India’s fake universities proliferate as demand outstrips supply

Regulatory agency warns students over 20 non-accredited institutions, amid soaring demand for higher education

October 20, 2023
Artists perform in front of a replica of Kashi Vishwanath Dham Corridor to illustrate India’s fake universities proliferate as demand outstrips supply
Source: Alamy

The continued emergence of more non-accredited institutions in India flies in the face of government efforts to contain them and is symptomatic of a larger imbalance between supply and demand for higher education, scholars have said.

This month, India’s University Grants Commission (UGC) issued a statement warning students against enrolling in so-called “fake universities”, which are not authorised to give out degrees.

The warning, which included a list of 20 such institutions in India, is not the first such notice published by the UGC. There is a long-running problem of such institutions – often of dubious quality – cropping up in the country.

Academics said their continued existence and growth, despite government attempts to stamp them out, reflected both structural and economic factors.

Saikat Majumdar, professor of English at Ashoka University, said fake universities were a “widespread problem” in India, where “corruption runs both deep and wide”. But profiteering organisations have a ready audience in India’s massive young population.

“Of the section of people who cannot find spaces in the recognised education system, be it arts and sciences or professional [and] technical, those who can afford it go abroad, and some of the rest end up joining questionable institutions here,” said Professor Majumdar.

An expanding middle class was now able to afford education beyond the country’s state-subsidised universities, where “competition is fierce, given the widely skewed ratio between applicants and available spaces”, he said.

And across the nation, education is highly coveted, not least as it is closely tied to later career prospects.

“The middle-class variant of this anxiety, driven by parents who have childhood memories of a severely limited, socialist economy with few jobs, is the obsession with the need for secure jobs, and hence they may easily fall for fake promises.”

“There’s an absolute clamour for education,” agreed Shruti Kapila, professor of history and politics at the University of Cambridge.

“It’s also very lucrative. But there are no clear standards,” she said, adding that anyone, including local politicians and entrepreneurs, can set up a private institution.

While public universities do not come close to satisfying demand for education, top private institutions are highly selective and expensive – “prohibitive” for the middle classes, let alone the poor.

Youth unemployment, which is close to 40 per cent in the country, has also contributed to a rash of dubious colleges, with higher education becoming “a way of passing time…a kind of holding pattern in society”, Professor Kapila said.

Mousumi Mukherjee, deputy director of the International Institute for Higher Education Research and Capacity Building at O.P. Jindal Global University, noted that the haphazard application of rules in various Indian states has not helped, either.

“Regulatory and quality assurance mechanisms have also not been uniformly effective across all states with[in] the country,” she said. “Hence, there has been a proliferation of poor-quality private institutions.”

Academics did not express much hope for improvement any time soon, with Professor Majumdar predicting that the problem would most likely worsen.

“The more public higher education gets weakened in this country – and the governmental onslaught on it is unrelenting – private players will rise in importance, and a large proportion of them will always remain questionable and blatantly profit-seeking, including those which operate within legal parameters. There will always be fake ones.”

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