The word private today hides an assortment of institutions where a single word represents a diversity of institutions. There was a time when a private college was a secondary world, a tutorial college where people who failed to get access to public universities went. Even this derogatory label has changed ever since tutorial colleges like Brilliant Tutorials and Rao’s IAS Academy sent battalions of their students to the elusive IITs. The other private college was an institution like the Medical College in Manipal which overgrew the sobriquet of a “capitation fee college” to become one of the most progressive education empires under the leadership of the Pai family. One can talk of a third kind of private college in Gujarat where Chimanbhai Patel, the former chief minister owned fifty colleges, creating a particular nexus between education and business which he called politics.
If this list of colleges represented the first level of ambiguity, the recent creation of polytechnic-like universities represent a second foray into the privatisation of education. The infrastructure of these institutions is outstanding but their academics are of poor quality. Despite advertising, these institutions are not the brand names that they try desperately to be.
Within the last decade, however, the ides of mere business yielded to enlightened philanthropy and private was no longer an ugly word. It radiated confidence, trust and even a hope for innovation given the experimental style of the Premjis, the Jindals, the Nadars and the Ashoka Foundation.
Each of these experiments has created a unique signature which combines private and public into a new conversation of reciprocities. The Premji University uses as its core competence, its experience among NGOs and education to create a new competence around development as sensitivity. Nadar has created a new style around chemistry teaching and its vision of drama teaching is already exciting aficionados. Ashoka hopes to create a complete social science imagination to parallel its earlier forays in establishing the Indian School of Business. Jindal, true to its motto of being a private university for public service, has created major departments in public policy and new experiments in legal teaching. The professionalism, the range and the globalism is impressive. Fifteen per cent of Jindal’s faculty members are foreigners from Ivy League institutions.
At a time when public educational institutions are caught in pressures of populism and struggles with equity and justice, quality often becomes a casualty experimentation into new domains of research or teaching becomes sites for political struggle. The debate on the introduction of Liberal Arts at Delhi University revealed the totalitarian streaks of a university trying to bowdlerize education. A private university has the power, the speed, space and creativity to pursue quality, to create the new experiments in research and pedagogy India desperately needs. Private imaginations can create knowledge in terms of public goods at a level that the public universities might not be able to. Democracy, with an aspiring middle class, will not be content with a lowest common denominator education. It will seek quality and diversity here or abroad. By fulfilling these needs, the private university adds to the public a sense of consumerist satisfaction in an age where the young literally shop for knowledge and the future.
One has to comprehend that the nature of knowledge and the university have changed. The new domains of knowledge require an interdisciplinarity which in turn demands an institutional flexibility that only a Jindal or a Premji can provide. Secondly, as corporate dons accustomed to change, these leaders realise that a conventional university can be an outdated, obsolescent entity perpetuating unemployment. One needs a sensitivity to new opportunities in civil society, markets and global domains. To ask the standard university to provide this is unfair. The private university can play this complementary role preventing the obsolescence of our knowledge systems. Private universities become nurseries for the new knowledge systems which provide India with a global edge. It is clear today that the information and knowledge revolution has placed new strains on the university which is often seen as a laggard in this context. Countries like India and China realise that what powers USA or England is their universities and the communities of intellect they sustain. One wishes India would let England have the peacock throne and demand Oxford University in return. We need the modern university to sustain our demographic dividend. Our comparative advantage in terms of youth needs the intellectual power of the university to sustain itself.
Let us be clear. The public sector university will dominate the landscape in terms of democratic access to education. The private university may not match the public in scale and it need not. It has to create value additions in terms of greater professionalism, introduction of standards which might be difficult in a populist system, a new interdisciplinarity which includes a greater reflexivity about knowledge, a greater playfulness which the bureaucratisation of our public universities may not easily allow. Private thus creates a new ecology, a new reciprocity between public and private, through value additions that now appear distant. A private university can not only add to the public but to the global and the planetary. For this, one needs CSR to be an act of generosity and the idea of private to be site of new social contracts in education. Anything less would be a failure of the imagination.