Friday, June 22, 2012
'Corporate' Higher Education in India: Panacea or Problem?
A new trend in Indian Higher Education is that the big business houses are entering Higher Education sector by setting up schools themselves. Usually, this is to be expected: India's thriving industry requires people, and the Higher Education sector can't provide it, not with the right skill level or in adequate numbers, hence one would expect investments from large employers in propping up higher education. However, as things stand now, the corporate involvement in Higher Ed is driven by commercial considerations and bandwagon effect, everyone thinks it is a good business, rather than skills requirement or philanthropy. While this means shiny new schools and increased private investment in Higher Education, this also brings education within control of India's 'tycoon economy', and may be detrimental to education innovation in the country.
It is usual for big employers to support Higher Education: Some of the best universities in the world have been set up with support from Cornells and Rothschilds. Famously, both Yahoo and Google were incubated in William H Gates Incubation Centre at Stanford. Motives behind such support have traditionally been philanthropy, driven by a sense of national service, and may be an implied aim of nurturing talent, in the oblique hope of getting commercial benefit at a future date. Most of these support has come in the form of endowments and scholarships, and while many of the benefactors maintained some from of control as or through trustees, academic freedom was allowed - leading to creation of some of the best universities in the world.
Corporate intervention in Higher Education in India, in contrast, looks, at least mostly, a mad scramble to make a quick buck. The corporate institutions, unlike those in America, are directly controlled by the business houses. Though constituted as not for profit entities, they are very much part of a greater For Profit scheme. The owner, as India's patriarchal business culture always have an owner, takes most of the decisions anyway, and most academics, without tenure, are left at the mercy of the owner and the managers, not just the academic ones, but also the 'group' managers who are invariably hoisted on the academic layer. Most institutions, therefore, operate with an academic layer subservient to a 'trading' layer, and most decisions are made in line with the dominant trading culture of the business group.
In this framework, one would most commonly find two categories of students. Because of India's regulated education system, most such education institutions admit three-quarters of their students through a competitive examination system (which is not fully meritocratic, as the affirmative action quotas govern at least half of these admissions), who pay a regulated fee. Most institutions will then top this up with 'non-quota' students, who do not come through any admissions system at all, and would usually pay the full fee, often 10 to 15 times as much as the regulated fee, along with a donation of some kind. These students, understandably much richer than the rest of the class, are usually treated differently by the institution, allowing them far greater access to the top managers and preferential treatment where possible.
Admittedly, this practice is worse in an owner-operator set up than when a larger corporation is funding the institution, but in the end, it is still the trading logic - of that of focusing on most profitable customers - that trump the academic notions of justice and fairness. India's restrictive education regulations, which excludes for-profit institutions, in reality crowds out philanthropic interventions in the field, as everyone masquerade as a not-for-profit venture. Such restrictions obscure the fact that not-for-profit isn't just a trading form, but a particular way of approaching the social challenges, and, as a consequence, make things worse.
It is also unclear whether corporate higher education is the panacea for Indian higher education. There is quite a bit of enthusiasm and new investment in the sector at this time; however, while the available seats have expanded, there is very little variety in the educational offerings, and the gross enrollment ratio, low by any standards, have failed to lift off. In fact, it seems that there is excess capacity at this time in the Indian Higher Education sector, as more than 100 colleges have applied to the regulating body for closure. Besides, India has to address the qualitative issue in Higher Education: Whereas Korean and Chinese institutions are making great strides (not to mention the Japanese), Indian institutions remain firmly at the bottom of all world league tables. Indian corporations so far failed to infuse any of their world beating glory in their higher ed interventions: One may now look elsewhere for a solution to a sector India must fix quickly.
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How To Live
"Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."
- Theodore Roosevelt
- Theodore Roosevelt
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
- T S Eliot
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