Will Indian higher education move from stifling regulation to authentic quality assurance?

Indian higher education is in a state of flux due to an incoherent policy framework. For example, recent scrapping of the four-year degree program at the University of Delhi also affected private universities which were trying to bring four-year liberal arts program in India. What is appalling is that quality assurance framework in India is not only archaic and complex, but also lacks the capability to distinguish wheat from the chaff. While private higher education has its own challenges of quality, there are models of excellence that need to be showcased and encouraged to uplift the quality in private sector. Here is a guest blog from Dr. Vidya Rajiv Yeravdekar, head of Symbiosis International University-one of the premier private deemed-university-on unfair treatment of private higher education in India. She asks why toughest regulations are designed for private higher education which receives no funding while there is no oversight of public institutions which get all their finances from government? – Dr. Rahul Choudaha
http://siu.edu.in/Symbiosis_International_University/symbiosis_principal_director_Dr-Vidya-Yeravdekar.phpDr. Vidya Rajiv Yeravdekar is an eminent Indian educationalist. She is renowned for her leadership in educational policy, governance, and research. A member of the Central Advisory Board of Education and former member of the University Grants Commission, she has resolutely advocated for driving higher education forward as a top agenda item. Of special interest to her is the subject of internationalization of higher education. She is also the leader of Symbiosis International University, which is at the forefront of internationalization of higher education in the country.
When will Saraswati (Goddess of learning) win Freedom?
In 1947, India won political freedom—Independence from British colonial rule. In 1991, the country won economic freedom, with the advent of the LPG trio—liberalisation, privatisation, and globalisation. We have come a long way since then, but India is yet to win educational freedom.
First things first, we can only reap what we sow—India’s public expenditure in higher education as percentage of gross domestic product is a low 0.6%. For this reason alone, it is important to open the system to competition from non-Governmental sectors. The advancement of private higher education in India has been driven by a very compelling demand in the higher education demographic, and not public policy.
The last decade has witnessed phenomenal growth of the private sector. In the year 2002, India had nearly 4400 professional colleges, of which about 3150—which account for more than 70%–were in the private sector. In the year 2012, almost 64% of the higher educational institutions were in the private sector. This growth is reflected in other parameters as well: As much as 59% of student enrolment in higher education system is in the private sector.
India has four distinct types of higher education institutions: public universities, which are established by the central government through acts of the parliament; state universities, which are established by state legislation; third, private or “self-financed” universities, which are called “deemed-to-be-universities” and are governed by section three of the University Grants Commission (UGC) Act; and private universities in states, established through the Private University Act.
The commonly called private universities do not receive a single rupee for development from the Indian Government. They subsist on the revenues that they gather from tuition fees. Be that as it may, students, who are the most important stake holders and beneficiaries of the higher education system, clearly prefer private universities to public. This is mainly because the private universities offer more with respect to enhancement of the employability aspect of the student’s repertoire. Moreover, private universities generally offer choices in programs that are career oriented such as engineering, management, and architecture, compared with public universities, which mainly focus on “general education” programs in humanities and social sciences.
Notwithstanding the above, the Indian Government reserves its most stringent regulatory measures for the private institutions. Even more bizarre is that public universities, which receive government funding to the tune of millions of rupees, are allowed to operate with only minimal regulations. In an ironic twist, public intuitions, which do not enrol students to full capacity, are left off scot-free, whereas private universities, which are highly selective in their student intake in spite of higher tuition, are burdened with inordinately heavy regulatory mechanisms. It is distressing to note the paternalistic and directorial stance that the regulatory bodies assume in dealing with the “nuts and bolts” of academic processes.
The recent nation-wide debates and protests over the University Grants Commission’s stand on four-year undergraduate courses is a case in point. The fact of the Commission’s attack on some such programs, without a modicum of investigation into the structure and components of the programs and the manner in which it was carried out, with shocking disregard for the students and institutions can only be considered worrying.
Also curious is the case that the regulatory agencies come down the hardest on institutions that enjoy solid reputations for quality and integrity: the IITs, IISc, Symbiosis International University, and Shiv Nadar University. Indeed, it is because these institutions have enjoyed greater autonomy that they tower over the legion of low-achieving state universities, which are the way they are partly because they enjoy far less institutional self-governance. One wonders what conceivable purpose is served by the government agencies’ harmful interference, other than, of course, providing the bureaucrats an opportunity to make a show of being engaged with the higher education system. Carl Lewis’ thought comes to mind: “The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles, but to irrigate deserts.”
A long standing debate in India relates to the extent to which the Indian Government be duly and justly allowed to intervene in the supervision of the higher education institutions. Increasingly, it is being suggested that the “invisible hand of the market” be allowed more power to modulate the higher education system through the free play of the rising and dipping arms of the scale of demand and supply. It is time that India wakens to the advancements taking place to its East and West. The judgement of quality of education rests with the student, as much as it does with other entities. More and more, it is being stressed that student perceptions and judgement is an important, albeit neglected, marker of institutional quality. Similarly, it is also being put forth the world over that the boundaries between public and private are superfluous and must be relegated to the background. The present day student is well-informed and discriminating, guided as he is by legion of sources, both official and otherwise.
It is about time that the “licence Raj” be made to give way to regulatory methods that allow for authentic quality assurance. It is hoped that in the manner in which Bharat Mata (Mother India) got freedom in 1947 and Laxmi Mata (Goddess of wealth) got freedom in 1991, Saraswati Mata (Goddess of learning), too, will get freedom in the twenty-first century.