Since Independence, the Government of India has provided full policy support and substantial public funds to create one of the world’s largest systems of higher education. These institutions, with the exception of some notable ones, have however, not been able to maintain the high standards of education or keep pace with developments, especially in the fields of knowledge and technology.
Over time, financial constraints with exploding enrolments, and a very high demand from primary and secondary education has led to the deterioration in the financial support provided by the Government. On top of this, an overall structure of myriad controls with a rigid bureaucracy has stifled its development. However, on the science and technology side, India has built up the largest stock of scientists, engineers and technicians.
Since 1950-51, when there were only 2,63,000 students in all disciplines in 750 colleges affiliated to 30 universities, the growth of higher education in India has been phenomenal. Today, there are more than 11 million students in 17,000 colleges affiliated to 230 universities and non-affiliated university-level institutions. In addition, there are about 10 million students in over 6500 vocational institutions. The enrolment is growing at the rate of 5.1 per cent per year. However, of the Degree students only 5 per cent are enrolled into engineering courses, while an overall 20 per cent in sciences. The demand for professional courses is growing rapidly.
Both public and private institutions operate simultaneously in India. Most of the growth in the rapidly expanding higher education sector took Place in private unaided college or in self-financing institutions with 42 Per cent of higher education institutions being privately owned and run. Since grant-in-aid to private colleges is becoming difficult, many universities have granted recognition/affiliation to unaided colleges. Some universities have also authorized new ‘self-financing’ courses even in government and aided colleges. As of today, more than 50 per cent of the higher education in India is imparted through private institutions, mostly unaided.
All of India’s higher education is managed by the University Grants Commission (UGC) and the various councils. The UGC, set up under UGC Act 1956, has been empowered to promote and coordinate university education in India and also approve grants to them. The UGC is responsible for coordination, determination, and maintenance of standards and release of grants to universities and research organizations. Various professional councils are responsible for recognition of courses, promotion of professional institutions and provision of grants to undergraduate programmes. Though there is no statutory council for software development, NASSCOM is generally accepted as equivalent. A number of Research Councils have also been setup under the aegis of Central Government.
At present there are 221 Universities of which six are central Universities while 156 are state Universities. There is also a concept of Deemed University—a status given by UGC to colleges of exceptional excellence. There are 39 Deemed Universities plus seven open universities. Out of the 9703 colleges in India that provide mostly Bachelors’ or sometime Master’s level of education, only 550 are engineering and technical colleges, 655 medical and 600 management institutions.
Integration of University and vocational education has been attempted in India as it was earlier attempted in Australia. In a recent innovation, vocational curriculum has been introduced at the bachelor’s degree level by permitting one of three subjects to be a vocational one. A number of subjects have been introduced including agriculture-related activities. Nearly 1500 colleges have been given facilities for vocational education.
In order to evaluate performance of an institution and bring about a measure of accountability a mechanism of accreditation has been developed by UGC. This is an autonomous council under UGC called National Accreditation and Assessment Council (NAAC) with a purpose to carry out periodic assessment of universities and colleges. NAAC has evolved a methodology of assessment which involves self-appraisal by each university/college and an assessment of the performance by an expert committee. Similarly, for technical education AICTE has established its own accreditation mechanism for its institutions through the National Board of Accreditation (NBA). NBA has also undertaken 9 a detailed exercise for bench marking the performance of reference for evaluation if performance can be initiated.
At present, resource crunch in higher education is being felt in a serious way. There is a need to develop other sources of financing besides the government, so that the massive expenditure needed to expand, improve and bring higher education to world standards could be carried out. With an expanding middle class and globalization this is possible provided innovative policies are formulated and implemented.
Unattractive compensation packages, lengthy recruitment procedure, and working environment not conducive to retention are some other problems faced by higher educational institutes. As a result, a substantial proportion of high-ranking students who could fill up such assignments prefer to work elsewhere or go abroad. Most institutions offer outdated programmes with inflexible structures and content. While course content has been updated and restructured overtime in the world’s best institutions, Indian university curricula have lagged behind.
Infrastructure facilities range from inadequate to dismal. Classrooms are often unattractive and laboratories inadequately stocked, leading to poor teaching. It is estimated that barely 20 per cent of the institutions have the basic minimum laboratory equipment. Steady electric power supply is not available in many universities and computerization, where it exists is generally dependent on poor communication lines.
India’s present growth is led by service sector, which has had a boost due to the ICT revolution. However, this is a skill-intensive sector and India is now moving up the value chain, which calls for greater R&D efforts and requires knowledge workers as opposed to manual workers. A new strategy for meeting this challenge needs to be evolved with complete policy commitment on the part of the Government because service sector export requires a steady supply of highly skilled manpower which can only be supported by a robust Higher Education System along with an internet infrastructure that is both deep as well as broad.
Seen from this perspective, the business of providing appropriate higher education opportunities is not just the concern of the Ministry of Education, but all other ministries with operations in related areas such as, the Ministries of Commerce, IT, Communications, Health, Science & Technology, Finance, etc. While it is clear that without this kind of holistic approach to education provisioning it will be impossible to fulfill our aspirations to lead the world economy in knowledge services, straddling across the functional areas of different ministries is difficult to administer without some kind of creative out-of-the-box thinking.
While educators opine that the Government should not abandon its responsibility of liberal funding of higher education and creation of funds through donations, upward revision of fee structure is now a must. In fact, the actual percentage of fees to operating cost in India has declined due to increasing cost of education and reluctance of authorities to increase fees or even raise funds from other sources.
This is a critical issue facing the Higher Education System in India and the politics of Education. With public expenditure on higher education being barely 0.4 per cent of the GNP, regular University-Industry interaction critical to raising funds from corporate sources as well as restructuring the curriculum in tandem with the changing needs of the industry becomes essential. Also, vocational higher education in India is an area that merits further research.