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Private universities and colleges have an important role in the massive expansion of higher education in India in the last two decades. According to latest official statistics, there are 777 universities in India. Of these around 261 are private universities. Among the 38498 colleges, more than 77% are in the private sector. They cater to 67% of the total higher education enrolment in the country.

However, not enough discussions are happening in the country about the status and role, especially the social impact, of these institutions.  Recently, Pritam Singh, former director of the prestigious public business school Indian Institute of Management Lucknow, made an important observation about the state of private business schools in India:


While certain private institutes have managed to break away from the stereotypes attached and emerged as quality Institutes, there are still several problems plaguing the private sector today. The most important one is that owners of private colleges consider them to be businesses rather than educational institutes. More importance is put on infrastructure rather than research work and the quality of faculty is bad. Quality faculty is not willing to take up such jobs because such institutes don’t pay well or give their teachers autonomy and freedom for research.


Similarly, eminent Indian journalist T.J.S George had recently brought the pathetic state of certain private professional institutions in the country into public attention through his weekly column in the Indian Express. He questioned not only the commercialisation of education but also the institutional culture in private institutions by citing a recent incident happened in South India in which the chairman of an engineering college was hacked to death by a gang armed with sickles. This brutal incident was the culmination of a long-running gang war. George raised a very pertinent question in his column: what have people of this kind got to do with colleges of engineering and stuff?

In India, the majority of private higher educational institutions are subject to the control of market forces. Recent media reports demonstrate the challenges of the profit-driven market model as 22 engineering colleges will soon close as a result of financial problems. The interesting fact is that some of these institutions have been listed for sale through various Internet platforms. These are some disturbing signs for the future of education and society in India.

The majority the private institutions in the country are governed by a nexus of various forms of private capital coupled with technology-assisted modern management that reduce the very essence of an educational institution as mere teaching factories. As a result, institutions are more concerned about increasing numbers as defined by enrolments, courses, lectures, tutorials, assessment tasks, publications, counselling sessions and finally the number of degrees produced. What is conveniently ignored here is the primary role of an educational institution in promoting cultural development, citizenship and democratic culture among its stakeholders.

In the name of discipline, many private institutions even prohibit women students from interacting with male students. Most of these institutions are under closed-circuit television surveillance and some also ban jeans and t-shirts.  Modern technology is deployed for monitoring and controlling faculty and students that helps management convert them into docile workforce. As a result, those who control the institutions become regimes of power and naturally, defiance would be met with punishment in various forms.

A 2009 report of India’s Ministry of Human Resource Development highlighted the practice among private “deemed universities” to appoint family members into the key positions of the universities with executive power that ultimately compromised the autonomy of the institution. Although proper management is a vital component for the governance of institution, in the majority of private institutions, managerial logic is systematically deployed to threaten and exploit both students and faculty for profit accumulation. The lack of democratic student and faculty associations in private institutions and the prevalence of a contract labour system bear testimony to this situation.

Nobody will disagree with the fact that an educational institution will not be able to transform into a great institution by technology, infrastructure and advertisement alone. No wonder that despite the growth in private higher educational institutions, people in India still prefer public institutions over private institutions. The best example for this preference can be seen in the growth of private coaching institutions in various parts of the country that help students secure admission in prestigious public institutions. Since there is a huge demand-supply gap for getting into prestigious public institutions like the IITs, IIMs, IISERs, NITs and prominent central universities (such as Jawaharlal Nehru University), research institutions under Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, etc., competition for entry is intense. It is also important to note that more than 80% of the research students in India are still part of the government-funded public universities. Despite the growth of the private sector, public higher education remains more attractive to many Indians due to affordable tuition fee and living costs, a liberal campus atmosphere, campus diversity and relatively strong academic programs.


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Eldho Mathews is listed incorrectly above.  He is the first author on this essay.

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Eldho Mathews works as Head, Internationalising Higher Education-South India, with the British Council in Chennai, India. The views expressed here are solely of the author in his private capacity

Abhilash G. Nath holds a doctorate in Political Philosophy from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He teaches Political Science. 

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