Sweeping funding cuts will hit elite institutes

The cash-strapped Indian government has announced massive cuts in the education sector, especially higher education allocations, for the year 2014-15.

Pre-budget estimates for higher education pegged at Rs169 billion (US$2.7 billion) have been cut to Rs130 billion (US$2.1 billion) and will affect mostly the premier institutes such as the institutes of technology and the institutes of management, among other better-known central universities that focus on research.

According to officials at the Ministry of Human Resource Development, or HRD, the changes will primarily hit the eight new Indian Institutes of Technology, IITs, which were supposed to move to their permanent campuses this year.

The government has reduced the Rs25 billion originally allocated to the 16 IITs for this year to Rs23.37 billion. The officials say this will affect the final phase of construction of the new IITs and they will all now have to bear an increase of Rs1.5 billion because of recent salary rises for junior and senior fellowships.

Central universities such as the Jawaharlal Nehru University, or JNU, will be similarly affected. JNU was envisaged to be along the lines of the IITs but, as a centre of excellence for liberal arts, the university has found itself facing declining standards of research and a deteriorating quality of teachers over the past decade.

Professor Arun Kumar, who heads the university’s teachers' association, the JNUTA, and is a professor of economics at the university, said: “Funds shortage is a problem that affects all institutes. The bigger issue here becomes the nature of the research that is being pursued and that of the faculty.

“We have seen issues of plagiarism increase at the university due to a variety of factors. One is the easy accessibility of the internet and the other is a huge increase in the number of students and the absence of enough faculty or good faculty.”

Kumar added that in smaller places, teachers in colleges were being paid minimum wages thus leading to a sub-standard faculty. He said several representations had been made to the ministry regarding the shortage of funds, poor faculty and other related issues, but had received no response.

Raising fees

The IITs would have to raise their fees and the Indian Institutes of Management, or IIMs, had already done that, Kumar said. But for universities like JNU it would be difficult. Students joining IIMs and IITs would be able to pay back loans because they would be able to command a certain salary, “but what about the poor and middle-class students that formed the bulk?” he asked.

His view was echoed by many professors teaching at IITs who did not wish to be named. They said that on the one hand government spoke of high-quality education and wanted students not to go abroad for higher education, yet the massive cuts in spending meant only a slow and steady demise of the IITs and IIMs, as well as other good central universities.

Government sources, however, say that the move is aimed at curtailing a sub-standard rapid expansion of higher education institutes. This, they feel, will be a better way to effectively strengthen existing institutions.

With 621 universities, 3,000 business schools and 33,500 higher education institutes, India has one of the largest networks of higher education institutes in the world. But not a single one has made it to the top 200 in global rankings, a fact that Indian President, Pranab Mukherjee, has recently lamented.

Narayan Ramaswamy, a partner and head of educational practice at consultancy firm KPMG, said budget cuts for educational institutes were now happening across the globe. “We are not a rich country and instead of complete state funding, elite institutes should be allowed to raise funds themselves,” Ramaswamy said.

Exactly how this might happen is something that few universities have given a thought to. The immediate and most obvious one is to increase student fees. But, for many institutions that might not be the best answer. And so, while they absorb the new financial constraints, many will simply cut corners and scale down quality.

Meantime, funds for many other initiatives tied to higher education have also been cut, including allocations to the Rashtriya Uchchatar Shiksha Abhiyan, or National Higher Education Mission, which seeks to improve overall quality of higher education in the country. Its funding has been cut to Rs3.97 billion.