India's higher education system may be the world's third largest, but the country still lacks international universities of the stature of Harvard and Cambridge. Higher education in India is beset by several challenges. We have an abysmally low rate of student enrollment in higher education at only 18 percent. The unmet demand for higher education is enormous. There is a chronic shortage of faculty, the quality of teaching leaves a lot to be desired and the curricula and pedagogy are outdated and rigid. Lack of accountability is the biggest impediment. An estimated 30-40 percent of the departmental positions in our universities are lying vacant. There are serious constraints when it comes to enhancing research capacity. India does not have enough high-quality researchers, as evident by poor levels of PhD enrollment. We have failed to create the conditions for innovation. We are also not engaging the industry the way we should.
Though much of the Indian higher education system is regulated, institutions of higher learning are constantly subjected to governmental pressures and political interferences. The system of governance and regulation is to blame for many ills plaguing higher education in India. The system of command and control embedded in the functioning of universities is impractical, hindering accountability. Decisions are often taken on the strength of non-academic considerations. This interference starts right at the top with the appointment of vice chancellor. The other reason for poor governance is the system of affiliating colleges to the university, which fetches revenue for the university in the form of fees. We have about 17,700 undergraduate colleges, but just 1.1 percent of them are autonomous. The rest are affiliated to universities. Many universities have over 100 affiliated colleges, and there are some with more than 400. This makes universities bulky and difficult to manage.
The requirement of parliamentary legislation for setting up a university is a formidable obstacle, making authorization of entry a cumbersome process. As a result, existing universities keep expanding by including new colleges. No one pays heed to the need for setting up new universities which administer a close cluster of colleges. Even after entry, extensive rules regulate institutions, from fee to curricula, preventing diversification of courses and human capital. The result is thousands of graduates with degrees which cannot get jobs.
The Prescription of FDI
The treatment of FDI in education has been worse. Though the government had no option but to allow FDI in education because of its commitment to the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), this has only been a token commitment. The rigid stance adopted by the government on setting the fees to be charged by educational institutions and deciding their curricula has deterred many quality educational institutions from opening branches in India. The government lacks trust in private education providers despite the fact that the private sector is expected to play a key role in the expansion of higher education.
Last year, Infosys had scanned the particulars of 1.3 million applicants only to find that just 2 percent of them were qualified for the job. The range of courses on offer is extremely narrow. Neither the government nor the society is doing enough to support higher education financially. We lack a well-informed reform agenda for higher education. The piecemeal efforts made every now and then are not rooted in the new global realities based on competition and increased mobility of workforce.
What we need is a regulatory system which promotes competition as a means to enhance institutional quality. Quality education should be linked with incentives so that education is not reduced to a seller's market. It is necessary to equip an independent regulatory body with a well-defined set of regulatory laws to deal with private institutions as well as the authority to fix fee and decide on curricula.
The government should ensure strict regulatory compliance on one hand and do away with cumbersome regulatory procedures on the other. It should set aside more funds for higher education and formulate policies that give impetus to teaching and research. Political interference in the functioning of universities should be done away with. What we need is a robust accreditation system, industry-oriented curriculum, competent faculty and world-class infrastructure, but what we sorely lack is a focused approach. Why do our students have to go overseas for higher education? What stops us from bringing our institutions on a par with international standards? Let's do that and save on precious foreign exchange. Let's develop that competitive spirit and show the world that India is as good as the best when it comes to higher education.
Prof. Prakash Gopalan
Prof. Prakash Gopalan was associated with IIT Bombay as a professor in the Department of Metallurgical Engineering and Material Science for over two decades before his appointment as Director of Thapar University. He holds the position of Adjunct Professor in the Department of Chemistry at Purdue University. He says, "If we develop the competitive spirit, we will be able to improve the quality of higher education and show the world that we are the best."