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Private Universities In India Can Make A Difference, But…

Private institutions can play an important role in India’s higher education sector, writes Dr. Pushkar.

| January 28, 2013 | Academia

AsianScientist (Jan. 28, 2013) - In my previous op-ed, I drew attention to India's poor scientific research record in terms of the number of patents filed and overall research output.

While the country boasts of some world-renowned higher education institutions, their contribution to new knowledge is not enough to compensate for the non-performance of the majority of institutions which do not even do a good job at transmitting and dispersing existing knowledge.

I am willing to bet (and do not in the least mind losing a few) that Indians based in the West (the U.S., U.K., Canada, and elsewhere) and in the East (Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia, and elsewhere) have a comparable if not higher research output than those based at Indian institutions.

Given India's poor record in the production of new knowledge, a recent report, "Indian Higher Education: The Twelfth Plan and Beyond," by the government's Planning Commission, the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), and Ernst & Young caught my attention. According to the authors of this report, private institutions can play an important role by creating knowledge networks and research and innovation centers.

Private institutions in India have not lived up to the mark

Philip Altbach, who has studied higher education around the world for nearly five decades, notes that, with some exceptions, "there are no successful private research universities outside of the U.S. and Japan."

I have argued elsewhere that while private institutions do have the potential to make a contribution in the production of new knowledge, it is quite unlikely that they will actually do so in the foreseeable future.

It is very unlikely that India's private institutions will emulate the American or Japanese models. This is because the majority of private institutions are run by two sets of entrepreneurial social groups - business people and politicians - who are in the game for one simple reason: higher education is a great business opportunity. According to one estimate, the higher education sector will be worth US$22 billion this year.

While India's laws require private higher education institutions to be non-profit entities, nearly all are eager and impatient predators. It is estimated that five million Indians enter the 15-to-24 age group each year and many more of them are interested in obtaining a college degree today than in the past. Public institutions are in no position to meet what seems like an ever-growing demand for higher education.

Not surprisingly, private institutions have proliferated across the country to meet the high demand for education, especially in professional streams such as engineering and management. Labeled "teaching factories" by its detractors, they charge high fees and often demand a lump sum by one name or another.

As a rule, these institutions get away with providing third-rate education. The cozy relationship between business groups and politicians has ensured that the private sector remains both over-regulated and poorly regulated. Over-regulation keeps credible competitors from entering the higher education sector and poor regulation allows those that are in the game to make hay. As a result, the country is witnessing nothing short of a naked exploitation of students and parents who have nowhere to go.

Newer private universities are aiming higher

Given the current state of regulatory mechanisms, it is hardly surprising that few private institutions do a good job of teaching, let alone research in which returns are uncertain and typically come about only over the long-term.

Bhushan Patwardhan, who resigned in late-2012 as the vice-chancellor of Symbiosis International University, one of India's leading private universities, reasoned with me that perhaps my prognosis on private institutions is a little too bleak. An experienced administrator and reputed scholar (he has eight patents and several publications on health and traditional medicine to his name), Mr. Patwardhan himself cited the "work culture and environment" at Symbiosis as "not conducive to make scholarly contributions" as the reason for his resignation.

However, Mr. Patwardhan may have a point. A few of the newer private universities offer hope.

One of the truisms about India's higher education sector is that there are few good comprehensive institutions other than Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi and perhaps a few other central universities (those funded directly by the central government). The IITs and the IIMs are specialized institutions and appear unlikely to expand their role.

In this context, the Shiv Nadar University in the National Capital Region (NCR) promises to emerge as one of the country’s leading comprehensive institutions in the years to come. The university is the brain-child of Shiv Nadar who made his billions in India's new economy as the founder of HCL Technologies, a leading IT firm. A few years ago, Mr. Nadar committed 10 percent of his personal wealth (estimated at US$6.5 billion in 2012) to charity, especially education.

Unlike most of India's private institutions which have hired a small number of West-educated faculty members or administrators (in all likelihood to signal unsuspecting students into believing that they offer high-quality education), a cursory look at the faculty profile of any department at SNU shows that its faculty - junior and senior - is trained at the very best Indian institutions or is from ranked institutions abroad.

The Indian School of Business (ISB), Hyderabad, is the only private institution in India that enjoys an international reputation. ISB started admitting students in 2001 and within a decade of its existence, it moved into the top 20 rankings.

Now, the founding Dean of ISB, Pramath Raj Sinha (also a University of Pennsylvania Ph.D. graduate and a former professor of computer science at the University of Toronto), has brought together a bunch of high-profile Indians (many of whom are or were associated with the ISB) to start Ashoka University in Sonepat, just outside the city of Delhi in the NCR.

The founders of Ashoka are clear about their goal, which is "to build a world-class university in India." Based on the past record of Mr. Sinha and his team, Ashoka University, which will begin admitting students from 2014 onwards, may well emulate the ISB.

Both SNU and Ashoka have modeled themselves on American schools and have deliberately injected multidisciplinary education into the curriculum. Ashoka is also very self-consciously trying to provide a strong liberal arts foundation for students in the sciences and engineering. As a sort of dry run, the promoters of Ashoka have been running the immensely popular and competitive Young India Fellowship Program since 2011.

Three other private institutions deserve to be mentioned – the Azim Premji University (APU), the Institute for the Study of Human Settlements (IIHS) in Bengaluru (formerly Bangalore), and the Jindal Global University (JGU) in Sonepat. However, unlike SNU and Ashoka University, all three are specialized institutions devoted to specific areas.

Most of the above-mentioned private universities appear to be doing the right things in terms of building their institutions. In particular, all of them have recruited capable faculty members who can both teach and carry out research.

While the future success of these newer private universities is not guaranteed, what is interesting about these institutions is that they have chosen self-regulation to try to rise above the mediocrity around them. Rather than exploit the existing regulatory mechanisms for quick returns, their founders appear to be dreaming big about building world-class institutions.

Unfortunately, the emergence of these promising private institutions will almost certainly not change the larger picture. The task of research and innovation will continue to be largely undertaken at public institutions. A recent announcement by the central government that it will spend Rs. 500 crore (approximately US$90 million) in the current financial year through its Rashtriya Ucchatar Shiksha Abhiyan (RUSA or the National Higher Education Campaign) may help.

Pushkar has a Ph.D. in political science from McGill University, Canada. He previously taught at the University of Goa, Concordia University, McGill University, and the University of Ottawa.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Wikipedia/CC.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

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