Higher Education: Too much demand; too little supply

By Prabhakar Timble
06 July 2011 19:10 IST


Come June and July. The monsoons also bring thunder and showers of panic for admissions in institutes of higher education. The cut off for professional courses and specialty disciplines are criminal. Even for general higher education including humanities the admissions come to a halt at unbelievable scores in reputed colleges. More students are denied opportunities of higher learning as compared to the number securing admissions. Despite checks and controls, the paucity of seats has opened a rampant black market in professional courses particularly in medicine. Students with reasonably high scores are forced to tap overseas options for higher education making learning costly and prohibitive.

“Controlled commodity”

A few years back India was an economy of shortages. Controls, license raj, and protection curtailed supply and quality of goods and services for the domestic consumer. Monopoly in insurance, banking, financial services, capital-goods and an oligopoly market in consumer semi-durables and durables was against the interests of the consumer in terms of availability, cost and quality. Today, the situation is exactly the opposite. Decontrols and opening up boosted competition. With competition and innovation it is a heaven for buyers in rural and urban India. The writing on the wall is clear. The road to quality and accessibility in any sphere is through increased competition. The major sector which has remained untouched is education. In the name of providing quality education at government controlled fees, educational sector still remains sheltered. Education is still looked as a “controlled commodity” available at “fair-price shops” of the government or largely supported by the public purse. The educational market is caught in the web of “too much demand, too little supply”.

This situation does not augur well for overall growth of the economy and particularly for human development. At present, 35% of India’s population is below the age of 15. Only 10% of the age group 18 to 23 enters the portals of higher education as compared to 58% in U.K. and almost 80% in U.S., Canada and Australia. We have around 350 universities and 17500 colleges. Even if we desire to improve availability to 30% of our youth in the age group of 18 to 23, we will need around 2500 university level institutions. We took almost 64 years to set up the present number of institutions of higher learning exclusively depending on government and public funding. It is clear that we will never reach the goal to make higher education accessible and available even to 25% of aspiring youth if we insist on government ownership and sponsorship. Probably, the clue lies in the approach that we have taken to expand the other sectors of the economy.

Government and private investment in primary and school education has expanded the demand for higher education. The growth of the economy is generating demand for trained and skilled manpower in all the sectors. Social sector growth and social changes has created aspirations for higher learning. Now, education is looked at as the most effective tool of change, empowerment and social mobility. We have been attempting to augment supply by establishing more colleges under existing universities sacrificing quality. National level institutions are being established with focus on quality. But, this fails to answer the challenge of exploding numbers. The answers lie in a combination of exclusive private ownership, private-private partnerships, private-public partnerships, foreign-domestic partnerships in education.


The main hurdles coming in the way of expansion and the opening up of the educational sector to private domestic investment and foreign investment are the five fears. First, the fear of quality.  It is felt that exclusive ownership, management and sponsorship of universities/institutes of higher education by private sector may result in the mushrooming of institutions regardless of quality norms. At this stage, we should also note that keeping the numbers low does not automatically result in better quality. There are public universities in our country devoid of quality and standards. Many government supported colleges are nothing more than teaching shops. The protected and sheltered market promotes mediocrity, stifles innovation and makes them accountable to none. Another view is that competition is bound to improve quality and responsiveness to the needs of industry and economy. The market is free to accept, reject or eject the output from university/college and all this can ensure commitment to quality.

Second, the fear of cost. It is argued that entry of private sector would put higher education outside the reach of common man. Needless to say, the costs i.e. the fees would definitely be higher than in the case of public funded institutions. But, this cannot be a reason for not answering the issue of need. Since education would not be affordable to some, it should not be made available to those who can afford is a negative argument. Even in such cases, a formula could be worked out for reasonable quotas/reservations. Educational loans could be drawn on board as supporting mechanism. Third, the fear of inequity. The socialist view that smooth entry of private investment will create elitist islands in education widening the gap in society due to inequity in opportunities is fanciful. Even if such gaps are foreseen, they can be handled by opportunities created through public funding, trusts and by those private investors whom we can expect also to be socially responsible. Fourth, the fear of insecurity. This view is largely put forth by teacher and employee organizations. The fear is that as opposed to government institutions, the private sector would adopt a hire and fire policy and demand commitment to management as opposed to commitment to causes. The private managements may also curtail the freedom of teachers whom society expects to be social engineers. To this, we should also know that the private sector also follows innovative reward mechanisms to encourage talent and productivity which is glaringly lacking in government sector. Fifth, the fear of mis-management and fly by night operators. This should be answered by proper legislation, redress forums, tribunals and effective monitoring.

Higher education in India is caught in a triangle. The expansion of the size is the crying need which we can ill afford to postpone any further since the delay is not only denial of opportunities to aspiring youth, it is also anti-development. Expansion involves investments and the government resources are insufficient to maintain minimum facilities in existing universities and colleges. The major government spending goes under salaries and development is under a starvation diet. The quality of inputs and output is also a question mark. On the top of all this, higher education can no longer be the holy cow accessible to so few numbers.

Private domestic and foreign investment would come to the rescue if there is certainty, definiteness and clarity on the Private Universities Act. The monitoring and accreditation mechanisms and authorities should be in place with the vision to expand quality education as compared to the present manner of functioning of UGC/AICTE/MCI/NCTE whose credibility is under attack and who are looked at as interrupters of educational development. 

Disclaimer: Views expressed above are the author's own.

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Prabhakar Timble

Mr Prabhakar Timble is an educationist and a legal expert. He has served several educational institutions, especially as the Principal of Government College at Quepem, Kare College of Law in Madgao as well as couple of Management Institutes. He was also the State Election Commissioner of Goa.

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