Monday, 30th October 2017

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New routes to learning

The problem with India's private universities

By Shubhashis Gangopadhyay
  • Published 22.09.16

According to some estimates, in 2019 there will be more private higher educational institutions than those funded by the government. And, with many more private than government colleges, by 2019 close to 90 per cent students doing higher studies will do so in private institutions. Of course, this is by using the broad definition of what a private educational institution is. For example, there are states where the salaries of teachers in private colleges come from the government even when the management, and ownership of the institution, are private. Nevertheless, privately funded and managed higher educational institutions are here to stay and grow.

One of our lasting colonial legacies is our lack of confidence in ourselves. So, whenever we need to do anything we try to find out what other countries have done rather than do the thinking ourselves. Since the United States of America is a good example of quality private institutions in the higher education space, I started looking at the histories of some of the better known private universities in that country. One of the first things that leap out of the records and archives of these great universities is the near complete separation of funding and management. People who funded these universities had little or no say in the curriculum, student admissions or faculty recruitment. The only connection the financiers had with the university they helped set up was in the names by which the universities are known. This is a major departure from what we see in private universities in India. The funders, or their relatives, being a part of the management is more the norm than an exception in the new Indian private universities.

The second major characteristic was the focus of the early management on the diversity of thought encouraged in these institutions. This was in spite of the fact that most of these universities were set up by people from the clergy or scholars on theology. For example, William Rainey Harper, the first president of the University of Chicago and a biblical scholar from Yale University, had the following to say: "[T]he principle of complete freedom of speech on all subjects has from the beginning been regarded as fundamental in the University of Chicago." The current president, Robert J. Zimmer, in his inaugural convocation address, mentioned that from its very inception, the university "has been driven by a singular focus on inquiry - with a firm belief in the value of open, rigorous, and intense inquiry and a common understanding that this must be the defining feature of this university. Everything about the University of Chicago that we recognize as distinctive flows from this commitment..."

Stanford University, similarly, went against the wind. It started as co-educational at a time when most of the other universities were all-male. Like Chicago, they decided to be non-denominational, again when most were associated with a religious organization. It is important to understand why the separation of funding from management is necessary in an institution of higher learning. First, although most initial funders had amassed their wealth through business and commerce, they were not experts on education. Yes, they thought education was important enough for them to give up a part of their wealth for its cause. No, they did not think they were the best to manage institutions of higher learning. Indeed, the fact that I am concerned about the health of the nation does not mean that I will be a good doctor.

Second, by staying out of management the funders were actually protecting themselves. One serious problem some of our private institutions face is that their funders, who are also their founders, are successful business houses or businesses. There is a strong connection between government and commerce in India, starting from getting land for establishments to inquiries by tax authorities and other regulatory inspectors. And then, of course, the government is often a major procurer of their services. It is easier for the government (state and Central) to pressurize these businesses into being soft on their criticism of governments. There are instances of faculty members being reined in by the management and cajoled into toeing the government line. Indeed, one of the most important characteristic of a university has to be what the first president of the university of Chicago said when it was founded: "The question before us is how to become one in spirit, not necessarily in opinion."

The third characteristic of the great private universities was the focus on teaching everything. In other words, it was not restricted to the professional schools like business, engineering, medicine and law; nor was it restricted to the sciences alone. What students are willing to pay for was, of course, a concern; but, it was always a constraint, never an objective. It is, indeed, depressing to see how we continually forget this when planning on higher education. There is a lot of discussion in Indian education circles on STEM, a curriculum in colleges and universities to train students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. It was developed in the US because the powers that be noticed a gradual decline in the desire among students to pursue these programmes. This was reflected in the increasing number of students applying for the arts and social sciences rather than science and engineering. I do not think this is an issue in India where everybody wants to be an engineer. This is not to say that subjects like mathematics are not important for India but to point out that focus on mathematics alone may make us like Ceausescu's Romania but will never make us realize our dream of being a knowledge-based society.

If one were to reflect on what we have been doing in education over the past many years since Independence, the thing that jumps up at us is the gradual decline of university life. Both as research and teaching institutions our publicly funded universities have gone down. But this is largely because of lack of funds. The government, supported by many of our intellectuals, has created specialized institutions of research and higher learning through generous funding obtained by drawing down the resources from universities. These institutions mostly support postgraduate students and do research in specific disciplines. Higher education has, thus, become a sophisticated skilling programme rather than a programme that develops the mind. I remember when I first started my career, I met a famous probabilist who remarked that studies in development should be stopped because they teach people to aspire and that is when society becomes restless and disturbs the delicate balance we have become used to. No, he did not say it in jest.

Finally, a reading of the histories of the great institutions of higher learning, keeps pointing to the fact that these were set up to have an impact on society. They were not meant to be the refuge of the social elite but a place where thoughtful groups of people could discuss and debate on what is good for society, experiment with implementable ideas and, finally, play a role in the betterment of society around them. Institutes catering to careers abroad with little or no knowledge of what people around them are aspiring for is not exactly what higher educational institutions are meant to do. A final sobering thought. The University of Lund, in Sweden, was set up in 1666 for the precise purpose of making the citizens of Skåne, newly won over from the Danes, behave like the Swedes and, hence, to establish Swedish control in the region.

The author is Research Director, India Development Foundation