With the advent of private sector participation in the field of higher education, a new narrative ensconced itself laterally in the comity of well-established public institutions. Indeed, it was a welcome development in sync with the demands of the time that sought to provide a rightful platform and a level playfield to a wider segment of students who remained a bit 'less-fortunate' in terms of securing admissions in the top public institutions owing to their low rankings. A more constructive role was thus carved out for private institutions to play — a role that envisaged them reaching out to such 'less fortunate' students who wished to pursue their interests in streams of their choices. Providing quality education on a par with public institutions constituted the core of the initiative.
But have they come up to the expected level of performance in terms of imparting quality education? Or have they ended up as factories churning out unemployable degree holders en masse, exacerbating the worsening problem of unemployment?
The fact is that barring a few which have striven hard to earn credibility and a name, a majority of them are mere tools in the hands of vested interests whose sole objective is to mint money by selling degrees but are factually miles away from understanding the true meaning of education. Today, a sector as sensitive as education stands marred by greed-driven commercialisation which has literally besmirched its essence and fractured the socio-economic framework of our society. In the context, it is imperative to redefine their definitive role and existence as a justifiable 'fourth option' available to 'less fortunate' students and not as a 'last one'.
Private institutions thus have a far more responsible role to play and must be seen to be delivering what is deservedly sought by such students. Any shortcoming on their part would not only raise a question mark on their very coming into being but also tantamount to compromising the aspirations and dreams of such poor fellows.
The sole criterion of their assessment, thus, should lay in their performance in relation to standardised quality of education they impart. Patronised by influential people, these run more like glorified business houses and less like temples of education. Gullible students and their parents often fall prey to shoddy display of infrastructural flamboyance and end up entering into a symbiotic relationship with them, where the teacher and the taught both stand to gain at the end of the barter game. Proclivities of such nature are proving detrimental for the envisioned growth of the education sector and jeopardising the career prospects of our would-be engineers and doctors.
How to usher in a transformation
Regulatory reforms aimed at improving their quality by taking all stakeholders on board and due deliberations made could be put in place as guiding principles for a policy framework. The regulator must be accorded a fair degree of autonomy. A few measures in the regard could be:
First, only educationists with years of dedication behind them and who have excelled in their careers should be encouraged to set up and head private institutes; not the ones whose objective is to amass wealth by trading education. There is no dearth of such priceless gems in the society and who would make a sanguine choice for the job, provided they are not made to succumb to undue pressures from people at the helm in the way of the discharge of their duties and their self-esteem is not compromised.
Second, a well-informed faculty is the most precious asset for any institution. Given the fact that retired professors and academicians from public institutions and study circles are generally not keen on joining private institutes, a bulk of the faculty in private institutes is comprised of a somewhat reluctant professors who may have not found a suitable placement in public institutions till then or post-graduates pursuing their masters or doctorates. This necessitates their screening through a pre-qualifying test with strict adherence to the minimum qualifying percentage pre-set by the regulator.
Third, salaries and remuneration to the faculty should not be a constraint. Underpaid faculty stands dissuaded from delivering its best.
Fourth, examinations in private institutes should be conducted under strict vigilance of retired academicians from reputed institutes who command integrity. They could be empanelled also by the regulator, along with relevant details of their achievements and subject specialisation for ready reckoning by the board of directors of any given private institution.
Question papers must be set and checked by them and not the faculty whose job should be restricted to teaching and training. This will help emerge a true picture of the quality standards imparted and not a falsified and manipulated one. The liability of their professional charges should be borne by the institute concerned.
Fifth, the regulator should take out a comparative study of all private institutes in regard to their overall performance at the year-end and list them according to their all-India rankings achieved. This would be an exercise towards their image-building and infuse a sense of competitiveness to perform better. Top achievers could be suitably rewarded with an increased quota of allotted seats. It would be a true ode to the dedication of those who would head such institutes.
Sixth, there should be a cap on the maximum number of private institutes that could be allowed in a given area. This could be done by ascertaining the genuine needs of the area through pre-conducted surveys. For instance, for every 1,000 expected enrolments, one institute should suffice. If a second institute is set up, it is most likely to become unviable and, eventually, an NPA for the financing bank owing to poor enrolment or, alternatively, both may face the same fate if enrolments get divided. In Himachal Pradesh, for instance, of the 17 universities set up in the private sector by 2016, many are reeling under pressure owing to poor student enrolment as too many have come up within too little space.