India has seen a proliferation of private universities established under state laws in recent years. The phenomenon, critics fear, has gained official cachet with the tone of national education policy last year. But as the country recovers from the covid-19 crisis, an open adoption of much more expensive private higher education could hamper the creation of skilled jobs fairly quickly, experts say.
India had 327 state-owned private universities in 2019-2020, a 66% jump in four years and a 32% share in all universities, according to government data. Only one other category has experienced comparable growth: institutes of national importance such as IITs, IIMs, AIIMS and IISERs. The total number of public universities has increased by only 26%, which gives weight to concerns of already increasing privatization.
A private degree is not affordable for everyone. Low-income groups have been hit much harder by the pandemic, making affordability an even greater concern. Professional degrees offer better employability but are four times more expensive than general degrees and could become increasingly out of reach.
“The government is focused on building model public institutions, but their limited number pushes the vast majority to private state universities,” said educator Rohin Kapoor, who founded the edtech Wonk app. He expects financial uncertainty to force poorer students to postpone higher education plans.
Privatization is not new to the sector, but the method has evolved with the increase in private capital, which does not always mean a reliable upgrade in the quality of education or in employment prospects. The NEP’s response to commercialization concerns is “genuine private philanthropic participation,” but few see it enough to bring distressed youth closer to employment.
Risk of unfairness
For starters, higher education already has a poor track record of ensuring fair representation of disadvantaged groups, who were more likely to face job losses during the pandemic. Even in public universities, the representation of Dalits and Adivasis does not meet the prescribed quotas. The situation is worse in the private sector. If public education does not receive a financial boost and private education becomes more expensive, it could deprive the most disadvantaged.
Several private institutions follow reservation quotas for marginalized communities in accordance with local state laws, but the absence of a central law applying to private entities has not ensured full coverage.
Private universities should find ways such as cross-subsidies to offer fee waivers to socio-economically disadvantaged students after the pandemic, said Pankaj Mittal, secretary general of the Association of Indian Universities. Free, merit-based deliveries granted by some private institutions have not been sufficient, she added.
In previous decades, private higher education mainly referred to private colleges affiliated with universities that evolved into “reputable” universities. Today, the boom is fueled by corporate financing and exorbitant fees. to the pandemic.
The liquidity crisis is the most serious risk facing the sector due to late fees payment and declining enrollments, according to a survey conducted in January 2021 of 132 senior executives of higher education institutions by the Global Risk Management Institute and the FICCI. High dropout rates at private colleges have even forced teachers in some cases to drop out of teaching and focus on business development to get students back, Kapoor said.
The situation has not led to an increase in public expenditure: the Centre’s budget for higher education in 2021-2022 is only 4% higher than in 2019-20. With business funding and declining registration fees, private institutions have an even smaller chance, making it difficult to ensure infrastructure and quality.
The sluggishness of employment
Higher education is perhaps the most reliable upward mobility tool available to young people, with vocational graduates finding a better shield against gloomy unemployment during the pandemic. But anecdotal evidence suggests college internships have turned dismal – as jobs have declined for new graduates with technical degrees, there have also been reports of job postings being pulled.
Only 47% of employers plan to increase hiring in 2021, up from 56% in 2020 and 64% in 2019, according to Wheebox’s India Skills Report 2021. If private institutions grow in the years to come, they will have a greater burden than usual to ensure decent placements: the return on investment of students matters much more to them.
Worse, low-end jobs could have a bleaker short-term outlook than high-level jobs with greater bargaining power, said Vidya Mahambare, a professor at the Great Lakes Management Institute.
Emerging from the current crisis, higher education may require greater public spending to ensure that the populations most affected realize their full income potential in the years to come.
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