There have been two schools of thought in determining whether higher education should qualify as a public or a private good. It is not merely a question of intention, as evidence has long suggested that nations that have treated higher education as a public good have benefitted from increased productivity.
Rather, it is also about affordability, more so when over the last few decades enrolment numbers, relative to population as measured through Gross Enrolment Ratio or GER, or in absolute terms, have increased exponentially.
The cost of education has also outpaced inflationary trends in many nations. And most importantly, jobs are not being created relative to the growth of enrolment in the tertiary education sector.
India has the biggest population of 18 to 24 year-olds in the world and they make up the bulk of tertiary education students, whose numbers are the world’s second highest. Moreover, that number, as per a British Council study, should be the biggest in the world by 2024 when it is expected to hit 48 million, up from close to 30 million now.
At the beginning of this century, enrolments were around 10 million. A pertinent question, then, is which model will drive this ongoing expansion. Since the 1980s and more aggressively since the beginning of this century, India has witnessed the rapid rise of the ‘private good’ model with thousands of private institutes coming on stream.
Any growth in enrolments may be achieved largely because of the contributions made by these private institutes. Out of more than 33,000 different higher education institutions, the vast majority are private and they cater for nearly 60% of enrolled students.
The reality gap
Tuition fees vary across the institutional categories. In most state-funded institutes, barring the Indian Institutes of Management or IIMs, or the Indian Institutes of Technology or IITs, fees are lower.
IIMs cater largely for postgraduates while IITs cater for all levels of tertiary education. Although fees across the IIMs vary, as they do within the US Ivy League of business schools, an IIM MBA degree is likely to cost less than one-tenth of the price of an Ivy League degree. Similarly, a technology degree at an IIT is likely to cost less than one-twentieth of the price of a degree from a leading US university.
With the exception of the IITs and IIMs, at most state-funded universities, be they the central or state universities, tuition fees are practically non-existent. But what remains questionable in most is the tremendous gap between what people want from higher education and what is currently being delivered.
Most institutions, barring the relatively small number of IITs, IIMs and a few others, do not offer an integrated residential campus. This lack means students, and also faculty and staff, need to travel daily using public transport, sometimes for hours, to attend classes or be present for duty.
This leads to considerable absenteeism from students and faculty or a low quality of teaching because teaching staff are tired from their gruelling commute. Although regulatory rules mandate minimum attendance at 75% or so, this is seldom implemented.
Faculty attendance to punctuality issues are more pressing for state-funded institutes although student attendance remains an issue for all institutions, more so where tuition fees are non-existent.
Within private institutions fees also vary because most are stringently regulated by archaic state laws that highlight unlikely economic operations.
International higher education
Globally, higher education is treated differently and priced differently, as notably applies in the two different models followed in the US, where it is regarded largely as a private good, or, as happens more in Europe, as a public good and therefore with no tuition fees.
India has seen a mixed model implemented, with a rapidly growing private sector against a regressive state-funded higher education. Lack of quality job growth, vis-à-vis lack of appropriate skills training during enrolment in public higher education, also makes many students opt for residential and professional private institutes, more so in areas of management, engineering or medical studies, except those like the IITs, IIMs or the All India Institute of Medical Sciences or AIIMS.
Given this environment, it is unlikely that the growth from now to that projected by the British Council for 2024 will happen through state institutions, with proportionate increases in infrastructure and tuition fees.
Although every government has taken into account growing middle class aspirations by creating new IITs or IIMs, their contribution to the existing 30 million enrolled base is miniscule, not even 0.5%.
Faced by huge challenges in primary and secondary education, where it is more justified for the state to prioritise investment, it is unlikely the government will be motivated to invest in further expansion or even in quality improvement of public higher education.
A note of caution about this projection of 48 million enrolments by 2024: Given the lack of jobs and the mounting cost of higher education, if the private sector takes on the main responsibility for expansion, at some point the projected figure for enrolments will be torpedoed by economic and financial fundamentals.
Nearly a million potential members of the workforce enter the job market every month, an increasing proportion of them having spent several years paying tuition fees. If there is no job or no quality job at the end of it, disillusionment with higher education will set in.
Although entrepreneurship is encouraged, a million people a month cannot become entrepreneurs. This disillusionment has been seen in India over the last couple of years and some higher education institutes are already closing down.
* Professor Ranjit Goswami is dean (academics) of the Institute of Management Technology, or IMT, in Nagpur.
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