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Helping Hands for Indian Higher Education

Author(s)
May 27,2017
Read time: 6 mins

Photo: Siddharth Kankaria/Research Matters

India, like most countries across the globe, advocates free and compulsory education for children as a fundamental human right. According to the Right to Education Act (RTE), it is legally binding for both the central and state governments to provide elementary education to children between the ages of 6 and 14, free of cost. However, higher education in India is a choice and needs financial support for improving both its quality and quantity.

Although the problem of financing higher education is not limited to India, recent trends in higher education have made it a more challenging affair. For instance, the dramatic increase in the number of students opting to enrol in higher education institutions is imposing high demands on the Indian economy. Also, the increased bureaucratic processes involved in the accreditation and approval of universities makes it a challenge for private institutes to fill the gap. These factors have resulted in a huge variation of the cost of higher education across the country.

In spite of these challenges, what can India do to become one of the world’s knowledge based economy? In a recent study, Dr. Keith J. Roberts, a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for International Studies in Education (IISE), University of Pittsburgh (USA), discusses some pertinent issues related to the funding of the higher education sector in India.

Today, a growing number of public educational institutes are being funded by the centre and the state governments. While centrally funded institutes like the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) and Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) usually have better facilities owing to the generous financial support, the state-owned universities lag behind. To address this gap, the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) has announced the Rashtriya Uchchatar Shiksha Abhiyan (RUSA), a funding scheme to improve the current status of state-sponsored higher education institutes. Public funding also targets students belonging to disadvantaged groups by supporting them with quotas and scholarships.

Private institutes and strategies that govern their funding

To satisfy the demand for higher education, public universities alone are insufficient, paving way for private institutes as the natural alternatives. But how far are they successful in satisfying this growing need? Prof. Roberts points out three factors that impact the ability of private institutes in satisfying the growing need: neo-liberal economics, business/government relationships, and philanthrocapitalism.

Neoliberal ideas, started in the 1970s, basically advocate extensive economic liberalization and policies that reduce government’s power over the economy. Privatisation, for example, is a direct outcome of such a stance. Extending these ideas to education, neoliberalism supports reduced government spending on education and increased focus on a job-oriented curriculum to equip the students with necessary skills for employability, and thus serve the economy. As a result of this, the industry is playing a key role in dictating education curriculum and funding strategies that suit the needs of the business, rather than the society on the whole.

“The higher education sector in general is under so much pressure worldwide. Given the pressure that neoliberal economics has put on all governments over the last 40 years to monetize and privatize services that traditionally had served the public good, the decreased public funding in education is the inevitable response”, comments Prof. Roberts, pointing at the clear trend in the decreasing public funding in Indian higher education system. “The negative affect of neoliberal economics has resulted in the high student debt load in the United States which was a contributing factor for initiating this research into global trends in higher education. This research was funded by The Lumina Foundation and the Tides Center”, states Prof. Roberts.

The other strategy at play is the involvement of the larger community through the use of Information and Communication Technology (ICT). Today, the use of ICT in higher educational institutes has enabled 70 million student enrolments. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) offered by companies like Coursera and edX have helped take higher education to students who would otherwise have been unable to access classroom based education. With rapidly growing enrolments in such ICT based courses, there are instances of companies like Coursera partnering with private universities to be able to grant degrees.

In the recent past, many private and deemed-to-be universities established by various state and national acts, have entered the realm of higher education. They usually offer career-oriented degrees, which encourages business oriented individuals and organizations to become involved in establishing such institutions, thus changing the landscape of higher education.
Prof. Roberts argues this is an interesting trend because in India, education is a not-for-profit sector, open only to philanthropists and religious organizations. But in reality, most of these universities operate as for-profit institutions, focused on maximising their profits. Based on case studies, he points out that the differences in the tuition fees of such private universities to be significantly higher than public universities, though a few of them support scholarships to deserving students. 

The rise of philanthrocapitalism

Education has always been a favourite cause for Indian charitable contributions and a recent report on Indian philanthropy describes a growth of over 100 million new philanthropic donors in India during the years 2009–2015. However, ironically, philanthropy exists more robustly in an environment of income inequality, while the goals of higher education are to reduce this income inequality itself. Solution to this problem appears to depend upon altruism in philanthropy by the private sector.

A new wave in funding resources for Indian higher education is philanthrocapitalism—a novel combination of philanthropy and capitalism, which mirrors the way that business is done in the for-profit capitalist world. There is an increasing trend of entrepreneurs who want to go beyond boardrooms and work for the good of mankind. Like capitalism which is aimed at driving innovation, which tends to benefit everyone in the long run, business leaders involved in philanthrocapitalism want to emulate the same thinking into philanthropy and want to play a part in tackling global challenges including education.

In his study, Prof. Roberts gives examples of two such successful Indian billionaires who have embraced philanthrocapitalism to establish universities—Azim Premji and Shiv Nadir, the founders of Azim Premji University and Shiv Nadar University respectively. Both these capitalistic billionaires have devoted a generous part of their wealth to financing the universities by their respective foundations, including offering scholarships, loans and lower tuition fees to students. Such institutes, powered by philanthrocapitalism, Prof. Roberts says, will serve as an alternative for private universities that are unaffordable by students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“It appears, on the surface, that philanthrocapitalism combined with Gandhi-influenced business morality is one way to help meet the higher education demand in a time when the public sector is either unwilling or unable to meet the demand”, says Prof. Roberts. Institutes like the Azim Premiji University and Shiv Nadar University stand as examples to this principle. But will philanthrocapitalism become a major contributor to that solution? Only time can tell.