By Pradipti Jayaram
“I feel private universities must be allowed in Kerala,” said TP Sreenivasan, Vice-Chancellor, Kerala Higher Education Council. He was speaking at a panel discussion session recently held in Kochi titled Opening up Higher Education Sector in Kerala: A Way Forward, organised by the Centre for Public Policy Research (CPPR) and the Centre for Economy, Development, and Law (CED&L).
The only other person who agreed with him on the panel, despite running an autonomous institution, was Fr Dr Prasanth P, Principal, Sacred Heart College.
This view usually doesn’t find many takers. And those who most vehemently oppose it, amongst others, are the ones that are at the helm of affairs at government-run institutions of higher education, two of whom were part of this panel discussion: Dr Rajan Varghese, former pro VC, Mahatma Gandhi University; and Dr N Ramakanthan, Associate Professor, Maharajas College.
Justifying their stance, Dr Varghese exclaimed: “Private universities are after money. Opening up will only benefit entrepreneurs (who are after profit).” This argument is common to everyone who is against the introduction of private institutions in the education sector.
The panel discussed a plethora of issues related to opening up of higher education in Kerala, but a question that stood out the most, and one which none of the panellists against the introduction of privately-run education institutes in the State were able to precisely answer was: “Why are we afraid of privately-run institutions?”
The aim of this article, hence, is to answer this question, asked by CPPR’s chairman D Dhanuraj, and in doing so I look to make a case for the introduction of privately-run educational institutions in Kerala, which should exist, as they do elsewhere in India, alongside publicly-run education institutions.
The first argument made by those against introduction of privately-run institutions in the higher education sector in Kerala is that privately-run institutions will increase existing social and economic inequalities: those who are wealthy will opt for privately-run institutions, and those who can’t afford this will be relegated to poorly-run public institutions. But what they fail to take cognizance of is that ownership: privately-run or publically-run, doesn’t automatically assure quality.
For instance, the IITs and IIMs are publicly-run institutions. Both are counted as being premier institutes of higher education in the country. There is no evidence to suggest that the children of the financially well off don’t attend these universities. IITs and IIMs offer quality education; it is clear that the public, rich or poor, doesn’t care if it’s a government-run or privately-run institution, they care that it offers quality education. And people should be given the opportunity and freedom to choose between a publicly- and privately-run institutions in the State. If we are ready to offer them this freedom when it comes to choosing a cell-phone connection, why not the same in relation to education? The positive impact, in terms of improving the quality of both products and systems, owing to globalization, liberalization, and privatization is readily noticeable in the case of Indian Corporates, then what is to say that this wouldn’t be the case when it comes to the education sector.
Likewise, making an example of some institutions that are privately-run in other States, essentially bad eggs, that care about profiteering alone and haven’t been able to keep up the standards in education they had promised doesn’t mean that publicly-run institutions, that don’t offer quality education, are any better because they don’t charge you astronomical sums of money. There are both good and bad publicly-run and privately-run institutions, and this simply isn’t a good enough reason to justify why Kerala shouldn’t allow privately-run institutions.
Without allowing the entry of privately-run institutions, the status quo attained by public institutions in Kerala will continue to exist. And there has been no announcement of a proposal to close down existing poorly performing publicly-run institutions. This is detrimental to the sector. Worst still because there is no other option.
Another argument, inevitably made by those who run publicly-funded institutions, is that of the adverse impact the emergence of privately-run institutions will have on the teachers’ unions and their salaries. While it is human to have this concern, what one isn’t able to get one’s head around is how institution-focused, and not student-focused, this view is. In discouraging competition, and compromising on quality, this view looks to incentivise and encourages the creation of inefficient monopolies. The existence of only publicly-run institutions in the sector has led to the creation of a monopoly where opposition to the entry of privately-run institutions stems from the need for protectionism. And monopolies are a threat to quality.
A free market, customer-centric approach, where both kinds of institutions exist, will mean both will try to outdo the other in terms of offering the best quality.
The presence of both kinds of institutions will foster competition, and as evidence suggests from all other sectors that have seen the introduction of private players in it, this is a good thing. Competition not only means that purveyors would be forced to keep up standards if they want to survive in the market, it will also mean that the consumer will be able to avail of this service at the lowest cost.
It is also important to emphasise that the State, from a revenue perspective, isn’t capable of meeting the demands of the sector most specifically when it comes to opening institutes. This is one of the reasons why private institutions came into being to start with: the supply wasn’t able to keep up with demand. Introducing private players would help in reducing this existing deficit. The success of private institutions evinced in year-on-year increase in gross enrolment ratios in countries such as the US, Japan, and Malaysia, reveals the positive contribution of private players in the higher education sector.
Let the people be the judge and let them choose if they’d like to attend or send their child to a privately- or publicly-run institute. It should be the role of the State to enable this by allowing the existence of both. Ultimately, the one who provides the best quality, be it a publicly-run or a privately-run institute, will survive.
 Pradipti Jayaram works in the capacity of Media Coordinator, Centre for Public Policy Research
This article is a reproduced version of the original article which was published in Pallikkuttam; a Rajagiri Educational Magazine. Views of the author expressed are personal.