Higher education is essential to build a workforce capable of underpinning a modern, competitive economy. Massive expansion in schooling and growing youth aspirations is creating a huge demand for higher education. The Centre, after sleep-walking for decades, realised that the sector needed a relook and massive investments. Therefore, the poor outlay of Rs. 9,500 crore in the 10th Five Year Plan was increased manifold to Rs. 84,943 crore in the 11th Five Year Plan.

The draft approach paper to the 12th Plan for a “Faster, Sustainable and More Inclusive Growth” recognises the urgent need to step up both public and private investment in the sector and increase the efficiency of its utilisation. At present, 18 per cent of all government education spending or about 1.12 percentage of GDP is spent on higher education. This has to be raised to 25 per cent and 1.5 per cent respectively. An increase of 0.38 per cent of GDP means an additional allocation of about Rs. 25,000 crore to higher education for the Centre and States taken together.

Attracting and retaining talent in higher education as faculty will be the key. The Centre's plan to raise the Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) to 30 per cent by 2020 means an additional enrolment of over 26 million. This will require one million additional faculty in colleges and universities.

As the inner life of any university or college centres around the teachers who are the active agents of change, any development strategy must take teacher development or professional growth into account. Unless the teachers are taken care of institutions may not flourish. This will be a huge challenge as the system is struggling to find qualified candidates for faculty posts for years now. Strategies for the future could include schemes for attracting NRIs / PIOs, attracting young postgraduates and doctoral students to teaching, greater utilisation of scientists and technologists working with research laboratories or industries and upgrading the academic staff colleges.

At the beginning of the 11th Plan, the government institutions accounted for 51 per cent, aided institutions 26 per cent and private institutions the remaining 23 per cent of enrolment which was approximately around 17 million. In technical and professional courses, government institutions accounted for a poor 16 per cent of enrolment which prompted the Centre to start 15 new Central universities, eight new IITs, seven new IIMs and 10 new NITs. During the 12th Plan, the strategic participation of government will be more on setting up highly specialised technical institutions like the 20 IIITs in the making and focussed intervention on disadvantaged communities, minorities, women and educationally backward regions.

As the draft paper says, the shift of focus will be on quality, apart from access and inclusive aspects of higher education. As excellence along with expansion is the need of the knowledge economy, multi-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary approach will be the basis of knowledge creation, and establishment of Innovation Universities will be a major step in this direction.

Keen to improve the quality of education, the Centre plans some important interventions by way of reforms to resolve some of the endemic problems. A proper accreditation structure, quick redressal of disputes through educational tribunals and prevention of malpractice are being worked out. During the 12th Plan, assessment and accreditation of institutions will be made mandatory.

There are quite a few draft bills being finalised by the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) which could change the system functions. The National Authority for Regulation and Accreditation of Higher Educational Institutions Bill for mandatory accreditation and a Bill to prohibit and punish malpractice and adoption of unfair practices in technical and medical institutions and university system to protect the interest of students and applicants seeking admission have been introduced in Parliament.

Lok Sabha has already passed the Bill to establish a two-tier structure of educational tribunals at the State and Centre level to adjudicate on the entire gamut of disputes. Now, it will be introduced in the Rajya Sabha. These three laws in the making have the powers to clean up the system to a great extent.

Another keenly awaited Bill, introduced in Parliament, is on regulating the entry and operation of foreign educational institutions in India as higher education is viewed as a global enterprise now. Once passed, it will usher in a new era of institutional co-operation and collaborative research for inclusive development, besides the commercial possibilities. For, higher education has grown in isolation of society for long.