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Pay it forward

India must do more to encourage a culture of philanthropy in higher education.

February 1, 2014 12:12:00 am

Infosys co-founder Kris Gopalakrishnan’s Rs 225 crore gesture of support towards research in the pure sciences by funding a centre for brain research at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore does not come in a vacuum — other individuals have staked their money and reputations to set up institutes of higher learning. Bharat Ratna awardee and scientist C.N.R. Rao founded the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, also in Bangalore, and a generous donation from entrepreneur Vinod Gupta led to the establishment of a management school at IIT-Kharagpur. The Azim Premji and Shiv Nadar universities are also notable examples. Despite these exceptions, corporate and individual philanthropy in higher education remains underexploited in a country where public higher education infrastructure is in dire need of funds.

India has a well-documented gap between the growing demand for higher education and its supply. Indian universities routinely turn out ill-prepared and unemployable graduates; the state of academic research is lamentable; and they are grossly understaffed and underfunded. Even with so much to be done at home, however, Indian philanthropy in higher education has tended to be directed towards universities abroad — for instance, the Tatas’ $50 million donation to Harvard Business School, or Anand Mahindra’s $10 million gift to the Harvard humanities centre. India already has a weak culture of non-religious philanthropy and its regulatory system does little to encourage it, mandatory new corporate social responsibility norms notwithstanding.
For example, it is difficult, if not downright counterproductive, for public colleges and universities to tap private resources or seek to leverage old school ties with alumni to raise funds. The University Grants Commission’s practice of deducting such philanthropic contributions from a university’s grant-in-aid leaves little incentive for these institutes to conduct aggressive fundraising campaigns. While philanthropy cannot substitute public investment in education, there is certainly space for private players — at the individual and corporate levels — to drive change. An enabling regulatory regime would only help.

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