Private Participation in Higher Education: The Road Ahead

Prof. (Dr.) Mahul Brahma


Higher education holds the key to the social, political, cultural and economic development of a nation. The assertion couldn’t have been any truer when it comes to India, which historically has had a rich academic legacy. As we speak, the country stands at the cusp of a major educational revolution. With the National Education Policy 2020 (NEP) projected to change the paradigm of higher education in the country, this might be the right time to take a closer look at a dominant national trend – the proliferation of private universities.

Numbers Never Lie

Before jumping straight in, it might be worthwhile to have a sneak peek into the current scenario for it might provide the much-needed backdrop to this discussion. According to the All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE) 2019-20, the total enrolment in higher education was 3.85 crore, a 11.4 per cent growth over the 2015-16 figure. This translated to a Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) of 27.1 per cent in 2019-20. Just so that we have some clarity, GER is basically the percentage of population in the age bracket of 18 years to 23 years, who are enrolled in higher education. Given the fact that the NEP aims for a 50 per cent GER by 2035, higher education in India still need to traverse a significant distance.

In the given context, let us look at some additional statistics concerning higher education in India. According to data available with the University Grants Commission (UGC), as of August 2021, the total number of universities in India stands at 1,005, which is 25.8 per cent higher than the 2015-16 figure of 799. However, the growth in the number of private universities was much steeper. From a paltry 277 in 2015-16, the total number of private universities rose to 388 in 2021, which amounts to a 40 per cent growth.

Clearly, the private universities have outpaced the public universities. To meet the NEP objective of 50 per cent GER, it is obvious that there has to be a significant increase in the number of higher educational institutions. One can appreciate the enormity of this increase when a 2018 study conducted by the UK-India Business Council says that the country needs 1,500 more universities by 2030 in order to become a superpower. Superpower or not, this number seems very close to reality when one considers the tremendous inequity in opportunities vis-à-vis education in India.


Whither Private Higher Education in India

Now that the decks have been cleared, it is important to revisit our primordial topic of discussion. While there have been innumerable narratives and counter narratives concerning the meteoric numerical rise of private universities in India over the past two decades, nobody could possibly ignore its impact on the collective national consciousness. Clearly public universities haven’t been able to cater to the growing number of students in higher education.

The gap between demand and supply could be gauged when one sees the absurd cut-off criteria set for different colleges functioning under the aegis of the University of Delhi. For some colleges, the 2021 cut-off marks was set as high as 99.5 per cent for a degree in Economics (Honours) or Bachelor of Commerce (B.Com.) (Honours). This mad scrambling of seats has resulted in an unhealthy competition thereby leading to a number of social evils such as suicides, largescale depression and low self-esteem among students, who fail to make the cut.

This is where the private universities come in. As much as exorbitant tuition fees constitutes a constraint at times, the reality remains that many students couldn’t have realized their career dreams had these universities not been there. Better infrastructure, updated curricula, better industry-academia connect, absence of bureaucracy, enhanced accountability, equal treatment and assured placements have been some of the points that have been forwarded in favour of the private universities. While some of these points are largely true, some are inflated as well. As everything else, private investments in higher education also has both bright and dark sides. However, we can’t keep on pondering on the dark sides as the NEP vision of 50 per cent enrolment can never be achieved without a substantial contribution from the private sector.

However, we shall leave the core issue unaddressed if we don’t talk about the obvious benefits of private universities, which are propelling the mentioned surge. It might be a good idea to look at some such benefits:

  1. Flexibility in Curricula: Private universities offer the much-needed flexibility when it comes to the curricula. These universities are more in tune with the contemporary professional demands. It needs to be remembered here that the advent of latest technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML) and the Internet of Things (IoT) have restructured the need for human resources. Thus, the last decade has seen old skills becoming obsolete. Mechanical and repetitive skills have become redundant and new skills such as Design Thinking and empathy have taken over. The private universities are better suited to take care of these changes and make the students future-ready.
  2. Infinitesimally Better Infrastructure: Most of the privately-funded universities have a superior infrastructure that fits the needs of modern education. Smart classrooms, a hybrid educational model, better laboratories and a better campus life constitute some of the reasons why a large number of students have started preferring private universities over public universities.
  3. The Emergence of the Public-Private Partnership (PPP) Model: Increasingly, the central government and several state governments are coming up with joint educational ventures with private entities. In the next one decade or so, this is going to be the dominant trend. Consequently, autonomous centres of excellence are coming up thereby significantly enhancing the quality of education in the country.
  4. The Global Emphasis on Liberal Education: Although the NEP clearly emphasises on the importance of liberal education, the government universities are miles behind implementing it. Private universities, which are not held back by constricting legacies, can be game-changers in this regard. As testimonies, we can take the cases of universities such as Ashoka University, Shiv Nadar University and O.P. Jindal Global Universities that are aggressively pushing for a liberal turn in their respective educational systems. Liberal education, as many global pundits suggest, is the next big thing in the world of education. It is set to bring in a new progressive era where educational hegemonies and monopolies would end. Liberal education truly brings in academic egalitarianism replacing the discriminatory and destructive Victorian elitism.
  5. Absence of Red-Tapism: Often, the functioning of the government universities are plagued by unnecessary hierarchies and pointless bureaucracies. Thus, students are often lost in the procedural jugglery. Private universities, on the other hand, are way more professional and treat the students as clients. This makes the process of education smoother and more balanced.


Eastern India and Private Higher Education

The eastern part of India has traditionally given some of the country’s leading thinkers. However, subject to a substantial shortage of political will and a dip in business over the past few decades, the region has become educationally backward as well. While the likes of public universities such as University of Calcutta, Jadavpur University, Tezpur University and Gauhati University have been keeping the academic flag high in the region, it has clearly not been enough. The disparity is evident when one considers the sheer number of students from the region, who flock to cities such as Bengaluru, Pune and Delhi for graduate and post-graduate studies. This points to a severe brain drain, which in turn has hampered the intellectual growth of the region. This situation requires immediate attention. In the absence of a clear strategy, the private sector can be of much help. While some private universities have opened in the region in the recent past, the quality of these institutions is still under the scanner. Many of these universities have faced the obvious accusation of being just degree providers and not being institutes of excellence.

In the given scenario, it is indeed the need of the hour for credible private entities to turn their attention to education. The industry bodies need to play a significant role in the entire exercise. It is important to remember that the production of quality and skilled human resources would eventually benefit the industry only. Currently, employable resources are being hired from outside the region at significantly higher rates. The establishment of quality and research-based universities would create the manpower within the region itself and reduce the demand-supply bottleneck.


Looking at the Future

Looking at the current situation, it is safe to assume that exciting times are about to set in the Indian higher education sector. While the complete picture is yet to erupt, it could be argued that the private sector would have an augmented role in fixing the problems in Indian higher education. While profitability will continue to be a factor, the quality will also invariably improve subject to the apparent professional trends. Even the sky isn’t really the limit!

* Mahul Brahma is Professor and Dean, School of Media and Communication, Adamas University. Views expressed are his own. 

** Photo by Javier Trueba on Unsplash 

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