Thursday, April 23, 2015

Private Universities Moving Up, But a Lot More to Climb

With the 2015-16 admission season just round the corner, Seasonal Magazine toured dozens of private university campuses across India, and interviewed Chancellors, Vice-Chancellors, Deans, HoDs, faculty, students, and parents, to assess how far have these self-financing varsities moved up in the value chain. While many private universities welcomed our efforts wholeheartedly and co-operated with us in the assessment process, there were a few where the warmth was confined to words and promises, but not follow-up actions like interviews, data sharing, and replies to assessment sheets. While many institutions were trying their level best to move up in the value chain by offering more value to students, there were many other institutions which were content by being just graduate factories. Here is an exclusive ground report from this comprehensive exercise on meeting and assessing private universities.

Seasonal Magazine has been on a whirlwind tour of India's private universities for this ranking issue. Over three dozen leading universities extended their invitation to our team to assess their campuses, and our team so far visited over two dozen universities across North & South India. While most private universities have improved during the past few years, they have to sharpen their focus on quality aspects on at least nine fronts if they are to survive and thrive. These include admission transparency, scholarship assistance, faculty quality, contemporary curriculum, research outlook, industry interactions, soft skills training, placement assistance, and entrepreneurship development. Our ranking endeavour, we hope, will assess these eight core aspects of private universities.

Another admission season at graduate and postgraduate level is fast approaching. Even not all hardworking students are expected to gain admission for the course they wish for at the institution they prefer. Which brings back the eternal dilemma of ‘course-or-institution’, and to add fuel to the confusion, in recent years, there have been even more options by way of private universities.

The additional question they bring to the table is whether students should opt for available courses/branches at conventional institutions, or opt for these entirely self-financing universities?

If there is one development agenda where all Indians agree, it is this - if India is to achieve its potential ever, it has to grow its teaching-learning infrastructure multi-fold in the next couple of decades. Education is not only the empowering force, but the real socio-economic leveller.

It is also an accepted reality that our governments couldn’t deliver what they promised for long - quality education that is subsidized up to the degree level for all. It is into this challenging territory that India’s pioneering edupreneurs from primary to higher education levels have ventured into.

Today, India is home to a burgeoning community of private schools, international schools, self-financing colleges, private deemed universities, and private universities. All of them following the self-financing model to the hilt, and not apparently taxing the national exchequer.

Besides aiding lakhs of students to study what they desire at the place they desire, these private universities have given proper jobs to thousands of teachers and support staff. However, with all these rapid growth has also emerged several low quality institutions that threaten to cast a bad name on the whole private education sphere. 

From our extensive tour of private university campuses, there were several takeaways. While larger private universities have paused expanding their infrastructure to focus on more qualitative issues, smaller and emerging private universities are still in the process of upgrading their campuses.

Competition to attract students have definitely heated up with new colleges and universities springing up in even mid-range cities on a quarterly basis or even monthly basis. Despite being bogged down by their self-financing nature, almost all universities we met were doing their level best to attract and retain the student inflow.

Private Universities have to fight and survive this battle as private colleges have been on a resurgence during the past year, as some sections of students and their parents have started shifting their preference to more conventional universities and their affiliated colleges.

Another insight from our visits has been that there is a surplus of seats - at least for the time being - in branches like engineering and management. However, in a country like India where GER ratio is still pathetically low, this is going to be a temporary phenomenon.

Thankfully, during the last couple of years, India has been going through a start-up boom, due to e-commerce going mainstream. Private Universities are making use of this trend in many ways. Ahmedabad based Nirma University, a top ranking university for entrepreneurship development, for example, is bringing in innovators to the campus to teach, and is already home to a successful student start-up.

Anyway, demand for graduates will catch up with supply eventually, but universities have to sharpen their focus on quality aspects, at least on nine fronts if they are to survive this catching up period.

These include admission transparency, scholarship assistance, faculty quality, contemporary curriculum, research outlook, industry interactions, soft skills training, placement assistance, and entrepreneurship development. Our ranking endeavour, we hope, will assess these eight core aspects of private universities.

Though transparency in admissions still needs to be improved, some private universities have made significant progress when it comes to transparency in placements. An example is Greater Noida based Galgotias University, a top ranking university for placements, which publishes in its website the placements obtained by each of its students.

Wherever there is reasonable transparency in admissions, the quality of placements tend to be better. One example is Thanjavur based Sastra University, a top ranked private university in South India for quality of placements, which attracted internationally renowned recruiters like Microsoft, Amazon, Bosch, and a few more such MNC giants even before the bulk recruitment season started.

Another hint for the effectiveness of private universities 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.

One reason for the improvement in research outcomes in private universities is the autonomy enjoyed by them in critical aspects like curriculum development. For instance, Bangalore based Alliance University, a top ranking private university for updated curriculum, invests heavily in updating its curriculum by hiring internationally renowned experts in each subject.

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.

Another reason why private universities fare better in research is international alliances. Sonipat based OP Jindal Global University, a top ranking university for international academic alliances in North India, for example has forged different kinds of tie-ups with universities in many regions including North America, Europe, Australia etc.

The focus and competition on research activities are definitely improving in the country, but the sad part is that forget private universities even the elite public institutions are still no match for developed countries’ standards.

Though engineering undergraduates from our IITs are still in demand in USA for employability purposes, it is a fact that none of our IITs find a place among the Top 200 World Universities as compiled by reliable sources.

Such compilations can’t be faulted as despite having an annual enrolment of around 15,000 students, none of our IITs have delivered a path-breaking world patent, let alone produce a Nobel laureate in their long history.

While our top leaders often lament about this, there is a point that they conveniently forget, which is the level of funding IITs receive in comparison with the American universities.

Maybe in the long run, private universities can end up better poised on the infrastructure front. Some of the private universities like JK Lakshmipat University of Jaipur, a top ranking private university in Rajasthan for infrastructure, has built up commendable infrastructure like its Cloud Computing Lab with Thin Clients, which many IITs & NITs are yet to have.

IIT Roorkee recently did a study on this subject, in which they compared what IITs receive and what US State Universities receive. Mind you, not what the Ivy League or such top-tier private institutions receive, but what public universities in US receive.

As an example from this study, IIT Roorkee used to receive Rs. 190 crore annually as grants around two years back. In contrast, what a single department of a public US university like University of California at Berkeley or University of Michigan at Ann Arbor receive is much more than this.

Yet another example for superior infrastructure delivering results in India’s private higher education space is Chennai based SRM University. This private deemed university has leveraged superior infrastructure like its three campuses in South India and one campus in North India, to emerge as a top ranking university in engineering placements.

Even in Asia, National University of Singapore’s individual departments have bigger budgets than our IITs, whose funding has been reduced during the past two years. Even on full funding, the grant was barely enough for infrastructure and salaries, leaving nothing much available for research.

In contrast, some private universities has invested heavily for not only research, but in creating recreational facilities for its students. Sikar based Mody University, a top ranking private university for girls in Western India, has 17.5 acres dedicated for extensive sporting facilities including Equestrian with 55 horses and an Olympian trainer, despite being a girls-only varsity.   

Another university with a girls-only focus in under-graduation level, Himachal based Eternal University, has invested in another dimension to ensure that maximum variety of courses are offered. A top ranking private university for variety of courses for girls in the state, this private university based in Baru Sahib today is capable of offering 35 undergraduate and postgraduate programs, even in rare streams like nursing, renewable energy, agriculture, food technology, & music.

In any case, fund crunch indeed is one prime reason why IITs even lag in 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 in no way toppers.

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.

But there have been notable exceptions. Assam Don Bosco University, a top ranking private university in North East, has a full-time Director of Research, which has been a progressive step that got commended by a visiting team from UGC.

Academically and professionally aggressive markets like USA are, however, making best of the general Indian weakness in research.

USA has plans to come up with a legislative proposal to award green cards for all those who complete a postgraduate degree in science, technology, engineering, or maths, the so-called STEM fields, from any US University.

There is no doubt about whom are all America targeting with this move. It is China and India.

America is awakening to the supreme realization that they need to steal young talents in STEM from the world over, and make them US citizens, if they are to sustain their global economic leadership that still now seems invincible compared with the rest of the world. Now, that is what is called foresight.

Focus on pilfering global STEM talent also reveals their real strategy. While America can take care of its own in other core developmental academic fields like economics, management, business etc., affluent American youth is not keen to pursue academically tougher fields like science, engineering, medicine, & maths.

One way Indian universities can fight back is by maintaining focus on niche areas. A successful example in this kind of focus is Mysore based JSS University, a top ranking private university for medicine in Karnataka. Despite being promoted by JSS Mahavidyapeetha, one of the largest educational groups in the country which has got expertise in most disciplines, its JSS University has an exclusive focus on medicine and other health sciences.

Another example for a niche focus is Gandhinagar based Dhirubhai Ambani Institute of Information & Communication Technology (DA-IICT). Promoted by Reliance Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group, one of India’s largest industrial conglomerates, DA-IICT has emerged as a top ranking private university for ICT in Western India, due to this sharp focus on a sunrise field.

Anyway, the American message to the world is clear. Only merit is welcome. And merit will continue to move in to America, if others like India and China are not cautious.

The world over, the best educational institutions were created on this simple premise that ’only merit is welcome’. The same goes for India and its IITs and IIMs.

In a way, the new private universities of India too have realized this truth and is espousing a slightly altered philosophy that ’merit is welcome‘.  Being self-financed, they can’t afford to say that ‘only merit is welcome’. But then the all important question in the private university context is whether ‘merit is moving in?’

Why this is not happening is a long and complex story to understand.

Universities have come a long way in India since 1857, when the year of India’s first freedom struggle also stood glorious witness to the foundation of three universities - University of Mumbai, University of Madras, & University of Calcutta.

British India went on to establish many more universities, and later free India would follow suit, under the vision of leaders like Jawaharlal, in an accelerated mode. So much so that, Indians never felt there were less universities than they needed.

And how can it be otherwise, with the nation home to 42 great Central Universities like Jawaharlal Nehru University, Benares Hindu University, Aligarh Muslim University etc.,  and 311 well-performing State Universities like National Law University, Tamilnadu Agricultural University etc.

The British model followed by these universities to spread out - that of affiliating colleges - was also perfect for the populous people we are.

And, in case any of us needed even better quality education, especially of the professional kind, there were the autonomous institutions coming under Department of Higher Education, like Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs), National Institutes of Technology (NITs, formerly RECs), and Indian Institutes of Science, Education, & Research.

We and our children studied under some of these facilities, paying fees not worth calling by that name, while our teachers and professors were always in glee, teaching barely 5 hours a week, and taking home conscience-pricking salaries, all under the auspices of that benevolent regulator, University Grants Commission (UGC), which was only too happy to burn public taxpayer money at a furious rate for the benefit of, well, the public itself.

The fact that a majority percentage of such beneficiaries came from the most affluent segment, or the fact that a good percentage of them forsake Indian citizenship forever, is another story altogether.

However, such universities and their affiliated colleges were not enough to raise our Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) to even a minimally acceptable level. Gross Enrolment Ratio is a UN created metric of students of a nation enrolled in a school/college to the total number of children of that level.

India’s GER at tertiary or higher education level is 19.4% (as of 2010-11 which is the latest official data), and it means that only less than 20% of students who should be going in for a college degree are now pursuing it for various reasons.

India’s 43 Central Universities, 16 IITs, 13 IIMs, 27 NITs, some early Deemed Universities like IISc, IIITs etc, and 311 State Universities as well as their thousands of affiliated colleges all come under the subsidized category.

They tend to be older institutions, and are the first choice of the most meritorious students due to obvious advantages like state-subsidised education, high reputation, long history, high academic standards, industry acceptability etc.

But merit has always been a relative thing. For long, merit for a course was decided by the availability of seats. But a country like India, known for its burgeoning youth population soon ran out of options in the government-funded sector. Lot many students had merit for particular courses than there were seats.

Skyrocketing campus placements has been another reason why merit got redefined. If private universities became capable of delivering the kind of graduates that industry is demanding, who has the right to complain? Employability emerged as the key here. For example, Bhopal based AISECT University, a top ranking private university in Central India for ICT & Skills Development, has a successful strategy in ensuring employability of its graduates.

Thus entered the self-financing model in higher education. The trend started with self-financing colleges and progressed to first autonomous colleges and then to self-financing universities. They came in two broad categories - Private Deemed Universities that are sanctioned by UGC / Central Government, and Private Universities that are sanctioned by the respective State Governments.

But today, when the tally of Deemed Universities has touched around 130, it is clear that Government has opted to grant Deemed University status to many large self-financing colleges or group of colleges.

Despite this elaborate infrastructure of 42 Central Universities, 311 State Universities, 130 Deemed Universities, the around 56 IITs/IIMs/NITs, the thousands of affiliated aided colleges, and even more of affiliated self-financing colleges, the GER was nowhere near acceptable.

That is why in 1995, India decided that enough is not enough, and directed UGC to create an alternate structure - Private University - and notified the first of this kind.

Private University, by definition, was a fully state affair, having nothing to do with the central government except for UGC approval.

Some of India’s state governments like Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh etc competed with each other to allow private universities to aspiring edupreneurs.

India is today home to 205 private universities. The quantitative logic behind the move is sound, which is a low GER. An unofficial 2014 report puts the GER for tertiary education or the 18-23 group at 21.1, which is an improvement from 2011, but nowhere near many peer countries.

The successive governments including the present one have a stated goal to achieve a GER of at least 30% by 2020.

Today, despite having 712 universities & premium institutions and more than 35,000 colleges, India is still struggling with a low GER, mainly due to the burgeoning population.

The solution is of course more colleges and universities, and since the government can‘t or won‘t fund it, self-financing institutions is the only way out.

But the model needs to be really flawless. It can’t be flawless when better education is available from the hundreds of state-funded universities and their thousands of affiliated colleges at subsidized rates. In higher education it is a given that any institution is only as good as the students it attracts.

And to a lesser extent, the faculty and infrastructure. How can there be excellent faculty in a private university if they won’t pay better than the state-sponsored UGC scale?

Some private universities like Phagwara based Lovely Professional University (LPU) has been trying to address this issue by recruiting a certain percentage of its faculty from IITs. LPU has been a top ranking private university for placements in Punjab.

Anyway, privatization is not the culprit here, but rather too fast privatization with too little forethought. When the society is allowing a private institution the supreme authority to grand degrees, and make a sustainable business out of it, these institutions have the responsibility to aid the needy among the society.

No one expects self-financing institutions like private universities and deemed universities to be selfless. But are some of them becoming too self-assured, too self-serving?

Basing all logic on GER is flawed, as it ignores why the other 80% are not studying in a college today. Though on paper there are many reasons, including dyslexia, in practice what social researchers have repeatedly found is that the reason is purely economical. In other words, fee is unaffordable or they need to start earning now itself.

So, how will a student or his/her parents who can’t afford the regular subsidized college fee, afford the self-financing fee of private universities?

The only other way is to prevent affluent students from getting subsidized education, and thus force them to opt for private universities with better infrastructure and luxuries.

As this is easily said than done in a liberal democracy like India, it should be the prime focus of the Government, regulators like UGC & AICTE, and accrediting bodies like NAAC to ensure that the academic standards in private universities are significantly overhauled so that affluent students are naturally drawn to these institutions.

Better discipline is another avenue that private universities must focus to naturally attract students. Lucknow based Integral University has made reasonable headway on this front. This top ranking private university in U.P. for discipline and ragging-free campus, not only has a comprehensive zero-tolerance to ragging policy, but has an actual track-record of zero ragging in its long history.

Private universities on their part should also start the process of moving up the value chain, and there is no other way than endowments to do that. It is a shame on the sector as well as on India Inc that not even a single university or institution (not just private universities) have sizeable corporate endowments backing it for subsidizing meritorious students.

In contrast, in a country like USA which leads most other nations in higher education standards, most private institutions are funded by huge industry endowments. Harvard University has an endowment of $35 billion from industry and wealthy donors, while Stanford University has a $21.4 billion endowment. The Top 10 American universities hold endowments worth $180 billion, while all the 800 colleges and universities across North America hold endowments worth $516 billion.

What the figures reveal is that it is industry endowments that create and sustain premium private universities. More the quality of the institution, more their share of the huge endowment pie and of course, vice versa too in the long run. This is not a loss for the industry as the graduates from these institutions finally serve the industry requirements. There is an additional attraction for both the donors and the universities as none of these donations or endowments or the returns from it are taxed.

India too can explore this model under its corporate CSR initiative that is currently expanded with agendas like building solar/wind farms and toilets. Only if such a model succeeds would we have the answer to the troubling question of how public are our private universities?

Private Universities need to address this issue for their own existence as it is only a matter of years, before the Central Government throws open the doors to international universities to set shop here. And what we will be admitting in won’t be just brands like Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Oxford, or Cambridge, but revolutionary educational paradigms that can turn the whole educational system upside down by democratisation of educational content delivery.

Take for instance the approach of Harvard or MIT which have already made available their entire course materials freely accessible to any student anywhere using a computer or tablet through the web. Such Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) are not just revolutionising distance education, but conventional education too. For instance, it gives highest quality educational content to any aspiring private university.

Then comes the even more strange concepts like Flipped Classrooms, where students learn at home through video lectures and demonstrations, and come to conventional classes for doing only ’homework’. Strange as it may sound, Flipped Classrooms have already proven to improve student success rates across the board.

Private Universities need to embrace such digital delivery methods too to cut costs and emerge competitive in the unfolding global scenario.

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