In its first 100 days, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s second government has begun yet another rethink of higher education policies through the draft NEP (National Education Policy) and EQUIP (Education Quality Upgradation and Inclusion Programme). This is the latest, and seemingly among the most elaborate, in an endless series of official reports and programmes aimed at improving higher education in independent India. The Radhakrishnan Commission of 1949, the National Education Policies of 1968 and 1986, the Yashpal Committee of 2009, the National Knowledge Commission in 2007, and the draft NEP of 2019 have all basically said the same thing.
While it is always valuable for various government committees to point to the importance of higher education for economy and society, it is not necessary to convene many experts through initiatives such as EQUIP to tell the government and the academic community what they already know. Perhaps the time, energy and resources that EQUIP will require can be better spent implementing the obvious. Everyone agrees that higher education needs significant improvement, especially as India seeks to join the ranks of the world’s premier economies.
Inadequate allocation of funds
However, central to both quality improvement and increased access is money. Higher education in India has been chronically underfunded — it spends less than most other BRICS countries on higher education. The last Budget allocated only ₹37,461 crore for the higher education sector. Other related ministries and departments such as Space, Scientific and Industrial Research, Skill Development and Entrepreneurship, Science and Technology, Health Research and Agricultural Research have been allocated only modest support. Inadequate funding is evident at all levels. All State governments, which provide the bulk of higher education money, also fail to adequately support students and institutions.
The Central government, responsible mostly for the top of the academic system, does not provide sufficient resources. Even the Institutions of Eminence scheme falls short of requirements and is dramatically behind similar programmes in China and several European countries. Funding for basic research, which is largely a Central government responsibility, lags behind peer countries. Apart from Tata Trusts, Infosys Foundation, and Pratiksha Trust, industry provides little support. Thus, India requires substantial additional resources for higher education to improve quality and build a small but important “world class” sector. Massive effort is needed at both State and Central levels — and the private sector must contribute as well.
A key goal of EQUIP and the NEP is that India must expand the percentage of young people enrolled in post-secondary education significantly. It is interesting to note that while the draft NEP aims at increasing the gross enrolment ratio to at least 50% by 2035, EQUIP targets doubling the gross enrolment ratio to 52% by 2024. At present, India’s gross enrolment ratio is 25.8%, significantly behind China’s 51% or much of Europe and North America, where 80% or more young people enrol in higher education. India’s challenge is even greater because half of the population is under 25 years of age. The challenge is not only to enrol students, but to ensure that they can graduate. Non-completion is a serious problem in the sector.
And of course, the challenge is not only to enrol students and improve graduation rates but also to ensure that they are provided with a reasonable standard of quality. It is universally recognised that much of Indian higher education is of relatively poor quality. Employers often complain that they cannot hire graduates without additional training. The fact that many engineering colleges even today have to offer “finishing programmes” to their graduates underlines the pathetic state of quality imparted by these institutions.
India needs a differentiated academic system — institutions with different missions to serve a range of individual and societal needs. Some “world class” research-intensive universities are needed. Colleges and universities that focus on quality teaching and serve large numbers of students are crucial. Distance education enters the mix as well. The draft NEP’s recommendations for a differentiated system of research universities, teaching universities, and colleges are in tune with this. However, the ways suggested to achieve these objectives are impractical.
The private sector is a key part of the equation. India has the largest number of students in private higher education in the world. But much of private higher education is of poor quality and commercially oriented. Robust quality assurance is needed for all of post-secondary education, but especially for private institutions.
The structure and governance of the higher education system needs major reform. There is too much bureaucracy at all levels, and in some places, political and other pressures are immense. Professors have little authority and the hand of government and managements is too heavy. At the same time, accountability for performance is generally lacking.
India needs: (a) dramatically increased funding from diverse sources, and the NEP’s recommendation for a new National Research Foundation is a welcome step in this direction; (b) significantly increased access to post-secondary education, but with careful attention to both quality and affordability, and with better rates of degree completion; (c) longitudinal studies on student outcomes; (d) to develop “world class” research-intensive universities, so that it can compete for the best brains, produce top research, and be fully engaged in the global knowledge economy; (e) to ensure that the private higher education sector works for the public good; (f) to develop a differentiated and integrated higher education system, with institutions serving manifold societal and academic needs; (g) reforms in the governance of college and universities to permit autonomy and innovation at the institutional level; and (h) better coordination between the University Grants Commission and ministries and departments involved in higher education, skill development, and research.
The latest draft NEP and EQUIP have reiterated the importance of some of these points. There is really no need to spend money and attention on a new review. The needs are clear and have been articulated by earlier commissions and committees. The solutions are largely obvious as well. What is needed is not more research, but rather long-neglected action.
Philip G. Altbach is research professor and founding director, Centre for International Higher Education at Boston College, U.S. Eldho Mathew is an independent higher education researcher based in New Delhi