A new generation of private universities has begun to find its feet in different parts of India. These new universities are welcome in a country in which the lack of quality higher education means that students spend around $6 billion every year to study abroad. However, the new educational centres should not just be seen as ways to stem this outflow of foreign exchange. They have the potential to act as catalysts for the broken system of public universities as well.

The private universities could do what a bunch of educational institutions did during the years of the freedom struggle—when private Indian capital stepped in to fund colleges for a country that was changing rapidly. The story of Ahmedabad University is instructive because its roots lie in the educational enterprise of another generation. In 1935, business leaders in Ahmedabad set up the Ahmedabad Education Society under the guidance of Vallabhbhai Patel, to establish colleges in the city. A new university that is taking shape in Ahmedabad under the same umbrella already has schools for management studies, liberal arts, computer science, engineering, heritage management, environmental studies—and has ambitious plans to roll out several other centres.

There are several other examples such as Ashoka University and the O P Jindal Global University in Sonipat, Haryana, the Shiv Nadar University in Greater Noida, and the proposed Krea University at Sri City, near Chennai. The three important commonalities in these initiatives are that these are multidisciplinary universities, they plan to attract the best academic talent, and they have been funded with private capital. The scope of their ambitions marks them out as different from the mediocre private engineering, management and medical colleges that have mushroomed over the past few decades.

It is no secret that Indian public universities, with a few exceptions, are in a mess. They showed themselves incapable of educating young citizens even for the challenges of the 20th century. The task for the new century is even more difficult. First, the rapid changes in technology mean that the new generation will have to learn a whole new set of skills, especially if automation destroys a number of old jobs, as expected. Second, most of the big challenges in the 21st century will likely be of a multidisciplinary nature. These are two good reasons why higher education needs to be a blend of different skills ranging from mathematics to computer science to economics to psychology to data science and anthropology. There is also a crying need to enrich Indian democracy with better education in history, literature and culture.

Can the new private universities do this on their own? That is highly unlikely. The sheer scale of the task in India means that public universities will (and should) continue to play a big role in higher education. However, it is possible that the new private universities could show the way forward for public universities—or at least strengthen the hand of educational reformers within the system. A demonstration effect could play the role of a catalyst.

Educationists say there are two pitfalls the new private universities would do well to avoid. First, any university should have an umbilical link with the larger society in which it operates. The new universities should take care to avoid becoming academic versions of gated communities, meant for rich children who can afford to pay high fees while being closed to bright children from poorer families. It is important to connect to the India beyond the campus gate.

Second, the new universities should not become vanity projects for rich businessmen. Governance will be crucial. The group that funds a new university should not interfere in either academic appointments or academic content. India is a country where promoter families often treat companies as personal fiefdoms. This disease should not be transferred to the new universities.

Education is one of the best social escalators in a stratified country such as India. A growing economy also needs a high quality of human capital. The existing system of higher education is failing in both these tasks, the second more than the first. China did well to recognize this problem at least a decade ago, and has been investing heavily in university education. India needs to do the same. It is also important that the government does not fall prey to the usual statist temptation to stamp out competition from academic institutions outside the system it controls.

Few would disagree with the statement that India needs to fix its system of higher education quickly. The new private universities can show the way as long as they recognize their broader transformative role.

Can the new private universities show the way for public universities in India? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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