The HRD minister thinks he is doing right by preventing IIM, Bangalore, from taking up its Singapore campus project. First, the minister has violated the earlier permission granted to IIM-B by his own ministry. This is illustrative of a major risk in dealing with the government in India, that particularly hurts private infrastructure, which necessarily has to deal with government over long-term contracts, especially in areas like water, sewerage, etc. The government refuses to abide by its own contracts and agreements. And that is also at the core of the failure of public enterprise.

The tragedy is that government in India does not think its rules and policies are as much for itself as for others. So, is it surprising that an MoU of a PSU with the government is not worth the paper it is written on? MoUs in India, unlike in France, do not give autonomy to the enterprise. After all, why should a government with an imperial pedigree agree to its commitment in something as mundane as a MoU? That, too, with an organisation that it owns?

Accountability is the first victim and nothing except disinvestment can deliver enterprise from the ad hocism of government. The present government, which believes in the need for public enterprise, logically, therefore, needs to distance itself from public enterprise. How can accountability be possible without autonomy?

Unfortunately, in education a private sector alone cannot be the solution. A private sector cannot fill the gap left if public institutions in education are destroyed by a government bent on doing so. For a private sector-based, efficient and accessible higher education, one needs imaginative regulation, which is even more difficult. Even the most functional of state systems have not been able to arrive at such a regulation that can do without the public sector producing higher educational services. Even the US is so dependent, not to speak of much of Europe. Education, especially higher education, is an experience - good and quality can vary immeasurably.

Nothing illustrates this better than the extreme preference for a few colleges and institutions that have kept up their quality—be it Delhi School of Economics, the IITs or the IIMs. Quality, though, is impossible in a low-fee situation for all but those with scale, and that takes time. The few public institutions providing quality education have large positive spillovers over a private sector. It is their existence that keep fees from sky-rocketing, since education is an experience that’s good and very high fees, a way of signalling good quality.

The minister should be worried about why so many of the newly licensed schools, despite good intentions, are unable to elicit high preference from applicants. This is despite many positive aspects that private operations have, such as the ability to pay differential salaries and better living conditions for students. Besides imposed underscaling on private institutions in engineering and management by AICTE, a lack of informed rating, the ritualised processes adopted in approval and checking for quality and resources, are part of the problem. If education had only an endowments problem, then vouchers to poor students alone would have sufficed. There is no substitute to having at least some public and charitable institutions of high quality with reasonable fees and/or state support consistent with quality.

This is the case the world over and India cannot be an exception. Quality in a global environment cannot come from burying an institution in the local environment. Then, the IIMs can, at best, aspire to be little better than community colleges. The IIMs’ quality, many believe, lies in the quality of its students and to the multiplier effects of the same. While this is true, it is important for IIMs to prove to themselves that their quality is not on that count alone, but also on the strength of their curriculum, delivery and commitment.

But would a government that still believes it favours the farmer and the consumer by actively deciding upon onion exports understand? Here, consumers and farmers need only suffer higher volatility and lower incomes. But ad hoc controls over publicly provided higher education will, in most certainly destroying quality therein, make quality higher education by the private sector too pricey. This would exclude all but the rich. Or, as is quite likely, with the extension of the control mania to the private sector, private higher education would fly from India to locate elsewhere, only to attract Indian students! Already, a significant part of the good universities in Singapore and Australia are home to Indian students.