Transparency boosts efficiency

If you are in search of a right destination for higher education, you would have received a number of promotional messages from different channels comprising familiar words like ‘excellence’, ‘world-class’, ‘best emerging’, etc., and moreover, all claiming to be the only ‘right choice’ for your career. At the next level, to make a well-informed decision, you may decide to approach your teachers for guidance but the fact is that they might have been sponsored directly or indirectly by the institutions to influence your decision.

The country’s market-driven universities and institutions are currently spending a huge amount of money in promoting their respective programmes and institutions. Are we as students or parents receiving the right information about the right programme and institutions? And if not, what are the causes?

The United Nations launched Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015 setting the direction for the global development agenda for the next 15 years. The fourth goal under SDG emphasises the need for ‘access to quality education at all levels, including higher education’.

Moreover, research studies show that higher education has an important role to play in the effective accomplishment of other SDGs through quality teaching, research and outreach activities. But, can we have the desired development impact through our higher education, particularly when the entire sector is influenced by market forces? So, let us look into the causes that are driving it.

Management shift

Prior to 2000, the private sector participation in the country’s higher education was limited to the level of institutions and colleges, which were under the affiliation and purview of the public universities. A few institutions, which demonstrated consistent academic excellence, were given autonomous status to promote high-quality teaching-learning activities. This model significantly restricted the role of private players to classroom teaching as per the standards set by parent universities.

A few private-sector universities in the country, categorised as ‘deemed to be universities’, however, had the freedom to design and deliver courses and award degrees. Also in the country, only the non-profit societies and trusts were allowed to operate in higher education, as it was considered largely as a ‘service’ without any commercial motive.

However, this model restricted the scale and, therefore, the government had to struggle while aiming at the gross enrolment ratio in higher education.

Amidst multiple developments, the ‘private university’ experiment started in the early 2000s. However, it did not produce encouraging results. Eventually, the Supreme Court of India had to intervene in 2005 to quash Chhattisgarh Private Universities Act. A few years later, many state governments, in consultation with the University Grants Commission (UGC) and the Central government, agreed to re-introduce private universities model with certain conditions. Accordingly, the second wave of private-sector universities in the country started in the late 2000s. All these universities are created under the Act of their respective state legislature and are promoted by private-sector non-profit trusts, societies. Most state governments have also created a separate ‘higher education council or unit’ to ensure quality education through these newly created private universities.

The fast growth of private universities created a sort of ‘resource pressure’ on these institutions. Unlike many public-sector universities, private universities too suffered from staffing problem. Infrastructure and campus development also required huge investments. While public universities received financial support from the government for infrastructure and staff salaries, private universities largely depended on the tuition fee.

This tendency led to directly transfer the ‘fixed costs’ on students. Also, most of the research and surveys show that students are joining the higher education with the main motive of securing a good career through job placement. The combination of ‘tuition-fee motive’ of universities with ‘placement motive’ of students has created new market chemistry.

The changing priorities of universities have resulted in the introduction of new nomenclature of specialisations, many of which are introduced to underline their market-readiness and innovation rather than contributing to the long-term sustainability of the students. Similarly, confusing promotion messages, endorsement by commercial rating agencies and many other ‘commercial-market’ practices have led today’s students and parents into a state of confusion about choosing a programme or an institution. 

Shifting the focus from ‘quality education’ to ‘unique selling propositions’ is an alarming situation. In order to address the issue, stakeholders in higher education should collectively work to identify ‘what is the right choice and why?’ This can be possible through technology-driven transparency across the stages of higher education. 

Transparency can help in addressing questions like Why and how an institution is planning an academic programme? What are the actual strengths of the institution? and How ethical is the institution in sharing information about resources and resource-use? 

 (The author is faculty, CMR University, Bengaluru)

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