Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Why Private Universities Should be Rated and Ranked

After almost a decade of limitless growth, private universities and deemed universities are facing stricter regulation by various state governments and central agencies like UGC as they move into academic year 2015-16.  Academic year 2014-15 is destined to end on a tumultuous note for these self-financing universities. Unbridled growth during the past few years was sure to attract stricter regulation, and it is finally arriving. What it calls for is not only stricter regulation from the government side, but independent ratings and rankings from various agencies including media houses.

What started off as a simple move by Himachal government, to set up a regulator for the sector, has been adopted by a few other state governments too. West Bengal was next in line to appoint a Monitoring Cell for assuring that private universities are keeping their words to both the students as well as the Government.

Now, the need for such a regulator is being felt in Punjab too, with legislators, cutting across party lines, clamouring for a powerful regulator to rein in private universities as well as private colleges. The State’s Chief Minister has already responded by introducing the Punjab Educational Institute Regulatory Authority Bill in the State Assembly.

Legislators were apparently alarmed at the situation in Punjab, where there are already 22 Private Universities, and 2 more are all set to come up soon.

Meanwhile, in the state where the regulatory action started, the regulator, the Himachal Pradesh Private Educational Institutions Regulatory Commission has recently cancelled 1,000 seats of various streams in several private universities working in the state.

These seats were created by flouting the norms of UGC, AICTE, & NCTE, but not the state government nor these central agencies acted against these universities, until the regulator was set up with enough teeth to take action based on these same central norms.

This is not to mean that private universities haven’t done their designated social role entirely. One hint for their effectiveness comes from the dramatic shift in demand for research grants received by Central Government’s Department of Science & Technology (DST).

While, even a few years earlier, the proposals were dominated by the likes of IITs, IISc, NITs etc, now around 50% of the proposals are from private institutes. Though private or self-financing colleges too are included in this 50%, there is no doubt that it is the advent of high-profile  private universities that have changed the research landscape.

Many private universities want to prove a point about their quality, and what best way than research to do it? DST research grants are quite generous, at least according to Indian standards, ranging from Rs. 30 lakh to Rs. 30 crore for a single approved project.

The focus and competition on research activities are definitely improving in the country, but the sad part is that Indian higher education is still no match for even BRICS standards, let alone developed countries’ standards.

In the recently published study, The Times Higher Education BRICS and Emerging Economies Rankings 2015, which gives comprehensive data and analyses on 100 universities in 18 emerging economies of the world, Indian universities and colleges are nowhere.

The results have shown that out of the top 10 universities, 3 are from China, 3 are from Turkey, 1 is from Taiwan, 1 is from Russia, 1 from Brazil, and 1 from South Africa. There is not a single Indian university in even the top 20 universities. Only the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, ranks 25 on the list.

With the state of our premier institutes being such, one can imagine the research standards at private universities and colleges, and how much they have to improve.

One positive development for private universities during the past year has been the setting up of a dedicated fund for financing them by a listed company. More NBFCs are expected to follow suit eyeing this emerging lucrative opportunity, bringing relief to the cash-strapped self-financing sector.

Those eligible for premium subsidized education are highly unlikely to consider either private universities or private colleges as a first choice, leaving self-financing colleges and universities to compete with each other for the remaining large pool of students.

Both private colleges and private universities have their respective pros & cons. While private colleges boast about affiliation to a reputed public university and the resultant higher academic benchmarking, private universities stake their main claims on newer and better infrastructure as well as on academic autonomy resulting in updated curricula.

Amidst such confusing claims and counter-claims, the students are the real losers.

What it calls for is not only stricter regulation from the government side, but independent ratings and rankings from various agencies including media houses. India's young and dynamic HRD Minister, Smriti Irani, can potentially lead this change by encouraging such efforts.