India: The Private Sector Emerges in Higher Education
The system of higher education in India is one of the largest in the world. In just four years, the number of universities rose from 178 in 1997 to 256 in 2001. Between 1994 and 1999, more than 500 new colleges were established annually. Since India’s independence in 1947, student registration in higher education has grown to 29 times the original figure. However, among people between the ages of 17 and 24, only 6 percent are currently enrolled in universities. It is expected that this percentage will drop considerably if education in the public sector does not continue its rapid growth in the next decade.
At present, the university system is too large for the government of India to maintain financially. Until the late 1980s, the state supplied up to 90 percent of the total funding for higher education. In contrast, student fees contributed around 5 percent. However, after the government saw minimal returns from such a huge investment, it changed its policy, increasing funding at the elementary and secondary levels and decreasing funding at the university level. The inevitable result was the creation of self-financing institutions whose funding is derived mainly from tuition fees. In the southern state of Tamil Nadu, for example, self-financing institutions outnumber those that are government-aided.
The inability of the public sector to respond to the rapid growth in higher education is but one aspect of recent developments in the private sector. Rapid advancements in technology around the world demand that the educational system produce a skilled labor force in the shortest possible period of time. While there has been a dramatic increase in the number of public colleges established in recent years, most of them only offer general education courses through syllabuses set by their affiliating universities. These colleges have neither the flexibility nor the financial resources to offer the same innovative programs that private institutions have developed. A graduate of a traditional three-year bachelor’s program has virtually no marketable skills as compared to one that has completed a program that included industry placement and enrichment modules in the same three-year span.
The Need for Quality Assurance
The explosion in higher education in India is startling given the fact that 36 percent of the country’s population falls below the poverty line. Despite this figure, there are enough families who are willing to pay exorbitant sums for higher education when it is asked of them. Education is viewed by many as the only mechanism that allows for latitude within the rigidity of the social system. Unfortunately, the disparity between rich and poor is reflected in the quality of education imparted to each group. Poorer parents have no choice but to enroll their children in state-funded institutions that lack the facilities and teacher talent of their self-financed counterparts.
Private institutions are not completely without criticism. The danger with self-financed institutions lies in the very characteristic that distinguishes them from public institutions. Since they are not dependent on the state for funding, they are not subject to the same regulations regarding use of resources and quality of education. Professional institutions promise potential students lucrative positions in their field of choice upon graduation, but there is no guarantee that they can make good on their claims. While some of them make significant contributions to the need for a highly skilled work force, others merely capitalize on trends like management and computer education in order to make a profit. Indeed, all of the self-financing institutions collect fees from their students, but too many of them are run for the sole purpose of exploiting teachers and students alike without delivering quality.
Both the public and private sectors are under scrutiny when it comes to quality. The issue has come to the forefront of discussions on higher education in India, particularly in the past decade. The University Grants Commission (UGC), established in 1956, is the national authority responsible for determining and maintaining educational standards for colleges and universities. Although this body does make recommendations as to whether an institution is following the UGC guidelines already in place, it has thus far been powerless to enforce these guidelines. The National Policies on Education drafted in 1986 stressed the need for a comprehensive examination of India’s educational system at all levels. The following eight years were spent in examining internationally accepted standards for quality assessment as well as developing a workable strategy within the Indian context.
In 1994, the UGC established the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) as an external agency responsible for grading universities and colleges according to the quality of education they impart. In order to do this, NAAC established a set of criteria that any institution of higher learning can use to evaluate its own performance. These include: curricular aspects; teaching-learning and evaluation; research, consultancy and extension; infrastructure and learning resources; student support and progression; organization and management; and healthy practices. Institutions voluntarily initiate the process of accreditation by drafting a letter of intent to NAAC and establishing a committee of both faculty and students. The committee then prepares a detailed report on the institution’s standing with respect to the seven criteria listed above. After the self-study report is submitted to NAAC, a team of peers is assembled and a campus visit is scheduled. The purpose of the peer visit is to verify the claims made in the self-study report, but it is also a mechanism by which the peer team makes recommendations about future improvements. Following the team visit, NAAC’s Executive Committee makes a final decision regarding the institution’s accreditation status and grades those deemed “accredited” on a five-point scale. The weight of each of the seven parameters listed above varies in determining the final score depending on the type of institution being assessed.
Opposition to External Quality Assurance
The UGC originally set two assessment deadlines: Dec. 31, 2000, for universities and Dec. 31, 2001, for colleges. However, only about 150 colleges and 10 universities have since completed the assessment process. Institutions have cited several reasons for resistance to accreditation, including lack of resources, documentation and/or time to carry out self-assessment. In addition, administrators at affiliated colleges feel that autonomous institutions have an unfair advantage because autonomy allows for greater flexibility in program structure, use of funds and teaching strategies. Perhaps the most compelling argument for rejection of the NAAC is the fact that so few of the most reputable institutions in India have initiated the assessment process; they simply do not need to rely on an external agency’s endorsement.
Outlook for Higher Education
The NAAC’s main initiative is to address the qualitative problems that have arisen because of the recent explosion in higher education. However, the agency’s authority is confined to institutions that are already recognized by the University Grants Commission as degree-granting institutions or as affiliated institutions. They have no power to assess or regulate private, unrecognized institutions. Officials responsible for educational policy must address qualitative issues in the private sector with as much vigor as NAAC has in the public sector.
At present, India is second only to China in the number of students exported to U.S. institutions of higher education. With 54,000 students studying abroad, the potential exists that only a very small percentage will return to their home country and put their knowledge to use. There is no doubt that more students will go elsewhere if higher education in India continues to fail them both quantitatively and qualitatively. This will have a serious impact on India’s development in the future.