Expert Speak Urban Futures
Published on Dec 11, 2019
India’s demographic dividend will pay off only if the youth are either enrolled in higher education programmes or made job-ready with effective skilling initiatives.
Regulating fees will not improve quality of Indian HEIs

As India aims to become a five trillion dollar economy by 2024-25, there is surprisingly little debate on the need for an increased and sustained focus on the development of its human resource — which is of fundamental importance for the country to achieve this target. The realisation of India’s much-touted demographic dividend is incumbent upon the capability of education and training institutions to equip young Indians with knowledge and skills relevant to an evolving job market.

Against this backdrop, the University Grants Commission’s (UGC) recent draft proposal to regulate fees in private universities has generated significant debate. The proposal has found favour with some quarters given the high fees charged by a number of private higher education institutes across the country. Conversely, the need for government to interfere with fee fixation is considered by many educationists and experts to be a populist measure that is against market forces. In order to analyse the pros and cons of such a regulation, it’s essential to understand the context.

Conversely, the need for government to interfere with fee fixation is considered by many educationists and experts to be a populist measure that is against market forces.

First, the numbers. According to the All India Survey on Higher Education 2019, currently, 26.3 percent of the 18-23 year-olds in the country — i.e. more than 35 million — are enrolled in higher education institutions (HEIs). Of those, almost 80 percent are enrolled in undergraduate courses. Of the 993 universities in India, nearly 39 percent are privately-managed. Of the 39,931 colleges, 78 percent are from the private sector (aided and unaided). Private colleges cater to 66.4 percent of the total enrollment in higher education, which means that a mere 22 percent of government colleges are catering to a disproportionately large number of students who could not afford to seek higher education in private HEIs.

In this scenario, it is often argued that since a number of private universities charge high fees, it is difficult for students from economically weaker sections to avail admission. Thus, it makes sense for government to step in to regulate their fees. In this simplistic binary narrative, what gets ignored is the consistently declining quality of public or state-run HEI’s across the country — save for a handful of central and state universities.

In reality, however, while some private institutions do charge higher tuition fees, their seats do not remain unfilled. India’s burgeoning middle class attaches immense aspirational value and social status to higher education and is willing to invest to ensure quality — which they believe is available in private institutions. Since most private HEIs depend heavily on tuition fees as their prime source of revenue, they charge higher fees to invest in infrastructure and quality faculty. The ones who supplement the learning experience and quality education with lucrative and substantial job offers for students at the end of the course are ensured a healthy stream of students — many of whom fiercely compete to secure admissions — despite the high fee structure.

Since most private HEIs depend heavily on tuition fees as their prime source of revenue, they charge higher fees to invest in infrastructure and quality faculty.

On the other hand, most public HEIs — while catering to a significant student population at subsidised fees — have failed to impart job-relevant education. A number of state universities (there are more than 400 in the country) are languishing as a result of hegemonic administrative structures, absence of autonomy and accountability, outdated curricula, disinterested faculty and financial constraints.

However, irrespective of the above-mentioned drawbacks, public-funded higher education systems are pivotal to ensure social inclusion. Even today, students belonging to Scheduled Castes (SC) comprise less than 15 percent of the total enrollment in higher education. This number falls to less than six percent for Scheduled Tribes (ST). It is unfair to expect such students — many of whom are first generation learners at the higher education level — to depend on substandard public institutions, while their economically — or socially-privileged counterparts can pay their way to quality private education. An overhaul of the governing and administrative structure of state-funded HEIs is long overdue, but is far from realisation thanks to the lack of political will and commitment. Regulating the private sector, therefore, is not a panacea to improving India’s public higher education system.

This is not to say that private universities should have no social responsibility or be allowed to charge exorbitant tuition or capitation fees. However, it would be unwise to try to create a level playing field for public HEIs by regulating the fees of private institutions. It would rather be more sensible to establish a rigorous audit of expenses to ensure that the revenue earned by private HEIs is spent on institutional development, regular and robust accreditation mechanisms, faculty knowledge enhancement, mandatory merit and need-based scholarships for economically — and socially —disadvantaged students. Such measures, and not fee regulation, are better options that ensure accountability of private HEIs without compromising on their autonomy and efficacy.

An overhaul of the governing and administrative structure of state-funded HEIs is long overdue, but is far from realisation thanks to the lack of political will and commitment.

To begin with, urgent attention must be given to periodic and robust mechanisms of inspection and accreditation of private universities. In the last three years, UGC expert committees — tasked with inspection of universities — have inspected only 71 out of 344 universities. Even among these, only 42 have sent compliance reports as per the expert committee recommendations. For years, the UGC has been unable to shoulder the responsibility of effective monitoring of HEIs. It is about time that third party organisations, with no conflict of interest, are tasked with this mandate. While the UGC can play a supervisory role, the length and breadth of India’s higher education ecosystem demands more hands on deck.

A corollary to this narrative is the higher education versus skilling debate. India has separate skilling ministries at the centre and state levels that have their own mechanisms for skill education. They conduct various skilling programmes, through different institutions for varied age groups. In addition, the private sector also runs several short-term skilling programmes based on industry requirements. So, an argument often made is that higher education is not for all. It should only be for specialisations selected by a certain ‘capable’ section of the population.

India’s demographic dividend will pay off only if the youth are either enrolled in higher education programmes or made job-ready with effective skilling initiatives. Sadly, skilling programmes as of now have little to — no interfacing with the higher education ecosystem. Also, since the UGC is not associated with most skilling initiatives, students on completion do not get a conventional degree — the traditionally-accepted stamp of approval of being ‘educated’ as per the existing social mindset. Moreover, the skills ecosystem in India is still finding its feet in terms of structure, design and relevance. As a result, a higher education degree still holds more merit and respect in the job market. Unless pathways which allow movement of students between conventional and vocational education are created, India runs the risk of creating another hierarchical system wherein a privileged class partakes in higher education, whereas skill development is the option for the rest.

In conclusion, regulating fees will neither help improve the quality of HEIs nor facilitate robust accountability and accreditation mechanisms. These problems must assume top priority in the higher education sector. The realisation of India’s youth potential hangs in the balance and that is too much of a bargain to lose in the name of creating a level playing field for state-managed HEIs.

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