The state must remain in higher education as the private sector is yet to demonstrate its capacity to create knowledge on a sufficient scale

The impending inauguration of a new government finds interested parties bringing into the public arena matters of importance to them. One of the issues that has been raised recently is whether higher education in India should be privatised. This question merits serious attention. And though interest is usually confined to the so-called professions, namely, engineering and medicine, it is important to consider the entire higher education sector. After all, the purpose of higher education is the creation of knowledge, and we don’t want to place this knowledge in silos.

Proponents of private education

Proponents of private education start with the observation that the supply of publicly provided professional education has not expanded commensurately with the growth in demand, thus signalling a failure. This is entirely well taken, and prima facie makes a strong case for allowing private entry. However, the associated argument often found, that the government should cease regulating institutions that it does not fund, is surely wrong. The case for regulation in education is motivated by considerations no different from the concern for a patient’s well-being, which leads us to prescribe standards of medical practice. Similarly, we insist on a driver’s licence to ensure the safety of pedestrians on our roads. Note that public intervention here is guided by the motivation to defend private interests, as the actions by doctors and drivers, undertaken in their private interest, have an impact on the well-being of others. So, what is so special about educators? Their performance actually determines the life chances of a very large number of individuals in society.

Another argument for privatisation of professional education that has been made is that doctors and engineers, trained using the tax payer’s money, have now begun to enter politics. As a democracy, we should actually be rejoicing that public life is now attracting individuals from a more diverse educational gene pool. Of course, there could be a problem if all our young doctors and engineers deserted their original professions, but this does not appear to be the case yet. On the other hand, it is only a false consciousness that makes us proud when many of them who have been trained using the tax payer’s money leave the county to practise overseas. But the answer to this malaise is surely not the privatisation of professional education, but to expect that these youth in question serve in India, if not in the public sector itself, for a brief period after graduation, in lieu of which they repay the cost of their education. Versions of this principle are invoked in many parts of the world while we have not given much thought to the issue.

Regulation

When calling for the regulation of even privately funded professional colleges, it must be flagged and not merely acknowledged that India’s regulatory agencies can be ham-handed in their interventions and are perceived to be corrupt. No public interest is served by an overbearing government, and we need continuing social audit of regulation in higher education. Also, it is believed that politicians influence the regulator to further the interests of private institutions owned by them or their clients. But this deficit only provides an argument for drastically reforming how our regulatory bodies are populated and run rather than a case for dismantling them.

We have all read reports of professionals with dubious qualifications performing surgery or flying passenger aircraft. The counterpart to this is the regulation of education. While the government has at times intervened intrusively, especially when it comes to admission, it has by and large left ungoverned the functioning of even aided public colleges. The most egregious instance of this is the practice of publicly aided colleges auctioning their faculty positions. State governments have chosen to look the other way for fear of hurting vested commercial interests and electoral vote banks. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s incisive observation about India’s economy, that it is over-regulated but under-governed, especially rings true in the educational sector. This must make us reflect upon how the higher education system is to be governed to serve public interest.

But the most important reason for the state to remain in higher education is that the private sector is yet to demonstrate its capacity to create knowledge on a sufficient scale. Where is the research that creates knowledge? Even in these ‘professional’ courses there is more research in public institutions than in the private ones. There are exceptions such as the Christian Medical College in Vellore whose alumni now reside in some of the major research universities of the world. But it is germane to the context that the college is not a profit maximiser. Similarly, one of the reasons for greater knowledge creation in public medical schools is that they often have large hospitals attached to them. This enables the apprentice to learn by doing, arguably the best way to learn. The practice of combining teaching with the provision of medical care, which requires huge investments, is directly related to the feature that the underlying objective is not the pursuit of profit. But leaving out research, and outside of medical education, even when it comes to the mere training of professionals, it would be difficult to hold that a significant number of private institutions have yet surpassed the IITs and the IIMs.

The arts and sciences

It is when we go outside the professions altogether that we find the case for retaining the public sector in higher education the strongest. The private sector is not a presence much felt among the arts and sciences as these subjects do not always command high exchange value. But we take our cue from the market only at our peril. The function of the arts and sciences is to hold a mirror to society so that it can form an image of itself, which helps us understand where we come from and see where we are going. A profit-oriented private sector is unlikely to be interested in such a task.

There is much that must leave us unhappy about the functioning of India’s public higher education sector. It has held the country back in many ways, principally by not responding with solutions for our pressing needs. It cannot be left the way it is. So it is time that its record be subjected to open social audit, prior to it being thoroughly reformed. All expansion should be put on hold till the latter task is completed. But there is no case for it to be privatised wholesale, not even its professional colleges. Equivalently, once an effective regulatory framework is in place, it makes little sense to stymie the growth of the private sector in higher education.

(Pulapre Balakrishnan is Professor, Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram.)

RELATED NEWS

Privatising professional educationMay 7, 2014

More In: Comment | Opinion