The education sector in India is in ferment, hit by a storm long waiting to happen. The butterfly that flapped its wings was the much-reiterated statement in a much publicised report that hardly a fourth of graduating engineers and an even smaller percentage of other graduates, was of employable quality for IT-BPO jobs. This triggered a cyclone when similar views were echoed by other sectors which led to widespread debate Increased industry-academia interaction, ‘‘finishing schools’’ and other efforts were initiated as immediate measures to bridge skill deficits. These, however, did not work as some felt that these are but band-aid solutions; instead, radical systemic reform is necessary.
Yet, there will be serious challenges to overdue reforms in the education system. In India as in many countries education is treated as a holy cow; sadly the administrative system that oversees it has also been deceived Today, unfortunately, there is no protest against selling drinking water or paying to be cured of illness, or for having to buy food when one is poor and starving; nor is there an outcry that in all these cases there are commercial companies operating on a profit-making basis. Why, then is there an instinctively adverse reaction to the formal entry of ‘for-profit’ institutes in the realm of education ? Is potable water, health or food, less basic a need, less important a right, than higher education ?
While there are strong arguments for free or subsidised higher education, we are not writing on a blank page Some individuals and businessmen had entered this sector long back and found devious ways of making money, thought the law stipulates that educational institutes must be ‘not-for-profit’ trusts or societies. Yet, there is opposition to the entry of ‘for-profit’ corporates, which would be more transparent and accountable As a result, desperately needed investment in promoting the wider reach of quality education has been stagnated at a time when financial figures indicate that the allocation of funds for the purpose is but a fourth of the need.
Well-run corporate organisations, within an appropriate regulatory framework, would be far better than the so-called trusts which-barring some noteworthy exceptions are a blot on education. However, it is not necessarily a question of choosing one over the other : different organisational forms can coexist, as they do in the health sector. A regulatory framework which creates competition, in tandem with a rating system, would automatically ensure the quality and relevance of education. As in sectors like telecom and packaged goods, organisations will quickly expand into the hinterland to tap the large unmet demand Easy loan/scholarship arrangements would ensure affordability and access.
The only real structural reform in higher education was the creation of the institutes for technology and management. They were also given autonomy and freedom beyond that of the universities. However, in the last few years, determined efforts have been underway to curb their autonomy. These institutes, however, need freedom to decide on recruitment, salaries and admissions, so as to compete globally.
However, such institutes will be few. Therefore, we need a regulatory framework that will enable and encourage states and the centre, genuine philanthropists and also corporates to set up quality
educational institutions. The regulatory system needs only to ensure transparency, accountability, competition and widely-available independent assessments or ratings. It is time for radical thinking, bold experimentation and new structures; it is time for the government to bite the bullet.