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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 38, September 5, 2009

Education Then and Education Now: War against Private Universities in Orissa

Wednesday 9 September 2009, by Sudhakar Panda

The news that hit the headlines when the Orissa Assembly was in session in July last was the resistance of the Opposition to the Education Bill that sought the approval of the House for the opening of the three new private universities, namely, the Vedanta University, the Sri Sri University and the ICFAI University which would adopt the state-of-the-art technology in imparting education to the students. The State’s initial decision to give away ten thousand acres of land to the Vedanta University in the Konark-Puri marine drive area, subsequently scaled down to six thousand acres after it faced a lot of protests and agitation from the people, has been questioned time and again. A debate has also been raised whether the private universities would serve the ‘public interest’, particularly the academic pursuits of the students coming from the socially disadvantaged communities. This stands in sharp contrast to the care and benefits which the state universities have traditionally been giving to the poor and meritorious students in terms of scholarship, book subsidies, hostel facilities and travel grants etc. In other words, there are genuine doubts whether the private universities can create an education system that will address the problem of social justice and prepare the students from the backward communities for a meaningful and effective participation in society.

Most of us grew up at a time when education was provided to us by the state either free or at a highly subsidised rate. Even today the motto of the state has not changed. Colleges and universities continue to enjoy the patronage of the state. Teaching by these institutions has immensely benefited the people of Orissa. This has been the long tradition of education in the State. And this has taken care of social inequities and class antagonisms by giving special attention to students in poverty. The education system that helped us and the society to grow and reach where we have reached today has unquestionably certain intrinsic values. It is only natural that the state funded public education system still commands our respect and loyalty.

However, an objective assessment of the public-funded education system in Orissa will reveal the following deficit areas: (i) inadequate infrastructure, (ii) relative shortage of teachers and scarcity of specialised teachers to teach the modern developments in science, technology and social sciences like economics, finance and management, (iii) under-performance, (iv) over-dependence on state funding and (v) excessive bureaucratic control.

Of late, there has been a marked change in the choice of the students from traditional subjects taught in Orissa’s colleges—both government and private colleges—to professional and market oriented subjects like finance, management, accountancy, law and media studies. Our colleges were slow in responding to these emerging opportunities for obvious reasons such as absence of space and infrastructure, non-availability of qualified teachers to cope with the sudden rise in demand for their services. The package of service benefits including salary offered was not enough either to attract them or to retain their services in a market that was expanding fast for such services because of the high growth of the economy. Of all the players in the field, the state was inexcusably slow to take necessary steps to recruit teachers. The universities and autonomous colleges, because of bureaucratic bottlenecks, were handicapped in their efforts to upgrade the courses of studies and recruit young and talented teachers to teach the subjects for a number of years. This had its impact in making our colleges and universities irrelevant at a time when the world education scenario was changing fast.

Due to the emergence of a new class of social and educational entrepreneurs, a right assessment of the market demand for education could be made. And a wider choice to the students right from engineering studies to management, finance, architecture, medicine, pharmacology, law, media studies, and updated courses of studies in economics, sociology, psychology and literature at par with the reputed foreign universities could be offered.. They made huge investments in infrastructure, in library, in installing the state-of-the-art technology in their campuses and offered attractive compensation packages to attract the best into the profession of teaching. Not only that. Some of them were quick enough to spot talented academicians and offer them jobs and positions in their institutions. They were also liberal in providing their young teachers with grants to participate in national and international seminars.

Education in India was redefined. Pioneering efforts to create global perspectives in teaching and learning methods and content upgradation opened up new vistas in education and research. Students and their parents were given an opportunity to make their choice from an expanding area of subjects. The vicious circle that earlier prevailed in education was broken by private institutions like KIIT in Orissa and others like Amity.

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Yet there are reservations towards private universities and institutions! What could be the possible reasons?

Citizens now doubt whether their sons and daughters get the right education against the hefty amount they pay to these institutions for admission and for the promised benefits to their children. There is a widespread feeling that these schools and universities do not provide the promised value addition to the students after they are admitted. There is the absence of the right blend of education and extracurricular activities. They have very large and spacious buildings but the content of teaching remains at a sub-optimal level. The performance of many of these students, once they are out of their institutions, in their respective fields of activities, is distressingly poor and uninspiring, to say the least. And there is a growing doubt that educational authorities have been rather lax in enforcing standards and quality of education in these academic institutions. Instead of looking at the essence of education they offer, they look at the cooked-up data-set which are never scrutinised in an in-depth manner to examine the authenticity of their claims.

It is a welcome sign for the society if a new university is set up. But the race to acquire large and large acres of land at very cheap rates creates a social problem when this causes acquisition of land from the poorer households and poses a threat to the environment. In a welfare state, the state has to take care of the consequences arising out of such actions. From a social perspective, the actions of the state become very important for the community.

Underlying these issues there is a suspicion in the minds of the people in Orissa that private universities coming to the State intend to reap benefits for themselves at the cost of the state and society. These fears were perhaps uppermost in the minds of the Opposition when they opposed the Bill in the State Assembly.

The Minister of Higher Education tried his best to respond to the fears and allegations of the Opposition by inserting appropriate amendments into the Edcation Bill. But the question remains: do we have a powerful and effective Higher Education Regulatory Authority at the State level armed with powers to regulate private universities and other private educational institutions?

It is a hard decision which the state has to take.

The author is a former Professor of Economies, Utkal University, Bhubaneswar.

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