The Crisis of Quality in Higher Education in India (2023)
While India has the world’s second-largest higher education system, with over 700 universities and 35,000 colleges, serious concerns remain about the quality of these institutions. India’s universities lag in infrastructure, facilities, research output, and international rankings compared to global standards.
A significant problem is the lack of funding for higher education, which is far below the global average of 4.5 percent (India spends about 1.2 percent of its GDP); this results in poor infrastructure, including outdated laboratories, crowded classrooms, and a lack of basic amenities. Libraries are understocked and slow to access digital resources. Campus facilities like dorms, cafeterias, and internet are often inadequate for the number of students.
Faculty shortages also impact quality. India’s best universities have student-faculty ratios of 20:1 or higher, well above the 10:1 ratio at leading world universities. Heavy teaching loads leave professors little time for research, curriculum design, and student mentoring. Low pay scales also make attracting and retaining the best talent hard.
Consequently, research output is lacking. None of India’s universities rank among the global top 200 in research impact. Compared to 136,000 papers published by Chinese universities in leading journals, Indian universities published only 27,000 in 2017. Faculty promotion continues to depend more on seniority than research productivity.
Finally, Indian institutes score poorly in global university rankings. In the 2020 QS World University Rankings, only two—the Indian Institutes of Technology and the Indian Institute of Science—rank among the top 200. India’s best university, IISc Bangalore, ranks only 172th globally.
India must significantly hike public funding and incentivize private investment in higher education to improve quality. Expanding research grants, upgrading facilities, recruiting international faculty, and creating collaborative Ph.D. programs with global universities could help improve India’s university rankings and outlook.
However, political will is critical to drive the drastic reforms needed for India to produce world-class institutes and competitive graduates. In response, the Government of India has recently initiated several measures, a few of which have been described below.
Government Recent Initiatives
Here are some of the critical steps that the Government of India has initiated in the recent past to tackle the issues facing higher education:
- National Education Policy 2020 – This policy aims to increase public investment in education up to 6 percent of GDP and allow foreign universities to open campuses in India; this could help increase capacity and competition.
- Institutes of Eminence scheme provides special funding and autonomy to select institutes to boost them into the top 100 global rankings. So far, letters of intent have been issued to 14 institutes.
- Higher Education Financing Agency – Established in 2018, it provides low-cost loans and financial assistance to upgrade infrastructure in tertiary institutions.
- Research funding – Schemes like IMPRINT and UAY aim to identify and fund research projects that have a societal impact. The Prime Minister’s Research Fellowship also supports Ph.D. scholars to improve research quality.
- Digital India initiatives – Programs like DIKSHA, E-Pathshala, and National Digital Library are helping provide digital education resources for students and faculty.
- Foreign collaborations – The government has established schemes to foster university partnerships and faculty exchanges with countries like the US, UK, Australia, and Japan.
- Graded autonomy – UGC has graded universities into different categories according to their quality, granting more autonomy to higher-performing institutes and
- Private participation – Policies now allow more significant private and foreign educational investment, with easier entry norms.
However, many of the above measures may still not be enough. Sustained increases in public funding towards 6 percent of GDP, radical governance reforms, and a holistic approach are needed to raise standards over the long term. The results will take time to be realized.
Will achieving 50 percent GER in higher education in India by 2035 be possible, as envisaged in NEP 2020?
Achieving a 50 percent Gross Enrollment Ratio (GER) in higher education by 2035, as targeted in the National Education Policy 2020, will be very challenging for India given the current limitations:
- Current GER is only 27.2 percent (2020 survey data). Increasing this to 50 percent in 5 years will require massive capacity expansion.
- India currently lacks enough quality institutions and faculty to support such a rise in enrollment. The focus will need to be on both quality and quantity.
- Requires huge investments – NEP itself estimates that over Rs 1 lakh crore will be needed to increase GER to 50 percent, which looks unlikely given the current level of investment.
- Access limitations still exist for disadvantaged groups, especially in rural areas, and special efforts are needed to increase their participation.
- Drop-out rates from secondary education remain high. Drop-outs are unlikely to pursue higher education without significant improvements in the school system.
- Economic growth has slowed recently. Job creation may not keep pace with rising college graduates if capacity is rapidly expanded.
- COVID-19 impact – The pandemic has reversed some gains in gross enrollment rates in the last few years.
While the 50 percent target demonstrates ambition, a more viable approach may aim for a realistic increase of 5-10 percent in GER in the next five years; this would still require significant investments and systemic reforms but is more achievable. The focus should be on expanding capacity while maintaining academic standards and employment outcomes. An overly rapid expansion risks diluting quality and creating unemployable graduates.
Will investment to 6 percent of GDP help attain this goal?
Increasing investment in education up to 6 percent of GDP, as envisioned by the National Education Policy 2020, could help India achieve the goal of a 50 percent gross enrollment ratio (GER) in higher education. However, 6 percent of GDP investment alone may not be sufficient – a multi-pronged approach is required.
The benefits of a 6 percent GDP investment would be:
- Significant increase in funding for higher education infrastructure – more universities, colleges, research centers, etc., could be established to increase capacity.
- More Resources are required to improve the faculty-student ratio and attract qualified faculty by offering better pay and working conditions.
- Funding support is required to improve affordability and access through scholarships, loans, and grants, especially for disadvantaged groups.
- Investment in R&D and innovation ecosystems is required across universities to improve the quality of education and research output.
However, increasing funding needs to be accompanied by:
- Reforms in academic governance and administrative structures of universities.
- Programs to enhance faculty training and performance are required.
- Effective Public-private partnerships to leverage private investment.
- Enhancing the employability of graduates by updating curricula and integrating vocational/experiential learning is the need of the day.
- Effective use of technology to improve teaching methodologies and access to content.
- Strong primary and secondary education as the foundation to minimize drop-outs before higher education will send more secondary graduates to higher education.
While 6 percent of GDP investment would undoubtedly help, it must be backed by systemic reforms across all levels – school, higher education, governance, and regulatory frameworks. A coordinated approach is essential to create an enabling environment for quality growth in higher education. The goals of expansion of capacity and excellence need to go hand-in-hand.
Here are a few critical recommendations for improving the quality of higher education in India:
- Increase public funding: The most crucial step is to increase higher education financing to at least 6 percent of GDP, as envisioned in the National Education Policy; this will provide the resources to improve infrastructure, facilities, teaching quality, and research.
- Reform governance: Give more autonomy to high-performing institutes, reduce bureaucracy, and implement better accountability systems to improve outcomes.
- Upgrade curriculum: Revamp curricula to make them multidisciplinary, contemporary, and skill-based. Promote innovation and experiential learning.
- Attract global talent: Create incentives and collaborative programs to attract leading academicians, researchers, and entrepreneurs worldwide to teach in India.
- Faculty development: Expand professional development opportunities for faculty through paid sabbaticals, international teaching fellowships, conferences, etc., to upgrade their skills.
- Collaboration and student exchange: Foster international partnerships between India and leading global institutes for research, faculty exchange, credit transfer, joint degrees, and other initiatives is very much required. Expand scholarship schemes for studying abroad.
- Leverage technology: Use ICT and online learning to improve teaching methodologies, access high-quality content, and expand learning opportunities beyond physical campuses.
- Focus on research: Provide more research grants, improve lab infrastructure, simplify bureaucratic processes, and incentivize high-quality publications.
- Improve employability: Set up incubation cells, career service centers, and industry linkages to help students transition successfully into the job market.
- Private participation: Develop clear regulatory frameworks to encourage reputed private universities and international institutes to operate in India.
India can build a world-class higher education system with sustained effort over the next decade. However, political will and effective implementation will be the key challenges.
The Path Forward for Transforming India’s Higher Educatio
While India has made significant strides in widening access to higher education, it has a long road ahead to raise teaching, research, and employment outcomes to global standards. Implementing profound, systematic reforms will be critical to realizing the country’s vision of building a world-class higher education system.
At the core, a manifold increase in public funding and investment is urgently needed to expand capacity and improve infrastructure, resources, and facilities. Increased budgets will attract talented faculty, boost research, and enable more student aid. If realized, the National Education Policy’s call to increase expenditure to 6 percent of GDP will be a game changer.
However, more funding must be accompanied by fundamental governance reforms – enhanced autonomy, accountability, and transparency mechanisms to improve leadership, administration, and decision-making in higher education institutes. Reducing bureaucracy and red tape will be equally vital.
Revamping outdated curricula into dynamic, multidisciplinary programs aligned to 21st-century skills will enhance the learning experience and outcomes. Integrating technology for online learning and virtual resources will facilitate access.
Attracting high-quality faculty talent from across India and globally is imperative. Professional development, sabbaticals, conferences, and research funding can help continually enhance teaching and research capabilities. Fostering global partnerships between India and leading international institutes will boost internationalization, cultural exchange, and knowledge sharing. Joint research programs, credit transfer arrangements, and dual degree paths will enable world-class learning opportunities.
Reorienting learning and research outcomes to solve pressing social challenges and fuel entrepreneurship and job creation will maximize economic impact. Strong industry and government linkages can help align higher education with national development priorities. With impact-oriented reforms and strategic vision, India can build the robust higher education ecosystem needed to reap its demographic dividend and emerge as a knowledge superpower this century.
- National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 – https://www.mhrd.gov.in/nep-final-english
- AISHE 2018-19 Report – Key statistics on higher education in India by Ministry of Education – http://aishe.nic.in/aishe/home
- World Bank Report 2017 – Trouble Down the Line? The Future of Indian Higher Education – https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/26493
- KPMG-FICCI Report 2016: India needs a ‘Spotlight’ on higher education
- Azim Premji University Report 2019 – Reviving Higher Education in India
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Q: What are some of the main problems with Indian higher education?
A: Key issues include inadequate public funding and resources, outdated curriculum, poor infrastructure and facilities, faculty shortages, low research output, governance issues, and low global university rankings.
Q: Why is public funding important for improving university quality?
A: Increased public funding to 6 percent of GDP or more can provide universities with resources to improve infrastructure, attract talented faculty, reduce the student-teacher ratio, invest in R&D, and provide more scholarships and student loans.
Q: How can the curriculum be upgraded to improve learning outcomes?
A: The curriculum should be revised to be multidisciplinary, skill-based, and aligned with current knowledge and industry needs.
Q: What role does faculty play in improving higher education quality?
A: Providing high-quality faculty is key through better compensation, professional development opportunities, sabbaticals, and research funding. Workloads should allow time for research.
Q: How can technology help boost higher education?
A: Online learning, ICT, and virtual labs can facilitate better teaching practices and access to high-quality content beyond physical campuses and geographic barriers.
Q: Why are low research outputs detrimental to Indian universities?
A: More research funding and simplified bureaucracies can promote excellence in research; this boosts knowledge creation, innovation, university rankings, and economic growth.
Q: How can student employability be improved?
A: Closer industry linkages, practical training, entrepreneurship cells, and career guidance services can help students transition successfully into the job market.
Q: What role does the private sector play in higher education in India?
A: Public-private partnerships and flexible policies to allow reputed private universities to operate can leverage private investment in higher education.
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