Over the past two decades, a quiet revolution has taken place in Indian higher education.
The handful of well-funded, high-quality private non-profit universities that have recently been founded have already achieved considerable success. Azim Premji, Ashoka, Shiv Nadar, OP Jindal Global, Krea and Ahmedabad universities attract ambitious students and excellent faculty – in some cases from the international market – to their attractive and well-equipped campuses.
Private higher education is of course not new to India. Nearly four-fifths of Indian colleges are privately run (aided or unaided), enrolling about two-thirds of students. And 412 of India’s 1,047 universities are privately owned, representing over 2 million students.
A few high quality soldiers also have quite a long history. Examples include Birla Institute of Science and Technology-Pilani (founded 1964), Manipal Academy of Higher Education (1953), Symbiosis International University (1971), and Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham (1994). But much of the private sector is of indifferent or poor quality, and labor market outcomes for its graduates are modest.
Although there are great variations between start-ups, they share certain characteristics. All aim to be “world-class,” with innovative liberal arts-centered research assignments and teaching strategies. And unlike traditional private universities, elite private ones are mostly supported by very wealthy corporations and individuals, who are not concerned with making profits and have clearly articulated social missions. Their deep pockets allow them to offer a range of student services not typically available at other universities, as well as relatively small cohorts and better faculty-student ratios.
The private elite tries to project itself as an alternative to the best public institutions. The problem is that they all charge significantly higher tuition fees than traditional public and private universities. They offer scholarships to students who cannot afford the full cost, but they primarily attract students from wealthy families who want a quality, market-oriented education on well-resourced, sheltered campuses. sometimes endemic strikes and politics. in public universities and colleges.
The issue of affordability partly explains why the elite private sector is not as selective as large public institutions, such as the Indian Institutes of Technology. But that may change as its critical mass grows. The Adani Group has received approval from the government of Gujarat to establish a university in that state, for example. And the Jio Institute, supported by the Reliance empire, is currently being established in Maharashtra.
It is worth reflecting on the trajectories of prominent American private universities that were established by wealthy donors. Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts was founded in 1887 with funds from a wealthy businessman, Jonas Clark. It was the first research-intensive postgraduate university in the United States, following the German model. Unfortunately, Clark suffered financial setbacks and today the university is a regional institution.
Two other examples were more successful. Stanford University, established in 1885, was funded by railroad magnate Leland Stanford. Unfortunately, the Stanford family interfered in its management in its early years, and it wasn’t until more than half a century later that it achieved world-class status.
In contrast, John D. Rockefeller kept his hands on the University of Chicago, which his fortune founded in 1890. In two decades, Chicago’s imaginative leadership made it a major research powerhouse, awarding the most doctorates from all American universities. Interestingly, when the president of Chicago heard about Clark’s troubles, he hired his faculty. The lessons to be learned are that building successful private universities requires significant and sustainable resources, good ideas and independent governance.
It is important that India’s elite soldiers also grow stronger. Their international partnerships, diverse curricula, online visibility, employer engagement strategies, and participation in world university rankings are all new departures from the traditional modus operandi of Indian universities.
They bring new ideas, effective academic governance, and tremendous potential to a higher education system that badly needs rethinking.
Philip G. Altbach is a Research Professor and Distinguished Scholar at the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College. Eldho Mathews is an assistant adviser in the International Cooperation Unit at the National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration in New Delhi.