Higher Education: A Luxury?

– The NotA Collective

Tuition fees in premier higher education institutes in India have seen an exorbitant increase over the last few years. There is a consistent trend of fee hikes in several public institutes of national importance,which creates barriers to upward social mobility for several sections of the society. This article will report on this trend considering the case of IITs, NITs and IISERs.

The fee hike is an important issue to consider for two reasons. Firstly, these public institutions were established to address the lack of a competent skilled workforce needed for a country like India. The demographics of such institutions dictate the composition of the skilled workforce we create with regards to caste and gender. As is well known, studying in these institutions leads to well paying positions. Thus, providing equal access to these institutes is an issue that we must all care about. Secondly, the barriers presented by high tuition fees effectively means public institutions now only cater to a small well-to-do elite, which is emphatically not the purpose of public institutions of higher learning.

The tuitition fees in IITS and NITs have seen a steep rise from 2014--2016.
Figure 01: The tuition fee per semester in IITs and NITs in recent years

Let us begin with some data. According to articles available for our perusal, we can trace back the fee hikes in these institutions to about five years ago. In 2015, the tuition fees at an Indian Institute of Technology was 45,000 INR per semester, which was increased to 1,00,000 INR per semester, a 122% hike,1 in 2016. Meanwhile, the tuition fee in a National Institutes of Technology2 went from 17,500 INR per semester to 35,000 INR (by 100%) per semester in 2014, and was further increased to a 62,500 INR (a further 78.5% hike) per semester in 2016 (Figure 1). Similarly, Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISERs) also saw significant fee hikes over the past five years. In 2015, the tuition fee at IISERs was 11,500 INR per semester, which went up to 12,500 INR in 2016. The next year, however, saw an increase of 120%,with the fee going up to 27,500 INR. The next three years saw a consistent increase of 10% per year,3 resulting in the tuition fee coming up to 33,400 INR per semester in 2020 (Figure 2). We should clarify here that SC/ST/PwD are exempt from paying the tuition fees in these institutions, a silver lining in the otherwise worrying scenario. However, on other fronts, it is clear that this trend has the potential to change the accessibility of higher education in the country significantly.

Tuition fees in IISER have seen a steep rise from 2015--2019.
Figure 02: The tuition fee per semester in IISERs in recent years.

The premier institutions we have listed above are seen as some of the top institutions in the country. As such, it is a common trend across the globe that state-funded institutions are opted for by students for the quality and recognition that they offer, supposedly with the best infrastructure and faculty in the country.4 In the interest of social equality, it is imperative that everyone has equal access to the facilities that the state has to offer.

All the above institutions admit their students primarily based on entrance examinations. This introduces the first barrier in the form of highly-priced tuitions and coaching classes preparing students for entrance exams. As is well known, this is now a lucrative business, and gives an upper hand to the economically privileged over the lower classes. The increase in fees in these institutions means that even if someone from an economically underprivileged background passes this first barrier, they may not be able to afford the education. While the waiver of tuition fees for SC/ST/PwD is welcome, we have to keep in mind that many of the OBC castes are also severely underrepresented in various sectors. We note here that the figures quoted above are only the tuition fees for the various courses. As the canteen facilities in these institutions are unsubsidized, students typically have to pay between 50,000 INR to 1,00,000 INR per year for food and other charges. Such an increase in fees also affects gender distribution/equity, which we will discuss shortly.

These state-funded autonomous institutions were established to produce a young crop of highly skilled individuals. While they have maintained their stature, access to them is limited to people who can keep up with the absurd fee hikes, i.e., the economically privileged. As some of us have studied in these very same institutions, we can say that this has been very evident in the demographic of the incoming batches after the fee hikes were introduced. The environment of a higher education institute is going to be a result of who occupies that space over the years. Reservation policies in state funded institutions, when followed, certainly enable them to balance the student demographic. However, the fees at these institutes serve as an obstruction and retain access to these institutes only for the elite.5

Lessons from privatization and household spending on education

To study and anticipate the effects of the fee hike in national institutes, it is useful to contextualize it with respect to the increasing privatization of the education sector. The National Knowledge Commission (NKC) constituted by the Planning Commission in 2008 recommended an increase in private investment in education to meet the growing demand for higher education in the country. Consequently, private universities were established throughout the country initially as deemed universities and later as state private universities. This increase in the number of universities was to accommodate the growing number of aspirants for higher education who could not obtain seats in the public universities, which were then sparse in number. According to AISHE 2018-19 data, 385 out of the 993 universities in India are privately managed. Out of the 39,931 colleges, 78% of them are private.6

This development is of interest as private universities, primarily profit-driven, had higher fees than the public universities. In parallel, the public universities introduced self-financing courses, a phenomenon dubbed as the privatization of public universities. With these developments, funding for higher education came increasingly from households. When one examines the household spending on education, one evidently sees the social structure reflected in the data.

The estimates show that higher education expenditure for a typical urban student is 1.6 times more per year than a rural student. Another important point that emerges from the data is the rather high gender difference in the annual expenditure on higher education, that is, parents spend 11 percent more on the education of sons than daughters. The highest expenditure is by the Christian households, whereas Muslim (Hindu) families spend only half (two-thirds) that of Christians. A comparison of the average expenditure across social groups reveals that the expenditure is highest among the other (forward) communities and is lowest among the Scheduled Tribe (ST) and Scheduled Caste (SC) communities. Thus, students from marginalized groups appear to be disadvantaged in terms of household’s expenditure on their higher education (see Thorat, 2008, for variation in GER across the social groups).7

According to the All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE 2011-12, 2016-17),8 and Census of India 2011 data, in over 23 states in India, there is a marked increase in the percentage of students from SC/ST/OBC communities enrolling in both private universities and public universities from 2011-12 to 2016-17 (Interestingly, there seems to be a downfall in the absolute number of students attending public universities in some states). Additionally, in each state of the union, more students from these sections of society are seen to be enrolled in state-funded institutes of higher education.9 However, the numbers do not yet reflect their percentage in the society. If we look at the average annual expenditure on education per student for these communities, an SC/ST person is likely to spend about just below half, and an OBC person would spend around 3/4th in comparison to how much students from the General category would spend.10 So having to deal with the added pressure of paying such high fees while navigating all these hurdles that come with caste, can only discourage people from accessing such spaces. While the premier institutes studied in this article do have concessions in fees for the SC/ST categories, the same can not be claimed for the other social indicators mentioned above.

From the data in AISHE 2016-17, we can see that the gender ratio is almost 1:1 in Central universities and State public universities while state private and private deemed universities have a gender ratio that’s highly skewed towards male students.

In a patriarchal social context like India, the gender gap in higher education is a common phenomenon at both public and private institutions. With the rising cost of education, the gender gap is further shaped by the education purchasing power of different social groups. While the reason is not clear from the enrolment data, [the] gender gap in enrolment has remained highest over the years at state private universities across almost all social categories…For each social category, the gender gap is least at central universities and state public universities. One of the obvious reasons behind this is the lower cost of education there.11

It can also be observed that the gender ratio is always better and sometimes even favours female students for non-professional courses.12 This trend is clearly explained by the fact that spending money on higher education for girls is never the first priority in Indian households. The data suggests that an average Indian family is more likely to send their son to a private university or to pursue a professional course more than they would their daughter, especially if they are struggling with finances. On average, the money spent on a male student is higher by 5% than that spent on a female student in India.13 This adds a lot of pressure on the girl child to perform well academically and clear numerous entrance exams and secure scholarships if they want to study further. Above all this, the increased fee at such state-funded institutes these girls strive so hard to get into, makes it inaccessible for a woman.

Thus the affordability of education at the premier institutes has direct consequences on the diversity of its beneficiaries. This increase in fees in the premier institutes coupled with the much-discussed increase in fees at the various central universities, creates new layers of exclusion that is alluded to in the context of private universities:

However, it is also an outcome of the way neoliberalism has, over the years, shaped public opinion towards a belief that private institutions are better than non-elite public institutions. It is true that this movement is possibly opening up higher education opportunities for diverse, hitherto excluded, marginalized socio-economic groups. However, such inclusion is happening at the cost of creation of newer layers of exclusion. Of course, given that state private universities are currently undergoing a phase of high growth, it is only with time that the patterns will derive more stability and become clear.14

The impact it has on a student hailing from an economically poor background is straightforward and obvious. The enrolment for higher education for people of the top quintile of the monthly per capita income expenditure (MPCE) is almost double the number of people from the one right below, (NSS-level unit data). The top quintile spends about double the amount on a student than the second-highest quintile, and obviously the ones below them, even lesser.15 People who have an income range that comes just above the upper limit of applying for a fee waiver must be affected the most. This puts people in a vicious cycle of not being able to access higher education which can provide them with a better quality lifestyle and hopefully better education for the next generation.

The awareness of the importance of education and the culture of pursuing higher education is still vastly different in rural and urban areas in our country. According to NSS-level unit data, the enrolment of students from urban areas is about five times that of students from rural areas. The average income for a family residing in rural and urban areas differs significantly. The idea of paying so much for education, the struggles of travelling to another place for it, and in general the inaccessibility of it all are some reasons why they may be affected by the fee hike. Further, the student population from rural areas rely more on hostel accommodation to access higher education which puts another financial barrier. In fact, average expenditure per head for someone from an urban area is almost 60% higher than that spent on someone from a rural background.16

At this point, one may wonder what the reaction of the students at these institutions to these fee hikes has been. Various reports that we find online17,18,19,20 indicate that the students of these institutions have repeatedly tried to bring this issue to the authorities or to public attention. One can also find several Twitter campaigns by the students to the same effect. However, a common problem seems to be the near absence of student politics and student representation in decision making in these institutions. In contrast to many central universities with thriving student politics, students at these institutions are heavily discouraged from forming a coordinated political front for their issues. With the student strength lacking numbers as well as many of the affected being aspirants who are not localized in space and time, it becomes a cause that is difficult to fight for.

Nonetheless, this is a serious issue. The ability of education to alleviate the masses from the social inequalities is crucial for the well-being of a nation. There is a desperate need to diversify academia,especially in India, as has been brought up in various appeals and discussions in recent years. Making education more exclusionary at such a juncture is clearly a step taken with the interests of capital in mind rather than a plan to better the academic environment in the country. We should recognise that a thriving young population which is highly skilled and informed about its surroundings is integral to the well-being of a country. The data considered in this article makes it amply clear that the effort to push a university towards making revenue can lead us away from this goal. This is a highly misguided approach towards socio-economic equity and upliftment. A healthy interaction between the universities/institutes and the society is a necessity. Unless steps are taken to remedy this trend, we expect that we will create a young population burdened with debt and unable to escape their immediate social realities. We would have a skilled workforce and higher education demography with a further skewed caste and gender representation at odds with our goals as a democracy.

  1. IIT Fee Hiked by 122%; Waived for SC/ST, Disabled. 07 April 2016. The Wire. https://thewire.in/education/iit-fee-hiked-by-122-waived-for-scst-disabled ↩︎

  2. After IITs, NIT fee hiked to Rs 1.25 lakh from Rs 70, 000 per annum. 24 June 2016. The Economic Times. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/industry/services/education/after-iits-nit-fee-hiked-to-rs-1-25-lakh-from-rs-70-000-per-annum/articleshow/52907233.cms?from=mdr ↩︎

  3. Staggered IISER fee hike over 3 years. 09 June 2017. The Telegraph. https://www.telegraphindia.com/india/staggered-iiser-fee-hike-over-3-years/cid/1520461 ↩︎

  4. Nicolescu, Luminia (2005): “Private versus Public in Romania: Consequences for the Market,” Private Higher Education: A Global Revolution, Philip G Altbach and Daniel C Levy (eds), Rotterdam: Sense Publishers. ↩︎

  5. Anirban Sengupta. Rapid Growth of Private Universities: Transformation of the University Space. May 30, 2020. Economic & Political Weekly. vol 55, Issue no 22. ↩︎

  6. AISHE (All India Survey on Higher Education), is generated from data self-reported by the higher educational institutions participating in the survey, so, there is always a possibility for some amount of error due to misreporting by some institutions; Nandini Sundar, Gowhar Fazili, Academic Freedom In India, A Status Report, 2020. The India forum. ↩︎

  7. Duraisamy, P and Malathy Duraisamy (2016): “Contemporary Issues in Indian Higher Education: Privatisation, Public and Household Expenditures and Student Loan,” Higher Education for the Future, Vol 3, No 2, pp 144–63; Throat, S. K. (2008). Emerging issues in higher education: Approach and strategy of 11th plan. In Higher education in India: Issues related to expansion, inclusiveness, quality and finance. (pp. 1-26). New Delhi:UGC. ↩︎

  8. AISHE data. ↩︎

  9. Anirban Sengupta (2020): Rapid Growth of Private Universities. ↩︎

  10. Duraisamy, P and Malathy Duraisamy (2016): Contemporary issues in Indian Higher Education; National Sample Survey unit level data. ↩︎

  11. Anirban Sengupta (2020): Rapid Growth of Private Universities. ↩︎

  12. ibid. ↩︎

  13. Duraisamy, P and Malathy Duraisamy (2016): Contemporary issues in Indian Higher Education; NSS unit level data. ↩︎

  14. Anirban Sengupta (2020): Rapid Growth of Private Universities. ↩︎

  15. Duraisamy, P and Malathy Duraisamy (2016): Contemporary issues in Indian Higher Education; NSS unit level data. ↩︎

  16. ibid. ↩︎

  17. Fee hike massive, say IISER students. 10 June 2017, The Hindu. https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/fee-hike-massive-say-iiser-students/article18957199.ece ↩︎

  18. IIT-M students launch campaign against fee hike. 20 April 2016. Times of India. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/chennai/IIT-M-students-launch-campaign-against-fee-hike/articleshow/51900979.cms ↩︎

  19. MHRD panel visits Pune IISER for the first time, listens to complaints, demands from students. 17 November 2018. The Indian Express https://indianexpress.com/article/cities/pune/mhrd-panel-visits-pune-iiser-for-the-first-time-listens-to-complaints-demands-from-students-5450885 ↩︎

  20. IIT Bombay Students Blog on Why Fee Hike is Unacceptable. 11 July 2017, ndtv.com https://www.ndtv.com/blog/iit-bombay-students-blog-on-why-fee-hike-is-unacceptable-1722158 ↩︎

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