From Delhi, the former Mughal capital to Mathura, Krishna’s birthplace, is about 150 km, roughly 75 miles. The route traverses a portion of the Grand Trunk road. In Kipling’s time it was a “river of life as nowhere else exists in the world.” That river is now one of tar and concrete. The jostling of barber and bunnia has been replaced by that of car, lorry, scooter and the occasional tractor going the wrong way down a two-lane highway.

Two weeks ago I traveled this stretch of history and counted no less than ten private institutions of tertiary education. Some are named after merchant princes, like the G. L. Bajaj Institute of Technology. Others have prosaic names, like the Rajiv Institute of Technology; this would be akin to Bob’s Institute of Technology. Some choose names to suggest their aspirations, like the Excel Institute of Management. Notice the popularity of the word `institute’. Almost invariably they were institutes of technology or management or both. The smallest of these occupied one floor of a large house and the largest a complex of five buildings spread over an acre or two.

This multitude of private organizations offering a tertiary education is reflection of a severe shortage of Universities in India. One estimate pegs the available supply at only 7% of India’s college age population. The private sector has stepped in. Forbes magazine has estimated this market to be worth around 50 billion U.S. The size of the market has attracted many entrants all of whom advertise aggressively; billboards, internet, T.V. and newspapers. In fact, such advertising is a major revenue source for newspapers. Some would fold without it, and thereby hangs a tale for another post.

The naming convention reflects the stringent way in which tertiary education in India is regulated. To call oneself a University requires a license. The label institute or school does not. However, one cannot issue degrees without a license, and so on and so forth. The focus on technology and management reflects a view that education is only useful insofar as it leads to a lucrative job.

The groves of academe are definitely not lucrative. This has produced a decided shortage of faculty. Newsweek claims that a quarter of existing university positions lie vacant and and 43% of current faculty do not have a Ph.D. (and don’t ask about those who do). The upshot is that India offers only three varieties of higher education.

First, low price and low quality for a select few. These are the IIT’s and the IIM’s. In India there is a quaint belief that these handful of institutions are `world class’. Apart from some isolated departments, this is not true. This assertion will generate a response. So, let me lay on the kindling. It is doubtful if many of the faculty at these institutions would find employment in any top 20 university in the states. Note the implicit assumption in this arrogant statement: quality of faculty research is positively correlated with the ability to produce men and women qualified to `hold dominion over palm and pine’. I’ll get back to this later.

Second, high price and low quality offered by private institutions; here one pays for infrastructure. If one must attend college, it might as well be pleasant. So, tennis courts, air-conditioned class rooms etc.

Third, low price and zero quality for the rest. These are the government run Universities bedeviled by student strikes and chronic faculty absenteeism. I know, very French.

It suggests graduating from a tertiary institution in India is nothing more than signaling device to potential employers. This seems to be particularly true of the institutions in the first category. Collectively they admit less than 2 % of those who apply (and even the group that apply is screened before hand) through a joint entrance exam. If the added value of time at these institutions is close to zero, why hasn’t the market unraveled? Why aren’t employers making offers to students when the results of the joint entrance exams are announced?

Amongst the private institutions one finds a range of ambitions. One, with a billion dollar endowment, seeks to rival Stanford and Harvard. At the other extreme are diploma mills with classrooms, classes and warm bodies to staff them. These seem to be well known as lists of `fraud universities’ circulate on the internet. Nevertheless, they persist. How? Why hasn’t competition driven out `bad’ institutions?

Last, what if quality of faculty research is unrelated to the ability to educate undergraduates? As pointed out to me by Mallesh Pai, “if we measure a university by the quality of graduates it can signal it’s producing, then the IIT’s and IIM’s achieve this in a significantly more cost-effective way than the Ivies.”