Will the Indian Government Save the Higher Education Sector?

While hundreds of junk institutions have been shutting shop every year, many more continue to do well. What’s worse is that many have even gained credibility by employing clever marketing strategies.

India’s higher education sector is the largest in the world with a total enrolment of 35.7 million students. According to the All India Survey of Higher Education 2016-17, there are 864 universities, 40,026 colleges and 11,669 stand-alone institutions in the country. Additionally, All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) data suggests that more than 3,200 institutions award degrees in engineering.

But there’s no doubt that the typical college, whether public or private; whether for arts, science, commerce or engineering, is mediocre. A college degree from such an institution adds no value to a student’s career or life.

Private institutions – where 67.3% of India’s 35.7 million students are enrolled – are far more expensive than public institutions and burden students with debt which most of them are unlikely to repay. Even after an expensive college education, the employability rate of most college graduates is <30%.

It is obvious that India’s higher education is broken, but fixing it is not an easy task. However, one does get to hear the occasional good news of some of the rubbish, that has been weighing the sector down, getting eliminated.

Getting rid of junk

According to reports, engineering colleges across India have approached the AICTE to reduce student intake by approximately 1.3 lakh for BTech and MTech seats starting from the upcoming academic year. Provisional data indicates that 83 colleges accounting for a total of 24,000 seats have applied for closure; 494 colleges have sought permission to discontinue some undergraduate and postgraduate engineering programmes, in all affecting 42,000 seats, and 639 colleges have requested AICTE to reduce their collective intake by 62,000 seats.

Management schools across the country give us more reasons to celebrate. Hundred and one management institutes have sought voluntary closure from AICTE.  This number is higher than in previous years. In 2016-17, 76 management institutes closed down while 66 institutes shut shop in 2015-16.

Even government officials seem happy to see this happen. R Subrahmanyam, Secretary, Higher Education, in the human resource development ministry, said, “We want to emphasise on good quality education and not just focus on numbers. It is good if substandard institutions are voluntarily shutting down.”

The voluntary closure of hundreds of engineering and management institutions – perhaps all private institutions (even though reports do not specify this aspect) – gives the unfortunate illusion of a partial rescue of higher education in India when nothing of that sort is happening in reality. For the hundreds of junk and substandard colleges that shut shop, others replace them, hoping to enjoy a piece of the lucrative higher education market. Estimates peg the worth of the Indian education market at approximately $100 billion, with higher education accounting for around 15% of that.

While hundreds of junk institutions have been shutting shop every year, many more continue to do well. What’s worse is that many have even gained credibility by employing clever marketing strategies. In a country where the numbers of young people seeking a college degree is high and continues to rise with time, the junk and nearly-junk colleges make merry at the expense of the students, who seem to not have enough viable options to turn to.

A liberal arts era?

From the above data, it looks like we may be approaching the end of an era where the craze for engineering and management degrees created conditions conducive to a rapacious private sector in higher education. However, it seems likely that we may enter a “liberal arts era”, which promises to be no less ruthless than the decades of exploitation of engineering/management institutions.

In the coming years, it is likely that scores, if not hundreds, of new private institutions focusing on liberal arts will emerge, modelled on the likes of credible institutions such as Ashoka University, Azim Premji University and Ahmedabad University. Unlike them, however, these new private institutions will be predatory and play approximately the same role as their counterparts in the engineering/management era. Instead of junk engineering colleges, we will have junk liberal arts institutions whose contribution to the career and life choices of young Indians will be nil.

Better regulations

There is no doubt that private institutions in the higher education sector must be reined in. The need of the hour is not more regulation, rather better regulation. To improve the higher education sector, it is not necessary to halt the growth of the private sector but control it in a way that the number of junk and nearly-junk institutions is reduced drastically.

Among other options, the government can consider going easy on the opening of private institutions but prompt in shutting down predatory ones. Such measures will encourage credible private providers and dissuade unscrupulous ones from setting up “businesses”.

The University Grants Commission and AICTE recently put up a list of 23 fake universities and 279 fake technical institutes. This is just the tip of the iceberg. Overall, 77.8% of colleges in India are private. At least half of them, if not more, are likely to be junk or nearly-junk institutions. And nearly 40% of all colleges in the country have <500 students. Given this data, should such small colleges be even allowed to exist? It important for the governing bodies to re-examine the feasibility of running such colleges.

At the end of the day, while there are a few signs that India’s higher education sector can be rescued from its dismal depths, the onus is on the government to rescue India’s young population from a hopeless future. And given the declining numbers of students attending public institutions, it is obvious that it needs to pay greater attention to the private sector.

Of course, whether or not the government is willing and capable of playing a regulatory role in managing the explosive growth of the private sector is another matter altogether.

Pushkar (@PushHigherEd) is Director, The International Centre Goa (ICG). Dona Paula. The views expressed here are personal.