Monday, June 14, 2004

india struggles to meet demand for higher education

By Shailaja Neelakantan
(This article appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education in June 2004).

The campus of Mewar University, one of 108 private universities established in the underdeveloped state of Chhattisgarh during the past two years, is a two-room house on a busy thoroughfare. One room is empty, except for a telephone; the other -- also a tiny, empty cell -- has "library" painted on the door. There is not a teacher, student, or book in sight.

At nearby Anna Technical University, housed in a slightly larger two-room apartment, a young woman identifies herself as the office manager to a visitor inquiring about course offerings. From beneath a stack of files, she digs out a long list that includes a "shoe upper and maintenance" degree and a "garage and automotive" degree.

Across town sits Shri Rawatapura Sarkar International University. It is palatial in comparison, boasting several rooms spread out over three floors, a few computers, and a huge office that houses the dean and a single board member. According to its prospectus, printed on expensive paper, Sarkar International offers more than 30 degree programs, but the dean admits that only a nursing program is currently available. When asked where classes are held, the board member, Ravinder Sharma, says something that sounds familiar: "Our centers are in another building, nearby only, but right now you can't go because some construction is going on."

Two years ago Chhattisgarh, located in central India, passed a law allowing the creation of private universities. It seemed like a smart move at the time: Chhattisgarh has only two public universities to serve a population of 21 million people. Instead, the law's loosely written regulations and lax oversight have allowed dozens of storefront universities to flourish, tainting the handful of legitimate educational institutions that were established.

The state government has since enacted stricter legislation, and today the fly-by-night universities are in danger of being shut down. But the story of their rise and imminent fall demonstrates the scope and complexity of the problem facing the development of private higher education in India.

Overwhelming Demand

India desperately needs more universities to accommodate a growing number of college-bound students. The country's 300-odd public universities serve 9.3 million students, or about 7 percent of the 18-to-24-year-old population. The central government has said it wants to increase the college-going rate to 10 percent by 2007, which means that it needs to find space for four million more students.

India's public higher-education system, however, is already overwhelmed. Last year the University of Delhi had to print more than two million application forms, even though it was offering admission to just 45,000 students. The cash-strapped government, which has been steadily reducing funds earmarked for education, cannot afford to expand the system further. To fill the gap between demand and supply, many educators feel India needs the private sector.

"There are many institutes of excellence in India's public higher-education system, but the real problem is there aren't enough of them for a country that has a billion people. And with the government diverting funds for the much-needed increase in primary education, private investment in higher education needs to be encouraged," says Rajiv Tewari, spokesperson for Rai University, one of the few legitimate private universities set up in Chhattisgarh.

The market is ripe for exploitation, as Chhattisgarh's experience demonstrates, and neither the central nor the state government is prepared to police the industry. "The government should regulate universities rather than run them," says Ashis Nandy, a research fellow at the Center for the Study of Developing Societies, a New Delhi-based think tank. "As it is, the government is too overloaded."

The lack of a clear plan for the development of a private higher-education sector has caused problems for both students and legitimate private universities -- domestic and foreign -- seeking to set up programs in India.

Not counting the ones in Chhattisgarh, there are just four privately financed and run universities approved by the University Grants Commission, India's main higher-education regulatory body.

Currently, the state legislatures also have the authority to grant approval to anyone who wishes to establish a university in India. In Chhattisgarh, the law passed by the state government made it legal for virtually anyone to set up shop, placed no limits on the number of universities that could be opened, and failed to establish a monitoring body to determine and maintain standards at those universities, according to Ved Prakash, a top official at the University Grants Commission.

After the Chhattisgarh fiasco, the University Grants Commission established new rules that will require all private universities to meet minimum standards of quality. Until now, the commission has regulated only public universities. Chhattisgarh, which in January elected a new government, also amended its private-universities act to require all existing private universities to pay about $450,000 each by the end of June for the creation of an endowment fund so that students would be reimbursed if the universities failed to actually operate. It also announced plans to create a state regulatory body for private universities. This body has yet to be set up, and several private players plan to go to court to protest the endowment-fund requirement.

A Hostile Environment

Despite -- or perhaps because of -- these new government efforts to regulate private universities, the development of a significant private higher-education sector is still in doubt. The Chhattisgarh experience has made the atmosphere hostile for all private universities, in part because the government is enacting stricter regulations, but also because the public has become more skeptical about private institutions.

Foreign universities that see potential in India are trying to figure out a way to get in, but it is difficult to gain a toehold in a country with one of the most complicated and burdensome government bureaucracies in the world. In February, Sylvan Learning Systems, now known as Laureate Education Inc., closed its year-old campus, South Asia International Institute, saying that the regulatory climate there for a for-profit, non-Indian university had become "much less welcoming" in the past year.

"The government should come up with some specific definitions for private universities to function and then should leave it to market forces like in the U.S.," says Dr. K. Anantha Padmanabhan, who was vice chancellor of the Sylvan campus.

Instead of establishing stand-alone campuses in India -- a risky, complicated, and expensive proposition -- most foreign universities here collaborate with an existing Indian institution to start what are called "twinning" programs. Indian students take courses designed and monitored by the foreign partner, but run by the local institution. In some cases, students may study for two years in India and then apply to the foreign university to complete their degree. If accepted, they transfer some or all of the credits they earned in India to the foreign university. If they complete their degree abroad, it is in the name of the foreign university. If they don't, they are awarded a degree in the Indian university's name.

Most of these twinning programs focus on business or engineering, two growing fields in India. Purdue University-Calumet, for example, began a joint program two years ago to offer bachelor's degrees in engineering with Amity University, one of the larger and more respected private institutions set up after Chhattisgarh allowed such universities. Students study for three years in India, then, if they meet admissions criteria, switch to Purdue for their final year.

In 2002 Fairleigh Dickinson University established a joint M.B.A. program in global management with the Institute of Management Technology, a business school based in Ghaziabad, near New Delhi. Under the agreement, students will divide their time between the two campuses.

Michigan Technological University guarantees admission to all students who complete two years of study at the Institute for Integrated Learning in Management, in New Delhi, a private institution that offers business degrees. Several British universities have also set up joint degrees with Indian institutions. While there are no official numbers, observers say 50 to 60 such partnerships exist between foreign and Indian universities.

Skeptical Students

While such partnerships are growing, many Indian students are still quite skeptical of their offerings, in part because of the damage done by disreputable operators. The most sought-after degrees here are still those offered by the state-run Indian Institutes of Technology, the Indian Institutes of Management, and the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, followed closely by degrees -- in any discipline -- at top institutions like the Universities of Delhi and Bombay, among others.

"I am not interested in private universities' courses because they haven't proven themselves yet," says Nithya Ravi, 17, a journalism major at the University of Delhi. Even if Harvard or Columbia Universities offered programs in India, she says, she would not give up a place in one of the University of Delhi's prestigious colleges to attend a lesser-known program with a famous affiliate.

Private universities appeal primarily to students who don't score high enough on their high-school graduation examinations to win a place at one of the top universities and to those who failed rigorous entrance exams for engineering or medicine programs. Students interested in studying management at the undergraduate level often choose private institutions, as such programs are not available at public universities.

Administrators at several private universities say they are undeterred by the limited market so far, and believe there is a place for them in India. "The competition in India is fierce, and there are not enough seats in these government universities," says K.B. Powar, director of the Amity Foundation, which runs Amity University.

Students who attend private universities say they prefer them because the instruction is more practical and project-based, not theoretical, like in the public universities. "Our teachers are from the industries and companies that we would eventually like to get jobs with. Besides, there is a lot more flexibility in the number of courses we can choose per term and what time of day we can take them, unlike in public universities," says Smriti Malhotra, an M.B.A. student at the New Delhi-based Western International University, one of the few foreign universities to set up an independent campus in India. It is a joint venture between the Apollo Group, which owns the University of Phoenix, and a private Indian investment group.

Enrolling in a good private university is also a better option than attending a less-than-stellar public university. In some public universities, professor absenteeism is rampant, teaching methods are outdated, and classes are overcrowded.

"We have only 20 people to a class, get personalized attention, and learn in a very interactive environment. I cannot imagine that in a government university," says Nishant Gupta, an M.B.A. student at Western International, which offers bachelor's and master's degrees in business and finance. The university's main building -- it would be a stretch to call it a campus -- is centrally air-conditioned, a rarity in India. The institution, which enrolls 350 students, has more than 20 computers, and its classrooms, each with a slide projector, are more like conference rooms. In contrast, at public universities many classrooms have creaking fans and old-fashioned chalkboards, and there is perhaps one computer to a college.

Luring Students Overseas

These amenities come at a cost. The average annual tuition at Western International is $2,000, while the prestigious University of Delhi charges less than $200. Still, the price tag at private institutions is a lot lower than what students would find at an American campus, something that foreign universities hope will be a key selling point for their India-based programs.

International students at the American campus of Michigan Technological University's Center for International Education pay an estimated $26,000 a year in tuition and living expenses, according to James P. Cross, the center's executive director. Students at the New Delhi campus pay only about $6,000 a year, largely because the cost of living in India is so much lower. The benefits are mutual, says Mr. Cross in an e-mail message. Students get a less expensive education, while Michigan Tech increases its revenue, is able to hire more faculty members, and improves its research capacity. Some students may even continue on to earn graduate degrees.

Foreign-university officials also hope that their programs in India will eventually lure some students to their universities abroad. "No one can sit in glorious isolation. Educational institutions have to be linked up, and they will work out joint degrees, etc.," says John Nance, head of the education department at the British Council in New Delhi. "Education is being internationalized like never before."

Mr. Nance points to the University of Nottingham's Malaysian campus, which attracts many Indian students. "This is the pattern for the future," he says.

Meanwhile, private universities are trying to sort out a slew of new government regulations that promise to weed out fly-by-night institutions, particularly those that prey on the growing demand for technical degrees. While they welcome the initiatives in theory, they say the standards established so far focus more on quantitative measurements than qualitative ones.

"The government is trying to be conscious and cautious, but the quality of people on its decision-making bodies leaves a lot to be desired," says Rajiv Gupta, the Indian head of Resource Development International, a private consulting company that facilitates partnerships in higher education between Britain and India. "To build a policy that says private institutions should have x acres of land or infrastructure isn't enough."

Amity's Mr. Powar agrees. "I don't know how they will check on standards," he says. "Even public universities don't comply with any standards. If they want strict regulations, the regulations should apply to all universities and the University Grants Commission needs to do a better job monitoring them."

Government officials are unapologetic about their stricter regulations. "To reach the goal of 10-percent enrollment in higher education, we realize private universities have to play a big role and we are all for it," says Mr. Prakash, of the University Grants Commission. "But they have to follow procedure and meet certain standards."