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Straight Talk: Who are the winners in India's higher education?

Can there be winners in India’s broken higher education system? Dr. Pushkar answers the question in the second article of this two part series on Winners and Losers in India’s Higher Education. Read part one of the series here.
BY Pushkar |   09-03-2016
Who is benefiting from India’s broken higher education? 

In a seminal 2007 article, Devesh Kapur and Pratap Bhanu Mehta squarely put the blame for the state of higher education on politicians, arguing that its failures benefitted them directly:

It makes good financial sense [for politicians] to run government-run higher education institutions to the ground since it forces students and parents to look for more meaningful alternatives in the private sector—which are controlled by them. Politicians have emerged as the single largest provider of new higher educational institutions.

Other than private colleges and universities, in which many politicians have a direct or indirect involvement, including financial stakes, there are two other big winners from India’s broken higher education sector – coaching institutes and foreign universities. Their winning ways will only get bigger as India is slated to become home to the largest student population in the world.

Private universities winning big

The official position of the Indian government is that the country needs private institutions to address the growing demand for higher education. This is quite true. The trouble is that the very same government has created, nurtured and consolidated a regulatory environment that deters credible private providers from entering the higher education market, and enables dubious ones to set up shop with ease and profit from their investments even though they are legally required to be non-profit.

A majority of private colleges and universities are run by profiteers, who have established close ties with government officials. Scores are owned and run by politicians themselves. Much like public institutions, most private institutions too provide substandard education, but at a much higher cost. Though many are found out and forced to close shop as they fail to attract sufficient numbers of students, most continue to prosper due to the shortage of government-run colleges and universities. More than 60 per cent of India’s students now attend private institutions.

It is perhaps not surprising that the foreign universities bill has not found many takers among political leaders since it has the potential to bite into the profits made by private universities.

So are coaching institutes…

Image credits: HIndu Business Line

There are broadly two kinds of coaching centres or institutes that can be found all over the country. The first consists of those which train school students for entry into engineering, medical or management colleges. The second kind prepares college graduates for jobs, whether in the government or the private sector. Here, we are concerned with the latter because they reflect the poor quality of education at colleges and universities and provide a substitute for them.

The success of coaching institutes—in terms of their numbers, geographical spread and the revenue they generate—reflects both the peculiarities of the various exams conducted by the UPSC, banks and other employers as well as the failures of college education. It has very nearly become compulsory for college graduates to enroll themselves for coaching classes in order to crack the UPSC or other exams that are mandatory for securing a job.  There are at least three good reasons for doing so.

First, competitive exams of various kinds require students to develop a particular set of exam-taking skills for which coaching classes provide better training than colleges. Second, college education is of such poor quality that students have no choice but to compensate via private tuitions and/or coaching classes. Finally, students attend coaching classes because everyone else does in order to get ahead.

The coaching sector is estimated to be worth in excess of Rs. 20,000 crores. These numbers will likely keep growing at breakneck speed. This is because, first, the government is doing precious little to address the problem of quality in higher education. Over the past decade or so, it has created new institutions and devised new methods to address the problem of quality. However, very little has changed on the ground. Among other things, there is clearly a lack of political will to address the problem. At the same time, there are no societal pressures on the government to improve the quality of college education due to, among other things, a variety of exit options.

Second, given the poor quality of education and a surplus of worthless degrees, employers have no choice but to hold competitive exams to hire new people. The option of direct recruitment is reserved for a select number of elite institutions.

Third, over the years, the existing system, which relies on coaching centres to train students for entry into colleges offering professional degrees or to secure jobs, has created a culture where attending coaching institutes has become a way of life. In other words, if coaching centres did not exist, students and parents would perhaps demand them.

…and foreign universities

Image credits: CSCHAULK

Foreign universities are the other big winners of India’s broken higher education system. The country’s large young population offers them a world of opportunities. Representatives of scores of universities from across the world and their Indian agents are active across the country in recruiting students for these institutions, sometimes directly from schools.

Each year, record numbers of Indian students are heading abroad. Last year, for example, was a bumper year for American universities with the number of Indian students growing by nearly 30 per cent. In all, approximately 133,000 Indian students there contributed $3.6 billion to the US economy in 2014-2015.

India’s students head abroad because getting admitted into the small number of half-decent colleges and universities is extremely competitive and the rest of the higher education sector offers mediocre education. There is also a strong pull factor at work as well. Most established Western universities and others in Asia not only offer better quality education but also greater variety and flexibility in their academic programmes. For many students, there is also the prospect of staying on after completing college even though many countries are making it harder for international students to do so.

With India expected to become home to the largest number of college students in the world, one can imagine how delighted foreign universities must be to ‘help out’, since many of them see international students as cash cows (without acknowledging as much). Most universities charge significantly higher fees from international students.

Looking ahead

In the coming years, we can expect the private sector, coaching institutes and foreign universities to absorb an even larger share of students. This is because there are no signs that the government has any serious intentions of addressing the deep crisis in education which is less about access to education—in terms of geography/distance, class, caste or something else—and almost entirely about the quality of education.

Read part one of the series here .

(@PushHigherEd) is Assistant Professor, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, BITS Pilani-Goa.


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