Under normal circumstances, the IIT Council’s recommendation of hiking annual fees from a mere Rs 90,000 today to Rs 300,000 will get rejected by the human resource development (HRD) ministry, or significantly pared down after the usual protests by students and politicians on how education cannot be commercialised, and how the IITs are run using public money. There have, in any case, been several instances of the government obstructing fee hikes in the IIMs and, just recently, the Delhi government rolled back the fee hikes in colleges affiliated to the Indraprastha University.
These are, however, not normal times. Tucked away in the finance minister’s budget speech was the ‘commitment to empower Higher Educational Institutions to help them become world-class teaching and research institutions’. An enabling regulatory architecture, the budget said, ‘will be provided to ten public and ten private institutions to emerge as world-class Teaching and Research Institutions’. A detailed scheme is to be formulated. Since there is very little chance the IITs will not be part of the top 10 public institutions that are to be freed up, the fee hike proposal in a sense becomes a test of how serious the government is about its reforms. Obviously, the governance reforms will not just be about hiking fees—indeed one of the first things the IITs will have to do is to, like top universities abroad, work on beefing up their corpus in order to fund scholarships—but will have to encompass setting of curriculum, hiring of faculty, and so on. It is difficult to see how India can hope to improve its standings among global universities if its top institutions are not freed up in all aspects, ranging from setting fees to deciding curriculum—and yes, these institutions will have to be freed from the yoke of reservations, for teachers as well as students. While both students and politicians will protest if fees are hiked or reservations are withdrawn in the country’s top 10 public universities, but if they are to grow, there is little other option—just the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore (ranked 147) and Indian Institute of Technology-Delhi (ranked 179) figured among the top 200 in the QS World University Rankings 2015/2016. No country which does not have top-class academic institutions, it has to be kept in mind, has done well economically—the sharp jump in the number of Chinese universities in the global rankings is testimony to this.