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Karnataka: Suspicious timing

EducationWorld March 13 | Education News EducationWorld

The southern state of Karnataka (pop. 61 million), once famous for high-quality higher — especially professional — education but whose star has dimmed in recent years because of excessive political interference in academia, is set to experience substantial capacity expansion and quality upgradation in tertiary education.

On February 15, the Karnataka legislative assembly passed four Bills — Vydehi University Bill 2013, Garden City University Bill 2013, JSS Science and Technology University Bill 2013 and Srinivasa University Bill, 2013 — for establishment of four new private varsities in the state. Earlier in the winter session (December), the legislative assembly passed a spate of Bills establishing 13 private universities including the Manipal, Adichunchanagiri, Dayanand Sagar, Vellore Technical, M.S. Ramaiah, PES, and KLE Technological universities. With the green signal being given to 17 new varsities, the total number of private universities, including the already functioning Azim Premji and Alliance universities in the state will rise to 19, making Karnataka second-ranked in the number of private varsities (Rajasthan hosts 33).

The socially beneficial fallout of this capacity expansion in higher education is that the state’s 7 million youth in the age group 17-24 will have a wider choice, and will be awarded degrees of respected institutions of higher education such as Manipal, M.S. Ramaiah, PES and KLE which have established nationwide — and even international — reputations for dispensing high-quality engineering, medical, business and hospitality management etc education. Hitherto these institutions were obliged to adhere to the syllabuses prescribed by Bangalore University or one of the 11 state government-funded universities, and award their degrees notwithstanding the reality that some private varsities enjoyed far superior market reputation.  Now the new universities will be free to develop their own syllabuses and curriculums and award degrees which will have far greater market acceptability.

Inevitably the BJP-led government, whose five-year term ends two months later in May when the state goes to polls, drew heavy criticism from opposition parties for timing the tabling and passage of a record 17 private university bills in the last session of the assembly. The opposition Janata Dal (S) alleged that huge kickbacks — around Rs.100 crore — have been paid to the ruling BJP government to sanction private universities before its term ends in May. “What is the necessity of bringing up these bills at the fag end of the government’s term? It’s been done to make money and nothing else,” alleged JD (S) leader M.C. Nanaiah.

While academics and educationists acknowledge the need for capacity expansion and greater private sector participation in higher education, the speed with which the Bills were piloted through the last session of the legislative assembly has raised concern that several sub-standard institutions with suspect morality and business practices have been bundled together with excellent private colleges, and given huge autonomy and degree-awarding status.

“The state government didn’t follow a transparent and merit-based process for choosing colleges for status upgradation. Mandating a 25-acre campus and Rs.25 crore as corpus is not sufficient. What are the academic track records of some of these new universities? Did the state government follow University Grants Commission guidelines for private universities or did it set up its own assessment mechanism? I don’t believe UGC guidelines were followed. In fact some of the Bills allow private universities to acquire other educational institutions and start off-campus centres — a clear violation of UGC rules. These new universities have been established for purely political and commercial ends,” says M.S. Thimmappa, former vice chancellor of Bangalore University and well-known educationist.

Admittedly the scams-tainted BJP government has not covered itself with glory in its tumultous five-year term which ends in May. But with the state government’s 11 universities including the flagship Bangalore University in a shambles, there’s general acceptance within genuine educationists that the 17 private universities will give the state’s higher education sector a vitally needed boost by creating additional capacity, expanding student choice, setting quality benchmarks and forcing government colleges and universities to raise their teaching-learning if not research, standards.

If the majority — even if not all — of Karnataka’s 17 newly-chartered private universities fulfil their mandate to deliver quality higher education to the state’s short-changed youth, the end will justify the means.

Summiya Yasmeen (Bangalore)

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