Rohith Vemula was last month’s story. It has been milked by all political parties for what it was worth. A low intensity protest will continue on the campus, but few will notice it. Meanwhile, three women students died in Chennai. They obviously had no political value for netas to rush to Chennai. A medical college has been found to fake its staff. Hardly news. Indians do not know whether the doctor treating them has a real or a fake degree.
These personal tragedies tell us something not just about caste inequalities but the shockingly bad state of higher education in India. There are the IITs and IIMs, though not all of similar quality, but much above the rest. There used to be good universities in India. I studied at the University of Bombay in the 1950s and then there were four or five world-class universities—Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta, Madras, Baroda. There were the Benares Hindu University, the Jamia Milia and the Aligarh Muslim University, Gujarat Vidyapith as well. The university-going students were a small percentage of the cohort. It was an elite system.
The next 50 years, there was an explosion of public higher education institutions while the resources did not keep pace with the numbers. India chose to widen access to higher education but not worry about the content and quality of the education provided. Most public sector universities lack adequate libraries or student facilities. Women students have more restrictions than men students and cannot escape the bad impact of patriarchy even on campuses. Above all, the education does not prepare the graduates for practical work. Fewer than 15% of economics graduates from the best universities are employable by businesses and banks who expect skills at handling economic data.
Meanwhile, we have private universities. They reflect the scarcity of the IIT/IIMs which preserve the elitism of the old system but given the excess demand, their entry requirements are very tough. Hence, the appeal of the private universities. But their popularity tells us that if there were to be high-quality public provision, students would be willing to pay. Today’s college fees in public universities would not buy a meal at a dhaba for a week. They have not been raised even in line with inflation. They are an anachronism. By undercharging and not supplementing the lack with public-spending, the best universities have been left to deteriorate. Presidency College in Kolkata has had to be rescued from its decline by special efforts of its distinguished alumni and generous government funding. It will take serious reform to combine access with quality which previously existed. There were the best and then other universities of varying quality. The system was adequate to the purpose. It has been lost in the populist rush to expand access.
One solution then is to stratify the universities formally. The best can remain free or charge fees but with enough bursaries to make them accessible. Then, some public universities can charge fees, higher than now but not so as to cover full cost. They would compete with the private universities. There would then be the second-tier universities with low fee admission as now but, hopefully, with more resources released by the public higher education institutions which will be self-funding.
It will not be easy to implement such reforms. The Indian political system defends egalitarianism fiercely while funding elite universities generously. In this, they are similar to how British higher education used to be with free education for middle-class 18-year-olds and Oxbridge even more generously funded. There were polytechnics and technical colleges which admitted the rest but were modestly-funded.
This system could not cope with the goal of providing higher education to 50% of the cohort. It had to move to fees with an income contingent loan system. Despite protests, the number of ‘working class’ students has expanded and the goal of 50% of the cohort is in sight. The US has traditionally had state provision of a variety of institutions suitable for different levels of ability. State universities have lower fees than the private ones. The Ivy League ones are the most expensive but also have private endowments to fund bursaries.
India needs to grasp this nettle. Access is important, but so is the quality of education. We should stop pretending that education can be cheaply provided. The benefits of education accrue as much if not more privately to student graduates as they are a positive externality to the community.
There is thus sound economic logic of better charging of the entry to higher education institutes. The popularity of private universities (and even the coaching classes) shows that students and their parents appreciate the private benefits of education. It is time for political leaders to acknowledge this. It will not be easy and populism is always the easier option. But it also betrays the young and their future.
The author is a prominent economist and Labour peer