Arecent report in The Indian Express (13 April 2017) on the empty coffers of Panjab University makes for sorry reading. It is not the only public institution of higher education to be in such dire straits: a Rs240 crore budget deficit, no money to pay salaries, hand-to-mouth spending on essentials, and a consequent explosion of student frustration on the campus. This is the state of affairs in a university which was ranked among the top institutions in the Times Higher Education World university rankings for 2013-14.

Panjab University’s case brings into focus larger issues: the heavy dependence of publicly funded institutions on government handouts, with the only other recourse being raising tuition fees, which is strenuously resisted by students. If neither happens, we have the now familiar picture of a large unmet demand-supply gap, lack of access for lower castes and backward regions, poor facilities, and low standards of teaching and research because good faculty cannot be attracted, leading to unemployable students.

Funding is clearly the major constraint responsible for the lower standards in our universities. Public spending on higher education is only around 1.5 % per cent of GDP (gross domestic product) in spite of increased budget allocations in recent years. One obvious solution is to diversify the funding even in public institutions. But there is almost no record of public educational institutions making such efforts. Abroad, most of the major universities such as Harvard, Yale and Oxford are expected to raise money from several sources and do so by aggressively seeking philanthropic funds from within and without the country. They use bait such as naming important buildings after major donors, offering donors honorary degrees and so on. They also raise money through consultancies for government and industry, and by hiring out university facilities such as hostels and conference rooms during vacations. Alumni are also a rich source of additional funds.

In contrast, hardly any Indian publicly funded institution does serious fund-raising, with some notable exceptions such as the Shri Ram College of Commerce in Delhi and the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. But these are clearly exceptions rather than the rule, and only show what can be achieved with indigenous philanthropy if it is tapped properly.

Education has always had an appeal for the wealthy seeking to use their wealth for the good of society. Before independence, private philanthropy played a significant part in building higher educational infrastructure.

Today too, education continues to be a favoured field for philanthropy. There are instances of alumni in India giving substantial donations to their alma maters, though these are mostly limited to the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), many of whose alumni are successful non-resident Indians (NRIs). But there are instances too of alumni giving to non-IITs. For instance, Frank Islam, an Indian American entrepreneur, has given $2 million to his alma mater Aligarh Muslim University to build the Frank and Debbie Islam School of Management, with an emphasis on entrepreneurship.

Donations have also been made by prominent Indian philanthropists for improving research and innovation in other Indian higher education institutions. Unfortunately, indigenous philanthropic funding flows mostly to professional institutes and research institutions, rather than to the public liberal arts or science institutions where standards continue to plunge.

Admittedly, there are constraints on fund-raising by public institutions. One of these is lack of autonomy. Donors, whether NRIs or Indians, hesitate to commit resources unless they also have a say in its use and there is an institutionalized mechanism to have their voices heard. The governance structures of most institutions, however, are so poor that such mechanisms are non-existent and government interference rampant.

Besides, more aggressive fund-raising will not help unless the regulatory regime changes. It is difficult, if not downright counterproductive, for public colleges and universities to tap private resources or seek to leverage old-school ties with alumni because of the University Grants Commission’s (UGC’s) practice of deducting such philanthropic contributions from a university’s grant-in-aid. It leaves little incentive for these institutions to conduct aggressive fund- raising campaigns. In fact, the UGC should put in place a system of rewards for those who raise additional funds from non-government sources. Challenge grants could be one solution. The UGC could offer matching amounts to those raised through fund raising, which would be in addition to, and not instead of, the regular grant.

Finally, there is no escape from the necessity of an increase in fees if quality education is desired. The fact is that fees in public educational institutions are very low compared to those charged by private institutions of quality, and even by private fly-by-night operators. However, the idea of increased fees must be sold to students through dialogue and persuasion, and the increase effected gradually.

Though they are necessary, starting new private universities while public universities decay is not the answer to India’s higher education problem; it will only exacerbate the problem of equitable access. Unless universities and government get together to tackle the problem of funding , our public institutions of higher education will no longer produce intellectual capital of any worth.

Pushpa Sundar is a development specialist and author of ‘Giving With A Thousand Hands: The Changing Face Of Indian Philanthropy’.

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