How about More Private Players in Higher Education?

Bikash Sarmah


The year 1857 can be considered a watershed year in the history of Indian higher education. That year saw the British establish the first three universities – that of Bombay, Calcutta and Madras. The British intent was clear. They wanted to create an educated workforce to man their civil services in India. Education in these universities had to be in the British style; after all, the British wanted their Indian photocopies in the bureaucracy. And this bureaucracy had to follow British orders; it had to be a disciplined workforce by virtue of its total subservience to its colonial masters.

It was a huge success, no doubt. The reason was not simply a new class of educated Indians. For, very soon would enslaved India see a new class of intellectual rebels who borrowed the Western concept of democracy – or liberty and individualism – and try to replicate here. They were hugely successful in moulding public opinion in favour of freedom from the yoke of imperialism.

The British resented all this, but had no option to backtrack. The three universities, along with others that gradually came up, were to be hotbeds of discussion on the malaises the country was suffering from due to the ruthless drain of Indian resources to support the British misadventure. A new class of enlightened Indians thus was ready to take on the might of the British.

It was a huge irony. The British had established the universities of Bombay, Calcutta and Madras to fulfil their own civil services aspirations here – the civil services were to serve British interests, not to respond to any Indian aspiration. However, the opposite happened in a rather unbelievable fashion. The new class of Indians, who were by then fully introduced to the Western paradigm of nation-building, had already prepared for freedom. English education thus turned out to be a huge boon.

Nevertheless, the sheer emphasis of arts education at the cost of science education had its own role to play in keeping British India away from the march of science and technology as in the Western world. Subjects of the humanities domain would be crucial for civil services, and this was what the shrewd British were precisely looking for. As a result, science education was relegated to the background. As some experts in the field opine, the British in fact wanted to keep India stagnating from the scientific point of view. They wanted typical bureaucrats, not any ingenious men and women of science research.

In fact, modern education in terms of science & technology and management came into being later on, thanks to eminent private players. Corporatization of education might not be a buzzword then, but it was beginning to happen not merely for profit in a parochial way but for taking the country forward.

Who would not recall the venerable Tatas then? The Indian Institute of Sciences (IISc), Bangalore was their contribution, and today this happens to be the best university in the country as per the QS Ranking of World Universities. But taking a break from their emphasis on science & technology research, the Tatas went on to also establish the eminent Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in 1936 and the famed Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in 1945. All of them are big names today not just because the members of the faculty there have developed innovative teaching methodologies but also because research & development is a very high priority area. The results are there for all to see.

At the same time, other private players joined the fray. The DCM Group was responsible for setting up the Shri Ram College of Commerce (SRCC) in Delhi, which is now the best commerce college in the country. Likewise, Annamalai University came to being in the south at the initiative of Dr Annamalai Chettiar.

But the church was far more instrumental in many ways. Big names such as St Stephen’s in Delhi, St Xavier’s in Calcutta, Christian Medical College in Vellore and Xavier Labour Relations Institute in Jamshedpur were huge church contributions – as also their contributions across Northeast India. St Edmund’s of Shillong was – and still is – a name to reckon with.

The point that this columnist wants to drive home is about the possibility of more such eminent names in the field of higher education and research, both in the sciences and the humanities domains, if entrepreneurs with the right vision, backed by solid faculties, happen to storm into the scene and respond to the youth aspiration of the 21st-century India. However, for all this to bring in the desired results, autonomy will be crucial.

The HRD Ministry has of late woken up to the autonomy imperative in higher education and has in its list a set of institutions that will be given autonomy in curricula formulation and faculty recruitment (even members from abroad depending on merit and proven record). These institutions are also likely to generate their own resources, apart from introducing self-financed courses. This is good news.

But as the private names as mentioned prove, higher education – particularly when it comes to faculty recruitment and research orientation – cannot be an exclusive domain of any government. Since a knowledge economy is the making, and the youth of the country are not ready to accept any stereotype in matters pertaining to their education and career so far misled by myopic governmental vision, private players can play a major role in shifting both the track and goalposts of higher education. Start-ups initiated by educated youth in groups, who want to be employers rather than be employees, can work out wonders too.

The now-defunct National Knowledge Commission, when it was set up with huge pomp and show by the Manmohan Singh government, had talked of about 2,000 more universities in the country. Very true, enrolment must increase, but more than that, in the long run, what is imperative is focus on research and courses that can create an employable workforce. We have had enough of typical degree-manufacturing factories going by the name of this and that college and university. What we need now is a set of colleges and universities that not only create an employable workforce but also chart out innovative research trajectories. It is here that private players, guided by professionals who have made great marks in their lives, can do something radically different.

Only, the government – both at the Centre and in States – need to have an open mind, an enterprising mind, an out-of-box mind. For this, it has to start by jettisoning its old obsession with commodification of education. Nothing like this is going to happen if we have more Tatas in our midst to set up more institutions like IISc and TIFR. The fact of the matter is that we need more brilliant minds of the entrepreneurial kind in the field of higher education, and we also need a political class that has nothing in the form of ego when it comes to dealing with such education entrepreneurs. The time is now or never.