The infrastructure crunch for higher education in India has resulted in a paradigm shift. Private sector participation, once viewed with suspicion, is now a given in that sector.

As a recent news report shows, it has also led to fly-by-night “one-room universities” in no less a place than the Capital of the country.

In most developed nations including the US, over 50 per cent of the population goes into higher education. For decades, India has seen a dismal figure of 10 per cent of her population going into higher education, until recently. This scenario appears to have changed for the better.

Enrolment ratio

The Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) for the country for higher education currently stands at about 13.8 per cent, with western India, comprising the States of Maharashtra and Goa combined, having the highest GER of 21.3 per cent, according to the latest report on the sector brought out jointly by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, and the leading global accountancy firm, Ernst & Young.

The state of Maharashtra alone has a GER of 26 per cent, which is the highest in the country.

This kind of imbalance can be corrected with higher participation of private institutions in the field of higher education. The States or central government can only increase the infrastructure for higher education to a limited extent, given that 65 per cent of the country's population is below the age of 26 years.

It is to be noted that India has over 31,000 institutions of higher learning, among the highest in the world. Central universities comprise 7 per cent of the total, state universities 46 per cent and state private universities comprise 16 per cent; deemed universities, 21 per cent; Institutes of National Importance, about 9 per cent of the total.

Overall, the number of institutions in the country has grown at the rate of 11 per cent. Rapid growth of institutions, mostly private, has allowed students in dire need of qualifications to pay the requisite sum of money and attempt to acquire them.

Elite institutions

Most private institutions do not receive aid from the government, whereas 52 per cent of the grants of the University Grants Commission (UGC) go to central universities, catering to less than one lakh students.

The top higher educational institutions in the country, such as the Indian Institutes of Technology, the Indian Institutes of Management, among others, cater to 1 per cent of the population, making them highly elitist, whereas in several countries in Europe such as France and Germany, the elite institutions in various fields cater to 10 per cent of their much smaller populations.

Earlier, private sector participation in higher education has been in highly specialised areas such as engineering, management and medicine. However, the government's inability to invest heavily in higher education to take care of growing needs has left the field wide open to the participation of private players in this arena.

In the future, we are likely to see a significant rise in the number of private universities in India, as universities, under one umbrella, can provide general undergraduate courses, as also specialised courses such as engineering, management, journalism, law, and art and design, among others.

Simplify rules

To encourage greater private sector participation in higher education, the government must simplify the regulatory framework, while focusing on quality.

In India, a university must have a minimum of 22 acres of land, pushing private players to buy land in remote areas, whereas in countries such as Australia and New Zealand, smaller private universities are just a set of buildings.

They can operate close to the city centre, and develop links with industry and commerce.

In India, significantly, once the infrastructure is complete, the UGC usually conducts a field visit to check if proper procedures are followed. This can take more than a year.

This results in some confusion, as the regular teaching schedule may be on, and if the UGC so decides, it can withdraw approval, which would tantamount to playing with students' lives and careers.

This has happened in the past, during 2004-05, when universities that were located in the main, outside Chhattisgarh region, even as far as Delhi, got themselves affiliated to ChhattisgarhUniversity, and started dishing out degrees.

Once this kind of affiliation was declared null and void by a Chhattisgarh High Court ruling, the degrees that were issued were not worth the paper they were printed on, and students lost out on their career through no fault of their own.

No private university should be allowed to offer courses until all the regulations are complied with from day one, so that students do not end up suffering. The one-room universities allegedly found in old Delhi would be a thing of the past if rules and norms are strictly adhered to.

Notably, India's youth population of 18-24 years is expected to increase by 13 per cent between 2005 and 2020, against the global average of 4 per cent.

Institutions, private or otherwise, would have to keep up with the growing population, so that students do not lose out on higher learning due to lack of infrastructure.

(The author is Assistant Professor, Apeejay Stya University, Haryana)