When Swetha Pasupuleti moved from the University of North Carolina, US, after completing her PhD and her post-doctoral in engineering, to start a teaching career in India, she was in for a rude awakening. It was 2013 and she had just been appointed as an assistant professor at one of Delhi NCR’s well-known private universities, with its sprawling campus and top-notch infrastructure. “It was a culture shock. The entry-level requirement for the intake of students was only on paper. In reality, anybody who could cough up the fees was given admission. Once admitted, faculty like me weren’t allowed to fail students for doing poorly in exams. And year after year, dull students who barely attended class sailed through with engineering degrees,” she says.
Pasupuleti left the university in 2015 to join a newer establishment that promised more transparency. Today, she is Director, international research and collaborations, at the Venkateshwara group of institutions, a group of over a dozen educational institutions that include the Venkateshwara University, a multi-disciplinary autonomous body established by the Government of Uttar Pradesh in 2010.
One of the things Pasupuleti is striving to do in her current role is to give students a fair opportunity to sharpen their skills to thrive in the professional world. But that can be a daunting task in an autonomous space — especially when it determines the fate of thousands of students each year.
According to the World Bank, India has the third-largest higher education system in the world, after the US and China. Of the 965 universities in the country, 369 are private universities. A decade ago, there were only 87 private universities and 91 private deemed universities, shows UGC data. Privatisation has turned India’s higher education segment into a behemoth with a voracious appetite for growth. By 2030, there will be 140 million college-going students and, according to a 2019 report released by the UK-India Business Council, we’re going to need another 1,500 universities to meet the demand.
So, how are private universities serving it up and what is all this doing to the quality of education and job market skills?
It was in 1993, with Karnataka’s Manipal University being accorded a deemed university status by the UGC and in 1995, with the establishment of Sikkim Manipal University (SMU), among the country’s oldest private universities, that India started seeing the beginning of a surge in private universities. SMU was one among the handful of private unaided universities founded to give higher education access to religious and linguistic minorities. More private colleges began mushrooming in the early 2000s.
“The Government wasn’t investing enough in higher education. So private players began to fill that void,” explains Naveen R Nath, a Supreme Court lawyer who has specialised in higher education cases. A series of SC judgements ensured fee regulation, national entrance examinations in a variety of fields that ranked the students, and State-level admission committees that allocated students college seats on the basis of their ranking. The arbitrariness that privatisation had brought had momentarily been handled, or so it seemed, explains Nath.
But then private colleges began converting themselves into autonomous universities. An autonomous private university is a regulatory body that enjoys the privilege of having its own entrance exam, selecting students, setting its fee structure, grading and awarding degrees. Each private university is established by a separate State Act that conforms to the provisions of the UGC Act, 1956. To put it simply, so long as some basic criteria are met, which have to do with having the proper infrastructure in place, land, and faculty appointments, almost anybody who has the financial bandwidth can get the necessary approvals to start a university. While that translates to greater educational access in the hinterlands, a much larger variety of professional courses for students to choose from and far better infrastructure and facilities, the quality of education has become subjective.
Nath recently oversaw a case that involved a private university in Gujarat that was actively looking to enrol students into its architecture school. One of the ways it did this was to form a WhatsApp group that helped prepare the students for NATA (National Aptitude Test in Architecture). Since it was a pandemic year, the examination was conducted online. The students had to keep their videos and microphones turned on the whole time as they took their home-based test. But it was found that they managed to keep their WhatApp group on even as a university faculty was helping them with the answers. The university was penalised heavily for foul play.
“The University is a regulator. It can’t identify itself with a constituent college. But in India, autonomous private universities are just glorified colleges acting in their own self-interest”, according to Nath.
And the students aren’t complaining. “When was the last time you heard of a private university failing its students?” asks Pasupuleti, pointing to the failure in self-regulating. Getting a degree might be half the battle won. But do the degrees translate into jobs? Pasupuleti recalls how a majority of the students in her former campus couldn’t clear the placement exams conducted by hiring companies.
In a 2019 National employability report released by Aspiring Minds, a skills assessment and research firm, employers said 80 per cent of Indian engineering graduates did not meet the minimum requirements of the companies looking to hire them. “Employability of Indian engineers remains stagnant for the ninth year in a row,” it says.
Educated unemployment is a real problem in India. Azim Premji University’s report — State Of Working India 2018 — noted that unemployment among the well-educated is thrice the national average. There are roughly 55 million people in the labour force who hold at least a graduate degree, and about nine million of them are estimated to be unemployed.
All this is presumably progressively worse in a pandemic year when both education and employability have suffered in equal measure.
Experts believe that quality issues will iron themselves out over time. On the whole, given their rather short gestation period, the impact of private universities has been significant in creating the much-needed access to higher education that young India never had.
Also, with industry leaders getting into the university education space, students have benefited from direct industry experience. The BML Munjal University, a Hero group initiative located at Kapriwas, Haryana, offers courses in management, engineering, law, applied sciences and liberal arts disciplines, allowing students to take courses outside of their major, without feeling regimented by their discipline’s boundaries. “This comprehensive setting allows cross-fertilisation of ideas,” says Prof Manoj K Arora, Vice-Chancellor, BML Munjal.
“With a unique blend of a hands-on practical approach to learning, live industry-driven projects in collaboration with corporates and institutions with a global presence, practice school internships, supported by robust industry engagement, BMU has been able to address the job market challenges faced by the new generation of students, with a focus on making each graduating student ‘deployable rather than employable’,” he explains, referring to certain agility in their skill sets that is applicable in multiple job sectors.
Among other industries, BMU’s students have been absorbed in the Hero Group of companies, such as Hero MotoCorp, Rockman, Hero Fintech, Munjal Showa, Hero Electricals, Hero Energy and Tessolve.
While universities like Lovely Professional University, Amity, Sharda, SRM, Symbiosis and Manipal have been able to draw students given their impressive infrastructure, there are those such as Shiv Nadar University, Ashoka University and OP Jindal Global University (JGU), that have managed to create a stellar name for themselves in academic circles. One of their contributions has also been to create breakthroughs in the field of social sciences.
“In a country dominated by STEM institutions, we wanted to break stereotypes, and create a multidisciplinary institution with a focus on Social Sciences, Liberal Arts and Humanities, to nurture socially responsible global leaders who create an impact on the world around us,” says Prof C Raj Kumar, founding Vice-Chancellor of JGU. “From technology firms to policy think tanks, from roles in marketing to those in consulting, there has been a demand for talent who have an understanding of social sciences, thereby opening up a wide range of avenues,” he says.
The recent QS World University Rankings 2021 recognises OP Jindal as India’s number one university dedicated to Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities. The rankings also recognise JGU in the top 700 universities across the globe. The government of India recognises it as an Institution of Eminence. For a university that’s only 12 years old, that has 6,600 students, 830 faculty and 4,000 alumni, these aren’t small achievements.
“Lack of world-class infrastructure, lack of incentives to boost philanthropy and investment in the education sector, the regulatory boundaries limiting the academic autonomy of institutions, and the lack of a system that attracts bright talent into pursuing a career in teaching are some of the many pressing challenges at this point. However, with the effective implementation of the NEP2020, and building a culture of trust, respect and collegiality between the government agencies, the regulatory bodies and the higher education institutions will enable India to achieve greater heights in World University Rankings,” Prof Raj Kumar says.
“At the end of the day what separates an ace private university from one that merely ticks the boxes of a minimum requirement is philanthropic intent,” says Nath. The former know that they are in this for the long haul.