It is perhaps a measure of the myopia that marks policy-making in India, that a controversy has brought to the fore an issue that the country should have been grappling with anyway. The issue of higher education infrastructure, for instance, is being talked about now only because of the decision to reserve 27.5 per cent seats in all Central higher education institutions for other backward classes (OBCs). The number of seats are to be increased so that no one loses out.
That's easier said than done, as the government itself is realising. The Delhi University vice-chancellor has said that it will take three years for the University to expand the infrastructure to cope with the increased load. So now, the oversight committee headed by Veerappa Moily will study the situation and work out a roadmap for doing this.
But why have we reached such a situation in the first place? The strain on the higher education infrastructure would have come regardless of caste-based quotas. Why didn't we prepare for it?
India's access ratio in higher education (the number of students as a proportion of population in the eligible age group of 18-23) is a laughable eight per cent, against 35-55 per cent in most developed countries. India plans to dominate the world economic stage with these kind of numbers?
The University Grants Commission's Tenth Five Year Plan in 2002 had planned to increase the access ratio to double digits-10 per cent-by 2007. That, the then UGC vice-chairman Arun Nigavekar had estimated, would have meant bringing in 14 million students into the higher education stream. This newspaper has reported that there is a 15 per cent increase in students passing out of school every 10 years and that the Human Resource Development ministry expects this to double in the next decade. The financial implications of this are enormous-close to Rs 12,000 crore, Nigavekar had estimated in 2002.
Can the public sector education system alone do this? Certainly not on its own.
Sure, no country has expanded its higher education infrastructure at the pace India has. Much of it has happened in the public sector, but the private sector has also played a significant role. Unfortunately, successive governments have done little to actively encourage private initiatives in education or let a vibrant market develop in that sector. If it had allowed that it is likely that the issue of lack of access of disadvantaged groups to education would not have come up at all. The current problem (and resistance to quotas) is as much a demand-supply mismatch one as it is a social one.
It's now time to start fashioning an environment that will encourage and facilitate the development of a vibrant market in education, which will supplement government efforts in primary, secondary and higher levels.
Why not revive the lapsed Private Universities Bill (introduced in the mid-1990s), which enabled registered societies, public trusts and companies to set up self-financing universities with their own curriculum, fee structure and degrees, under the benign supervision of the UGC? That's the kind of system the country needs.
It doesn't mean that the state withdraws from the field-why, even an ardent open economy advocate like Montek Singh Ahluwalia wants a hike in public spending on higher education -but rather, expands the market to increase supply.
Increasing the role of the private sector will also ensure that the curriculum is more in tune with what the job market requires; something that is not easily done in the government system. The problem of the lack of employability of our youth-regardless of caste-is a result of this.
It's not that the private sector is always more efficient. For all those private institutions that are doing sterling work, there are equal numbers which are extortionist and exploitative. The quality of education in quite a few leaves much to be desired. And there are several fly-by-night operators.
Unfortunately, attempts to regulate it only seem to foster a licence and inspector raj that encourages corruption even as it remains ineffective. The line between regulation and intervention is very fine but it is one that will have to be drawn.
Will creating a market solve the problem of access overnight? It won't. The problem is too huge and complex. It will take years -maybe even a decade-for a robust, fair market to develop.
But one thing is clear-education cannot be a public sector monopoly. The country and the economy have too much at stake to let this happen. Too much time has already been lost and since the benefits won't be immediate, the time to move in the right direction is right now.