Elite private universities are shaking up the HE sector

India’s higher education landscape has been undergoing a huge transformation over the last decade. Most of the changes over this period have had substantial effects on the rapid growth of private universities in the country. This sector is currently witnessing the largest disruption in its history, resulting in a remarkable growth from around 190 private universities in 2012 to 421 in 2022.

The current share of private universities in the Indian university sector is around 40%, with more than two million students. Just over a decade ago, most of the private universities represented an employer-oriented strand of the higher education system that mainly offered programmes targeted towards domestic and international labour market needs.

This picture is entirely different today and the sector is far from being homogenous. Some of the ongoing changes are fundamental in nature and paint a sobering picture of the major disruptions that lie ahead.

New entrants

One of the most striking aspects about the ongoing changes in the private university sector is institutional differentiation. Until a decade ago this sector was dominated by ‘traditional’ private universities which were more vocational in their orientation, emphasising teaching rather than research. They mainly relied on student tuition fees for much of their work. There were only a few exceptions to this general trend.

The entry of new players in the last decade, however, has been changing the defining characteristics of the sector. As a result, India’s higher education sector is becoming more complex and competitive.

This competition has reached the point at which the marketing campaigns undertaken by some of the private universities through online platforms, television, radio and print are now constant throughout the year. The impact of these changes is visible in the public university sector as well and may in fact become more intense in the coming years.

The changes in the higher education sector also exhibit signs of the stratification of private universities into ‘traditional private’ and ‘elite private’ universities. Although traditional private universities still dominate the Indian private university sector, many big corporates have begun to see the higher education sector as an attractive area for investment in recent years and they have supported the setting up of many new universities.

These include Jio Institute, OP Jindal Global University, Ashoka University, Shiv Nadar University, Azim Premji University and Krea University. The Shiv Nadar Foundation has established the second university in Tamil Nadu and Adani Group recently got approval from the Gujarat government to start a university in Ahmedabad.

As the number of ‘elite’ institutions continues to grow, a variety of changes can be seen, especially when competing institutions embrace different strategies to stand out.

Competition for credibility

All the ‘elite’ private universities are in the early stages of their life cycle. Therefore, providing a detailed explanation of the impact of the ongoing changes is complex. However, there are some common trends. All of the elite universities are concerned about their place in the national market. This is reflected in their obsession with global and national rankings, foreign faculty and students and international partnerships, among other factors.

However, these universities still lack major outcomes in terms of research productivity and the achievements of their graduates. For them, reaching a point of achievement and gaining public trust will require several graduation cycles.

It is no wonder that some of these institutions have been adopting various strategies to stand out in order to gain credibility with stakeholders, including central and state governments, industry, the general public, students, faculty, etc.

The elite private universities employ different strategies related to their organisational survival and long-term growth prospects. They place considerable emphasis on building national and international partnerships and have come to take on various new roles in this regard. The most important of these is the emphasis given by them to government partnerships.

There are many recent examples of this emerging trend.

One of the most significant indicators of social acceptance in the Indian context is when the services of private institutions are sought by public institutions in the country. In 2015, the state government of Haryana signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with OP Jindal Global University to draft the State Higher Education Plan of Haryana under the Rashtriya Uchchatar Shiksha Abhiyan programme.

Azim Premji University in Bengaluru signed an MoU in 2021 with the State Council of Educational Research and Training of Arunachal Pradesh to work together in different areas of education. Similarly, the Delhi government’s Directorate of Training (UTCS) signed an MoU in 2021 with OP Jindal Global University to promote cooperation in the areas of academic training, capacity building, etc.

Treading on public university terrain

Some of the activities of elite private universities have trodden on terrain traditionally held by public institutions. These are mainly activities related to addressing societal challenges which would enable them to contribute to the public policy-making process in the country.

Some examples are: Krea University’s support to LEAD, which is a part of the Institute for Financial Management and Research Society that focuses on action-oriented research; the Translations Initiative and online ‘Schoolbooks Archive’ of Azim Premji University; Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham’s partnership with the government’s National Mission for Manuscripts for conserving, preserving and digitising paper and palm-leaf manuscripts; and the recognition of the Ministry of Culture’s National Monuments Authority of Ahmedabad University’s Centre for Heritage Management as an “expert heritage body”.

Interestingly, during a function at Sai University in Chennai attended by Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu MK Stalin in May 2022, it was reported that the chancellor of the university had agreed to implement the state’s affirmative action policy at his institution.

Another area is partnerships with public and foreign institutions. Ashoka University recently joined a consortium of five Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT Delhi, IIT Kanpur, IIT Bombay, IIT Jodhpur and IIT BHU, Varanasi) and signed an MoU with the State University of New York at Buffalo, United States.

This partnership is mainly aimed at collaborations in nanomaterials and nanotechnology, biotechnology, advanced sensors, photonics and cyber-physical systems, including artificial intelligence.

Meanwhile, the Symbiosis International University in Pune is part of the Enhancing Quality Assurance Management and Benchmarking Strategies in Indian Universities (EQUAMBI) project coordinated by the University of Barcelona and co-funded by the Erasmus+ programme of the European Union.

Shiv Nadar University in the Delhi-National Capital Region and the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Pune, entered into an MoU for collaboration in scientific research and development, and faculty and student exchanges in 2021.

Recently OP Jindal Global University signed an agreement with the Film and Television Institute of India, a premier public institution located in Pune, for academic and practice collaborations.

These changes are only a part of the picture. Some of the initiatives of elite private universities have not only been limited to gaining stakeholders’ trust in the country, but also to promoting constitutional values. For instance, Krea University observed the National Scientific Temper Day on 20 August, the day on which Indian rationalist and social activist Narendra Dabholkar was assassinated.

Changing expectations

The changing expectations of students and other key stakeholders are one of the major drivers of this shift and are forcing institutions to compare their intangible assets such as reputation and credibility with other peer institutions. And, despite recent beginnings, elite private universities are much more successful in building credibility than many existing traditional private universities.

The pattern of ongoing changes varies from institution to institution and the various strategies adopted help institutions to justify their policies on charging a premium for their services.

Recent experiences show that the Indian higher education sector offers growth opportunities for universities that adopt the right business strategies. However, the ever-increasing competition among private universities with the arrival of elite private universities and their ambitious expansion for market survival have had various other effects.

The elite private universities have left behind the traditional model of Indian private universities in order to improve their market positions. They are playing the long game. For them, building a narrative focused on their relevance is important as they face various other institutional barriers due to the rigid separation of the public and private sectors in the country.

There is no doubt that the arrival of new players in the Indian university sector is a boon to students as they have wider choices now. However, there are numerous other dimensions to this phenomenon as the ongoing disruptions are shaking up the public higher education sector as well. So, what lessons can traditional Indian public and private universities draw from these changes?

For traditional public and private universities, the biggest challenges in the coming years will be to adopt appropriate strategies that help them to stand out among other universities, especially among their ‘elite’ counterparts. It is important for them to innovate and adapt on the basis of student expectations and needs.

The importance of brand

For the not-so-established universities, especially those located in the major cities, the influx of new elite players and foreign branch campuses with substantial financial resources could certainly be a ‘death sentence’ by making their struggle for survival more difficult.

Basuthkar Jagadeeshwar Rao, the vice-chancellor of the University of Hyderabad – one of the Indian government’s Institutions of Eminence – provided an interesting answer to some of these issues last year by highlighting the importance of streamlining a university’s brand identity.

“While our university is among the top-ranked central universities in the country, I feel we need to internationalise our brand, tapping our inherent strengths,” he said.

Talking about the importance of cultivating a good brand image for public institutions is not an admission of weakness; it is a sign of strength in the emerging context. And there is a good reason to believe that. In the last decade, hundreds of engineering and management colleges, mainly in the private sector, have been closed due to a decline in student enrolment.

Recently, the Maharashtra government announced that it will not give permission for new colleges offering only traditional arts, commerce and science courses. There were reports that thousands of undergraduate places in various colleges in the state of Kerala were lying vacant when the gross enrolment ratio of the state is only estimated to be around 38%.

Even in November this year many places on the various postgraduate programmes of the central universities of Haryana, Kerala and Tamil Nadu were lying vacant. These are all early signs of the market competition faced by existing public and private institutions that disregard the expectations of their key stakeholders.

Although it is a worrying time for public institutions, recent changes have also resulted in some intended and unintended consequences in the functioning of public universities.

The importance being given by public universities and regulatory bodies in the country to the various organisational practices associated with ‘new managerialism’ in higher education, such as measurable outcomes and international comparisons and proposals on appointing industry experts without PhDs as university teachers, are some recent examples.

If public universities are open to learning, successfully implemented policies from across the world can offer many best practices that may be relevant for them. However, when framing policies for public institutions, it is important to bear in mind the fact that the best practices that worked well in the country in the past may not work well to address the emerging challenges we face.

Eldho Mathews is deputy advisor, Unit for International Cooperation, National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration, New Delhi. The views expressed in the text are solely those of the author.