen conniving with the market.
Satendra Kumar is a sociologist, and is a fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study (IIAS), Shimla. His recent book Badalta Gaon Badalta Dehat: Nai Samajikata ka Uday is published by Oxford University Press, 2018, Delhi.