New India needs free and quality higher education


Businesses, alumni and government can work to create strong philanthropic support and tax relief

Businesses, alumni and government can work to create strong philanthropic support and tax relief

At a time when the demand for quality education and research in leading universities in India and advanced countries is on the rise, the staggering tuition fees demanded by renowned universities, in addition to deterring the deserving from pursuing their studies at world-class universities create compulsions to turn professions into business propositions rather than opportunities to serve and excel.

Carving out a niche in the annals of global education architecture, NYU Grossman School of Medicine at New York University has announced that beginning with the 2021-2022 academic year, it will pay the fees for tuition for all of its students admitted to its medical program, regardless of financial need, becoming the first major American medical school to do so.

Kenneth G. Langone, chairman of the board of NYU Langone Health, who made his $3.5 billion fortune as a co-founder of Home Depot, along with his wife Elaine, has donated $100 million to fund tuition fees. NYU has already raised more than $450 million of the $600 million it needs to fund the program.

In India too, the burden of tuition fees in vocational courses is becoming unbearable. Furthermore, it raises serious concerns about reducing quality vocational education to a commodity rather than the noble service it should be.

Student loans, even with a government collateral guarantee, are not an answer, as growing student loan debt will cripple development economics and public welfare. What we need is a university system that fosters a learning environment in which world-class education can be delivered without placing the burden of tuition fees on learners.

The Nordic model

The Nordic countries – Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden – offer free higher education to their population, and foreign students could study for free until recently. In Denmark, however, tuition fees were introduced for international students from outside the European Union and European Economic Area in 2006. Sweden followed suit in 2011. Only Finland, Norway, Iceland and Germany do not do not charge tuition fees to international students. This ensures that students receive a quality education in the courses they want rather than pursuing courses that allow them to earn a lot of money in order to pay off their student debt.

As a January 2022 article put it: “The Nordic model has attracted considerable attention from other nations. Many people wonder if it provides a model for small countries where citizens are more homogeneous in terms of opinions and experiences, but live in poverty or repression due to government policies”.

Despite some attempts to impose fees, all of these countries are exceptions in a world where international students are often a valuable source of income for institutions. Last year, the subject surfaced again in Finland when the government recommended that institutions be allowed to charge tuition fees for international students from outside the European Union. Following a heated public debate, the Finnish government chose not to proceed with the proposals.

All Nordic countries have a strong heritage of equality, which extends to equal opportunities in the education system. The Nordic countries have put in place measures to promote gender equality and help students from lower socio-economic categories to access higher education. No wonder these countries continue to top the Global Happiness Index (Finland at #1, Denmark at #2, Iceland at #4, Norway at #8 and Germany at No. 14, according to the World Happiness Index 2022).

It reshapes student choices

A ray of hope for the evolution of a progressive university system in professional education has been provided by NYU’s Grossman School of Medicine. In its announcement, NYU pointed out that “crushing student debt” is reshaping the medical profession in ways that hurt the healthcare system. These debts encourage graduates to pursue high-paying specialties rather than careers in family medicine, pediatrics, and obstetrics and gynecology. The initiative taken by NYU is sure to inspire many other leading universities to consider and value the intellectual acumen of the student rather than the financial investment.

But then universities need funds for education and research. Education is a noble service and an investment to prepare a bright future for humanity. If students pay for education, they would be forced to earn any degrees they obtain. The profession then becomes a privilege to earn rather than a privilege to serve and excel, as it should have been.

There are strong arguments for reviving philanthropy and community support for higher education in India. Businesses, generous alumni, and people in general can join us in creating strong philanthropic support for higher education and making quality education free. The government, for its part, should be generous enough to declare these philanthropic donations to the cause of higher education and research tax-free, now that the Treasury is teeming with funds from the ever-growing list of income and goods and services tax. Tax Payers (GST).

Can we then fulfill the prophecy of the great management guru, Philip B. Crosby, in higher education, who during the quality revolution of the late 1970s advocated that “Quality is free!

Rajesh Mehta is a leading consultant and columnist working on market entry, innovation and public policy. Pritam B. Sharma is a renowned Indian academician, former President of the Association of Indian Universities and Founding Vice Chancellor of Delhi Technological University and Rajiv Gandhi Proudyogiki Vishwavidyalaya.


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