Higher Education In India Needs Freedom

Higher Education In India Needs Freedom

by Sahil Aggarwal - Wednesday, May 4, 2016 04:52 PM IST

Higher Education In India Needs Freedom Photo credit - MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP/Getty Images
    • The growth of the higher education sector is stuck due to archaic laws and needless regulation.
    • The sector needs to be given azadi from such laws and regulation if we are to educate and skill a growing workforce.

In next four years 900 million will be waiting to receive necessary skills and education. It is a challenge. We need to open up more universities, strengthen research, align curriculum to industrial needs, and allow the society to benefit from a burgeoning higher education landscape. The state requires aggressive support from private entities to meet this demand. Niti Aayog recently recommended that foreign universities be allowed to operate in India for this purpose. Meanwhile, domestic education providers need an entrepreneurial playing field.

However, the sector is stuck in regulations and laws. Here are six legal hurdles that must be removed.

First, the focus is on inputs rather than outputs. The importance given to minimum requirements for establishing institutes creates an entry barrier. Generally speaking, private education providers must comply with regulations based on inputs, but have little incentive to innovate on their outputs. For example, private universities must have a minimum of three different faculties to receive approvals even if they are interested and wish to excel only in one field. The regulating agencies are more interested in the size of classrooms, the number of computers, volumes of books in the library and so forth, than they are in the quality of placements, research outcomes, and results on standardized tests. Universities and colleges should be judged by the output they produce, not the money they can put in. The regulatory agencies should strengthen the accreditation system and relax the approval process.

Second, urban planning laws combined with land requirements for providing education do more harm than good. A university typically needs a minimum of 10 acres in a municipal area and 20 acres otherwise for approval. The norms may vary from state to state. The land is costly and the process of approval from land regulatory bodies is corrupt. One cannot start a college on a rented space unless it meets exorbitant lease requirements. Cost and availability of land push new universities out of the cities, creating a disconnect between the students/faculty and the surrounding residents. Ideally, universities should not just be walled campuses isolated from the local community. They should rather stimulate the intellectual environment of the area. Universities should become a center for community interaction, citizen engagement, and learning. Alternate laws can incentivise institutes to be set up in downtown areas. If they fulfill infrastructural requirements, we should allow higher education centers in discrete buildings spread in a neighbourhood, some of which may even run in rented spaces.

Third, the affiliation system limits the scope of private education. All private colleges should be ‘affiliated’ to a public university. State owned universities affiliate as many as 800 private colleges. This puts an immense burden on the public universities, creating inefficiencies which adversely affect the students. Most colleges (except those recognized as ‘minority institutes’) must be affiliated to a nearby public university designated by the state. If the public university does not have a faculty that the private college is interested in, it is a nightmare to start courses in that faculty. If somehow one gets the required approval to start the course in a private college, the university designs the syllabus and the exams, all the while not having the required faculty in house. By design, the system ensures substandard quality in non autonomous private colleges. Private colleges should not require an affiliation. They should design their own curriculum and forge partnerships to reduce the burden of conducting exams, inviting admissions etc. Till the time this is allowed, private colleges should be allowed to choose affiliating universities based on the curricular requirements, not geographical constraints.

Fourth, the charity and financial laws which govern education make philanthropy look dishonest in your face. The government recognizes and approves institutes only if they are run by nonprofit organizations. Charity has not yet evolved to give higher education the attention it deserves. Unlike many institutions in the US, where individual philanthropic efforts led to the creation of world’s leading universities, charity for universities is nascent in India. Additionally, alumni giving back to their alma mater is also relatively uncommon. With fee caps and heavy infrastructural requirements, philanthropy is not a scalable option. Skill development courses run by for profit entities in fields such as computer training, communication, accounting and many more are an example of how education entrepreneurship can solve the skill gap. The government should allow for profit educational institutes and tax their revenue. These taxes can be used to finance public and non profit institutes. If quality institutes can provide an alternate to students seeking admission in foreign countries, it will also save precious foreign exchange for the country.

Fifth, online education, which holds the key to affordable higher education - is not formally recognized. Laws do not allow institutes to provide credits and degrees for online classes. With distant degree programs, we can not only educate millions of underprivileged Indians but cater to international demands. Indian School of Business (ISB) is the only institute from the country to offer classes at Coursera. Needless to say, ISB degrees are not recognized by the government, however reputed they may be globally. Recognized online courses will also allow students to choose from a vast range of electives, therefore giving immense exposure at a negligible cost. International demand for these courses will bring revenue to the country. The flexibility of online education will allow students to work along with their studies.

Sixth, substandard institutes and those offering fake degrees are not cornered. Such institutes do not maintain attendance requirements, manipulate the examinations, and produce uneducated degree holders, all for one reason - the public sector. Graduates from such institutes find employment based on their degrees, not skills. An abundance of government jobs keeps such institutes in business. It is an example of how the lack of reforms in one sector (government hiring) drains the quality in another sector (education). The government could either reduce its emphasis on degree or reduce its hiring altogether to curb this menace. The present system hurts unaware students who are duped by the institutes for the want of a government job.

These six legal matters are an impediment to the rise of quality, quantity and innovation in education. What India needs is better regulation, not more regulation. Higher education system is stuck in archaic laws. It needs azaadi.

Sahil Aggarwal is the co-founder of Vision India Foundation. He has studied at IIT Delhi, Indiana University Bloomington and Jindal Global University.

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