The decline of higher education

Essay by vyasdhaval August 2005

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A friend's daughter has taken admission in the MA course in the department of linguistics in the University of Delhi. The total annual fee she has paid to the department is about Rs 1,400.

This includes examination fees (there are eight papers an MA student in linguistics is required to take at the end of the year), tuition fees (there are about a dozen professors and assistant professors attached to the department and they take regular classes) and library fees (the department has a full-fledged library and a phonetics laboratory in addition to the central reference library run by the University).

It is important to put the annual fee an MA student pays to the department in context. A student seeking admission to an under graduation course in a Delhi University college has to shell out about Rs 4,000 a year. This amount may vary depending on the college to which he has been admitted.

But this is broadly the amount that a non-resident BA student pays to his college for the whole year.

The same student pays an additional Rs 4,000 as annual fee if he is enrolled for a foreign language certificate course, where only three classes are held a week. And if you go back to the private school in which he studied, the annual fee he must have paid in his twelfth class is between Rs 20,000 and Rs 30,000. This might be even more in some of the more expensive schools.

Two points are worth noting. One, the higher you go, the lower are the fees to be paid by the students. In fact, the monthly fee of a student attending the twelfth class in a school is often more than the annual fee charged by a department in the University of Delhi. Nothing can be more preposterous than this.

It is possible to argue that primary education should be free or the government should subsidise school education by ensuring that the fees charged in secondary or senior secondary schools are affordable for the common man. But by no stretch of imagination can one argue that higher education -- in colleges and universities, should actually cost less than school education.

Two, subsidiary or special courses being run by the colleges often collect fees that are much higher than what the universities are charging for the main courses. Take the case of language or vocational courses being run by some colleges in Delhi University, simultaneously with the normal graduation or post-graduation courses.

Thus, a language certificate course fee is almost the same that a student pays for one academic year of his graduation course. There is no comparison between the two courses in terms of the costs incurred by the university or the college authorities on running the two courses.

The language certificate course can make do with a one-member faculty, who can take three classes a week. But the main course requires a full-fledged faculty of teachers with at least 12 to 15 classes a week.

In other words, we have created a system in which the universities continue to charge ridiculously low fees for higher education, but some business-savvy colleges have introduced new courses and are collecting fees that are more than double of what the universities are charging. In the process, several college administrations are making money, while the financial state of the universities continues to deteriorate.

There is yet another dimension to this development. The share of the annual academic fees in the total expenses of a student pursuing higher education has declined over the years and today accounts for a very small portion of his total expenditure on his boarding and lodging.

The last revision in fees by the universities took place about 40 years ago. But the cost of running a university department has been rising at a steady pace. Universities are starved of funds and their infrastructure has suffered as a consequence, which in turn has affected academic standards also.

The former vice-chancellor of Delhi University, Deepak Nayyar, had mooted the idea that a student joining a college should be made to pay the same fees he paid in the final year of his school. The argument was that if he could afford to pay his school fees, surely he could continue paying the same amount in the three years he spent in college.

The proposal was dropped as there were many legal loopholes in the argument. Also, it was argued that there were many less well-off students who could not afford even the current level of fees.

But the argument against retaining ridiculously low fees for higher education does not mean that poor, needy and meritorious students should be denied concessional fees and other financial benefits.

Surely, they should continue to be made available on the basis of merit and need. And such concession and benefits can be made available easily if the general fees structure is raised to reflect the changing reality and bring closer to the relative fees structure in privately run educational institutions.

India Inc too needs to worry about it a little. If the higher education and research infrastructure, built over the years by these universities, collapses for lack of funds, Indian industry too will suffer.

We need better roads, larger airports and more efficient sea ports. But we also need financially healthy universities that can carry out research and produce skilled manpower to raise and maintain India's profile in the global knowledge economy.