Sunday, January 6, 2008

Private universities: ensure standards

Private universities: ensure standards

THE RECENT Supreme Court judgment declaring the establishment of private universities illegal has evoked varied responses. Educationists have by and large welcomed it as a timely corrective to the mushrooming of teaching shops while thousands of students who are enrolled in these institutions have expressed anguish over their uncertain future. The recent piece (Open Page, March 8) by K. Venkata Reddy is along familiar lines of lauding the judgment and launching a harangue against "privatisation of higher education." His arguments are not quite logical, though there can be no doubt about the good intentions behind them.

Mr. Reddy's basic point is that these private universities were nothing but "teaching shops" which will "devalue the status of public-funded universities and place the captains of industry in charge of the frontier sectors of information and knowledge." From this, Mr. Reddy goes on to argue that the establishment of private universities is "but to pave the way for privatising the present Central and State universities." I am not quite sure I understand the logical reasoning behind such an assertion.

Is it obvious that the state wants to abdicate its responsibility in higher education by allowing the private sector to open "teaching shops"? By the same logic, allowing the establishment of private medical colleges (many of which are even worse than teaching shops!) should really be seen as a way for the state to exit the field of medical education!

No logical connection

Of course, there can be no logical connection between the two assertions. And that is what they are — assertions about assumed intent on the part of the state as to its motivations and future course of action. It is nobody's contention that the private universities are centres of excellence or anything more than teaching shops. But is it necessarily bad to have "teaching shops" when by Mr. Reddy's own assertions, the total enrolment in higher education is only about 6 per cent of the population? Of course, the state should significantly enhance the resource allocation for higher education. However, experience has shown that this is usually done at the cost of the primary and secondary sectors.

I have not analysed the enrolment patterns of private universities but I suspect that the majority of students in the private universities are primarily those who cannot get admission in the state financed ones. It is hard to imagine middle class students opting to pay huge amounts to an unknown teaching shop if they could get admission in a well known state university. In this case, the choice is really between getting a degree and not getting one.

Wider choice of courses

The other reason why some students might choose a private university could be because of the wider choice of courses being offered. While the quality of these courses could be suspect, they at least provide the students with some choice to pursue off-the-beaten-track courses. These could include courses in cyber crime or television script writing or accessory design! A globalising economy would presumably need skills of a much wider variety than those offered at our universities where even the existing syllabi are usually hopelessly out of date.

Private universities are teaching shops — but then so are most of the private medical and engineering colleges. Does it mean that we close them down? I am sure Mr. Reddy would agree that the solution lies in tightening the regulatory control (as is presumably the case with medical colleges) to ensure standards and not in declaring them illegal.

The state financed universities in our country need to be strengthened. There is a need for rationalising the fee structure with ample money being provided for means-based financial assistance or a student loan scheme. The students who pay thousands of rupees as school fees should be made to pay the actual cost of higher education at the tertiary level. The state should continue to subsidise higher education through improving the infrastructure and providing a safety net for the economically weaker sections in the form of free-ships and low interest loans. It should also expand the reach of higher education, though not at the cost of the primary and secondary sectors. But how does the proliferation of private universities threaten any of these laudable goals is something which defies logic.

SHOBHIT MAHAJAN

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