The higher education system in India is seemingly close to becoming a commodity – available for sale at your nearest university for a hefty price! End of last month, the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) declared over 60 universities, including Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Banaras Hindu University (BHU), and Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), “autonomous”. As per the new proposal of the University Grants Commission (UGC), these institutes of higher education must now sustain on a 70:30 funding mix, with 70% to still come from the government. However, public grants are now to be replaced by loans courtesy the restructured Higher Education Funding Agency (HEFA), an MHRD-backed non-profit entity structured to provide low-cost capital to public universities.
In the words of Prakash Javadekar, HRD Minister, the government is “striving to introduce a liberalised regime in education”, where institutions are granted decision-making freedom with regard to operational (curriculum, programmes, hiring, distance learning etc.) as well as financial (fee structures, spending, funding) matters. The Education Minister of India asserts the emphasis will be on “linking [the said] autonomy with quality.” While all that sounds very promising, it is key to understand that the “cost” of this promised higher quality and autonomy should not be a lack of access.
It is feared that withdrawn support to government universities would inevitably cause disruption in the disbursement of salaries to faculty, introduction of “self-financing courses” and a hike in fees hitting the students. That is primarily the argument of the Delhi University Teachers’ Association (DUTA), which has been protesting against this unprecedented move. In their defence, the idea that government universities are being “granted financial autonomy” with reduced funding does appear disingenuous. An increase in fees would be a natural outcome. While the argument in favour of a liberalised regime is understandable, the solution, in its present form, does appear to set a precedent for privatisation of India’s top government universities. Any dilution in the vision of these distinguished institutions, whose mission has always been to provide a quality future to anyone with merit, irrespective of their economic leanings, would be a travesty.
The origins of the present debacle can be linked to the government’s attempts of aligning our education sector with the World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) General Agreement on Trade and Services (GATS), to which India is a signatory. Many experts disagree with GATS’ push towards educational liberalisation, arguing this sector, similar to healthcare, cannot be treated as a unidimensional ‘tradable commodity’. At our present lack of economic parity, access to education should remain a higher priority.
Each country has its own model with regard to education. Germany and Sweden follow a 100% subsidised model while the United States prefers a profit-driven quality focused system. The system in India presents a paradox. Our highest quality, merit-focused, and most economical institutions are usually state-owned. Private setups have a varied quality and are unanimously expensive. And they have never created the backbone of our system. Case in point is that out of 800 universities in total only 260 universities are Private. The rest are Central, State or deemed Universities. Institutes such as IITs, IIMs and AIIMS are autonomous in nature, i.e. they enjoy full freedom in deciding courses, course structure, admission criteria and fees. Central universities are governed by the Department of Higher education (DHE) under MHRD and are centrally funded, while the State universities as the name suggest are state-funded and managed.
But it isn’t like the government is spending a lot. As per the CAG reports brought to notice in parliament between 2016 and 2017, the total tax collection of INR83,497 crore under the secondary and higher education cess (levied since 2006-07) lies unspent. What is more appalling is that the budgetary allocation for education has been reduced from 3.7% of GDP (2017-18 revised estimates) to 3.5% (2018-19) of GDP!
Aside from increasing state spending, India can definitely open its ‘market’ to private and foreign universities, granting them full and real freedom to be run as for-profit organisations. Shaking the funding model of government universities in a bout to privatise is not a solution.
Moreover, the government can consider encouraging big corporations to invest in education, either through their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) allocations, but preferably as core investments. Tax breaks, subsidised land & infrastructure, along with viability gap funding should act as possible sweeteners. Contributions can also be channelized through an industry-regulated and managed education-oriented fund, from which universities of national importance can seek grants and in turn build research and employment partnerships with the investee companies.
Long-term problems require long-term solutions. And shrugging responsibility, withdrawing support, and leaving an industry with a natural social objective to the free-wheeling forces of capitalism isn’t one.