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DESPITE, first The Indian Express and subsequently NDTV breaking the ‘not particularly secret’ story of how the management of capitation fee colleges in Maharashtra auction/sell seats to professional colleges in complete violation of Supreme Court guidelines, the thinking on how we should finance and run our educational institutions remains caught in a time warp. Evidently, decades of mistrust about private entrepreneurship in conjunction the arrogant and mistaken belief that those of us in control – the political and the bureaucratic class – know best and are the only worthwhile guardians of public interest, is difficult to wipe out.

A recent article by Pratap Bhanu Mehta in The Hindu (16 July) lays out parameters that our education policy planners would do well to heed. It is well recognized that there is a serious shortage of quality higher education in the country. Now we can argue interminably that the state ought to put greater money in education, but equally, many of the same would want the scarce resources to be first allocated to strengthening and expanding education at the school level. So why the continuing hostility towards an infusion of private capital, reflected both in the refusal to treat education as a legitimate business activity and worse, tying down the enterprises into a miasma of regulations that makes transparent and legal functioning well-nigh impossible?

Mehta is spot-on in pointing out the proposition that quality education can only/should be a ‘not-for-profit’ activity has created a mess. Not only does this curtail a possible inflow of much needed funds, it places unnecessary regulations on even those institutions which are not seeking state subsidy. There are restrictions on fees which can be charged, staff that you can employ and students that you can enrol. There is even the populist and debatable proposition that a regime of reservations and quotas be extended to the private sector. Why? Surely, not only for the political class to appease and cultivate their vote banks?

The burning desire to ensure quality education to the less well-off but deserving can be met through a variety of means. For a start, what stops us from dramatically improving our public sector education enterprise, thereby crowding the private (and undeserving) institutions out of the market. One can hardly argue that these institutions are suffering because of paucity of funds (low fees, inability to access non-state resources), dilution of standards in hiring faculty or admitting students, interminable processual delays in upgrading courses, rampant unionism, and the like and then try and impose the same conditions in non-state institutions.

More than extend a regime of controls, the need today is to grant greater functional autonomy to all educational enterprises – public and private – evolve a minimalist and facilitating set of guidelines that institutions should meet, and help institute professional associations that can monitor, evaluate and report on the working of different institutions. Also encourage diversity in approach and curricula so as to expand the choice set for students. Of course, this demands that the certification processes be transparent and above board, in itself a heroic assumption, but there is no escape from this measure.

All this sounds good but in an environment where formal education and instruction (not access to learning) is advocated as a fundamental right, and even ‘menial’ formal sector jobs demand excessive qualifications, the lure of a degree is difficult to resist. Since our better quality institutions are near impossible to enter (less than one in a thousand applicants makes it to the IITs or IIMs), students opt for whatever they can access, public or private. And when they are cheated, as in Maharashtra or Bihar, they either approach the courts or threaten agitation if not suicide. Given the stranglehold that our political class maintains on most educational institutions (as owners/promoters in private institutions and by cornering governing body/positions in public institutions), rules become difficult to enforce. It is hardly surprising that even when their misdemeanours are exposed, they escape punishment, wait for the outcry to subside and continue their money-making ways. After all, if they are penalised, the first to suffer are the students.

So can nothing be done? Surely not, though reforms will not be swift. Much as the ‘politically correct’ hate the idea, it is difficult to deny that a plural and less controlled higher education sector is the best route to an expansion of genuine choice for our students. As long as we continue to strangle enterprise in education, our students will seek options abroad or kowtow to the powerful to ensure admission to the few places which still maintain standards.

Clearly, it is time that we radically rethink the project of education or else remain mired in a self-defeating system of mediocrity.

Harsh Sethi