US officials felt Sibal’s crackdown on private universities may dent IT competence (Wikileaks)

US officials worried that the Union Government’s move to absorb private universities into the Government system and force its own curriculum on them is likely to dent India’s ability to churn out graduates whose training is in line with the needs of modern industries like IT, according to a 2010 cable leaked by Wikileaks.

Education minister Kapil Sibal had early last year threatened to de-recognize 44 of the 126 deemed (private) universities in India and put another 44 on a ‘watch list’. [A Court stay has been obtained on the order since.]

While there were indeed some fly-by-night operators among the 126 private universities, the US Consul General for Chennai, Andrew Simkin pointed out that many good ones are also caught up in the purge.

“The issue at stake with de-recognizing the “deemed universities” is that in throwing out some of these “bottom of the barrel” institutions, many very good institutions will also be placed at risk. Not only will thousands students suffer because of an association with a “blacklisted” university, but future progress in higher education in India is at stake.

“By forcing these private institutions to revert back to mandatory state-controlled curriculum, the forward-leaning programs that had been developed in South India as an alternative in order to offer students an opportunity to succeed in fast-growing sectors, such as information technology, will no longer be available.

“Programs that were developed to get around the outdated state-run curriculum to offer more modern programs in medical and engineering schools will be cut. Rather than dealing with the corruption and inadequacy endemic to the government-run universities, absorbing the “deemed universities” back into the public sector may only exacerbate the problem,” said Simkin in a remarkably far-sighted letter to Washington after doing his own investigation into the controversy.

Private universities in India are often called “deemed universities” as Indian laws prohibit companies or for-profit organizations from running educational institutions.

India’s education policy is a left-over from the past when making money (profit) was seen as a less than respectable motive.

As a result, companies and unscrupulous individuals, such as politicians, often form non-profit trusts and societies and secure a license to run an educational institution. The trust, in turn, hands over most of the contracts of running it to the original entrepreneur. In other words, while the trust makes hardly any profit, the individuals controlling the trust manage to extract their profits through other ‘side companies’.

The other route for an education entrepreneur was to some-how get a “deemed university” status. Though not quite as good as a university, a deemed university is not bound by government restrictions such as which courses to teach, what the curricula should be, how many students should be admitted etc..

This was, in effect, a private university arrangement and also led to the growth of innovative courses that were more in touch with market demands compared to the curricula set by the government.

“The “deemed” private universities were thus released from control by government bureaucracies and were free to pursue innovative curriculums, modern research, and control over enrollment and tuition fees.

“While some of these “deemed” institutions did not deserve to be given university status, many in South India flourished post-1990s as job-oriented educational programs free from the state-run universities’ bureaucratic red tape and archaic mandatory curriculums,” Simkin pointed out.

The Consul General also described his experience at a deemed university put on “black-list” by the Government.

“We visited one university on the “blacklist,” Saveetha University in Tamil Nadu, where senior officials told us that they
had not received any official response from the Tandon task force or the HRD ministry, and complained that no one from the task force had even visited the campus.

“Saveetha officials told us that they were allowed only ten minutes in New Delhi to make their case to the task force, and heard only through the press that their university was on the “blacklist.” Furthermore, they claim they have not been told the reasons for the poor performance review, and therefore are unable to fix any problems they may have.

“From what we saw, the university appeared to have superior infrastructure to the average state-run university and had ongoing construction. Classrooms appeared to have modern equipment. Saveetha officials also noted that they had received glowing reviews from the UGC as recently as September 2009.

Simkin also met the government side. He described a meeting with M. Anandakrishnan, the then Chairman of the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, and a member of the Tandon task force appointed to suggest reforms in higher

“Dr. Anandakrishnan explained that India’s education system is second only to politics as the nation’s most corrupt system. [He] told us that some of these institutions were set up by Congress or allied party (such as the DMK) politicians.. According to Dr. Anandakrishnan, the task force took its findings to Minister Kapil Sibal, who reported them to PM Singh; PM Singh then asked Sibal to “clean it up.”