After a prolonged period of weak initiatives in higher education that stunted enrolment in the university system, India now has the opportunity to speed up remedial action during the Twelfth Plan. If recent assessments are correct, the Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) in universities and colleges has touched 20 per cent, translating into about 20 million men and women in the 18 to 22 year cohort entering the portals of higher learning annually. The goal is to reach a 30 per cent GER by the end of the current decade. Evidently, even if the target is achieved, the absolute number of young Indians able to get a recognised higher education degree will remain well below the level a knowledge economy needs. Progress demands an end to the fragmentation of the higher education system, improved infrastructure, overcoming the inability of students to pay high tuition and boarding fees, especially at private institutions, and filling faculty vacancies. It is imperative that the Centre makes access, quality improvement and affordability the basic tenets of policy.
The idea of opening up the physical infrastructure of universities and colleges to start whole new batches of degrees and diplomas late in the evening has been the low hanging fruit in the area of wider access for many years. If this is pursued vigorously, as the Planning Commission's Working Group on Higher Education for the Twelfth Plan emphasises, a quick scaling up of enrolment rates is possible. This will maximise the value of the previous Plan measures, such as the opening of 374 colleges in educationally backward districts, besides 16 Central universities and 1000 polytechnics. Less robust, however, is the Plan approach to funding higher education. Scholarships are good, but they can work only if they cover all students with affordability problems. Loans are definitely an inferior alternative because they impose a heavy debt on the young graduate. Providing more scholarships is the answer. This should not be difficult, considering that Indians are paying a one per cent cess towards higher education. Corpus funds can be started by States with additional taxes, topped up by philanthropic and community-led contributions. In coming years, the enrolment of women, people with disabilities and minorities needs special attention. In the case of women, their share of total enrolment has risen from about 11 per cent in 1950 to nearly 39 per cent in 2009. Further GER growth will depend on investments in hostels, and grant of scholarships. India should also put its gigabit IT network in place quickly, to bring good learning materials from around the world to all campuses.