Course content, infrastructure, regulations… a whole lot of issues come into focus when private varsities are set up

The private vs. government debate is not a new one in education, but is less applicable to the university landscape. But it has gained momentum in Karnataka now in the backdrop of as many as 13 new private universities getting the green signal from the government to establish themselves in the State. So far, there were only two in Karnataka.

The passing of the Bills by the State Legislative Assembly this month has led to discussions, debates and protests about what this means to the higher education sector. The lack of regulations for the private universities is the biggest concern. As academicians said soon after the passage of the Bills, there are no criteria for private parties to get clearances to set up universities.

Similarly, the apparent lack of improvement in existing State universities by the government is fuelling the anger of student groups, who feel the government’s first responsibility should be developing universities already present rather than facilitating new, private ones.

Another group is demanding to know what sort of control the State Government will have over the functioning of the private varsities with regard to fee structure and admissions – whether there will be reservation of seats for students from the State and for those belonging to SC/ST/OBC categories.

Regulations

The private universities in India are, as of now, regulated under the University Grants Commission (Establishment and Maintenance of Standards in Private Universities) Regulations, 2003. For instance, Alliance University, one of the private universities already functioning in Karnataka, was inspected by a UGC expert committee in June 2011.

Among the observations and recommendations of the committee was this: “At the moment, the university looks more like an institute merely with a master’s programme in management. If it has to transform itself into a proper university it would be essential to add programmes in engineering, technology as also in natural, social, human and all other sciences, in the long run.

The Committee members took note of the likely expansion plan of the university including the proposed plan to start an engineering college and other disciplines in a phased manner. The Committee would emphasise the fact that any institution of higher education can be termed as “University” when it starts encouraging inter-disciplinary studies where there is constant interaction between faculties across disciplines.”

This is exactly what a section of dissenters are opposed to. One of the arguments against private universities is that they should offer courses not already offered by existing universities.

Yet another comment made by the UGC committee for Alliance University is, “The Committee also would like to suggest that the university should provide scholarships to students as a method of recognition on the basis of merit-cum-means. Moreover, while recruiting the faculty and other staff on all-India basis, the university should follow standard procedures and norms as prescribed by the various national statutory bodies from time to time. Before introducing/starting new courses, the University should obtain the approval of the statutory bodies of the Government of India, if required.”

In their defence

In spite of the raging criticism, private universities’ managements defend themselves by saying that they can play a crucial role in increasing the Gross Enrolment Rate (GER) in the field of higher education. They also point out that India lacks the institutional capacity in higher education.

Although a major criticism is that people from low socio-economic backgrounds cannot afford to enrol in private universities as the fee structure is exorbitant, Anurag Behar, Vice-Chancellor of Azim Premji University, the other private university in the State, pointed out that private universities should not be confused as profit-making universities. He added that there is a need for “private philanthropic universities”.

Mr. Behar also felt that the growth of private universities in the country should be encouraged and that multiple stakeholders would help in making higher education accessible to a large section of the society. However, he admitted that there is a need for private institutions to evolve a mechanism so that people from different backgrounds are given the opportunity to study in private institutions.

“There is a need to create a mechanism to reach out to people from disadvantages backgrounds and even after people are enrolled into universities, they need to be given customised support from the university. Only then the purpose is achieved,” he said.

While advocating that private universities need to have autonomy, Mr. Behar pointed out that regulation could be a “hard thing” as differentiating between private philanthropic and private profit may be difficult. However, he pointed out that there is a need for the government to judge private institutions to oversee the implementation process.

Financial issue

Citing the example of his university, Mr. Behar pointed out that although the fee for courses in M.A. in Development and M.A. in Education roughly worked out to around Rs. 30,000 per semester, as many as 60 per cent of the students in the current academic year are on some sort of financial support.

He also added, “No deserving candidate will be denied admission on financial basis.”