In October, Prime Minister Narendra Modi rued the state of higher education in India, especially its poor performance in international rankings.
Three days after he made an appeal to “erase this slur", the Asia University Rankings by British agency Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) showed the Prime Minister’s concerns were not misplaced.
Most top Indian schools slipped in their rankings in Asia, with the exception of Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay, which ranked 34th in the continent.
While Indian Institute of Science (IISc) Bangalore dropped 18 ranks to 51st, Calcutta University dropped 17 places to 125th in Asia. IIT Roorkee slipped 15 places to be ranked at the 93rd position. Top IITs, including Delhi, Madras and Kanpur, slipped between 5 and 11 ranks in the 2018 rankings as against their performance in the previous year.
What then ails Indian higher education?
The answer is almost everything—from quality to accountability, from lack of widespread innovation to marketing quality of Indian schools globally, according to experts and academics.
“Now the shift must happen from a linear model of education, with less focus on innovation, to specialized education that will propel research and tangible output," said S.S. Mantha, a former chairman of the All India Council of Technical Education (AICTE).
With 822 universities and over 51,000 colleges, Indian higher education suffers from a dual problem—quality and quantity.
Unlike the school sector, where access is almost universal, the gross enrolment ratio (GER) in higher education is 24.5—meaning out of every 100 youths eligible for higher education, less than 25 are pursuing tertiary education.
While the desired levels of research and internationalization of Indian campuses remain weak points, Indian higher education also suffers from a lack of funds, and its largely linear model with very little focus on specialization. Both experts and academics feel Indian higher education is tilted towards social sciences.
Only 1.7% colleges run Ph.D programmes and a mere 33% colleges run postgraduate-level programmes. At the undergraduate level, the highest number (40%) of students are enrolled in arts/humanities/social sciences, followed by science (16%), engineering and technology (15.6%) and commerce (14.1%), according to human resource development (HRD) ministry data.
“Indian higher education needs handholding—both to improve its quality, and branding of good schools such as IITs and IIMs (Indian Institutes of Management) globally to attract foreign students. The world-class university plan and the grant of autonomy to IIMs are steps in that direction," said a HRD ministry official, requesting anonymity.
China, for instance, has been funding nine of its top universities (called C9) to make them climb the global league table, and it has been quite successful. Tsinghua University, part of the C9, has a global rank of 25 and is placed sixth in Asia. In contrast, IIT-Delhi, placed at 172, is the best Indian institution in the QS world rankings 2018. In Asia, it is placed at 41st rank.
And, if you take out IITs and IISc, Indian universities’ performance is nothing to speak about. Besides, there are hardly any liberal arts universities that are sought after abroad.
On the funding front, there has been a demand to take spending on education to 6% of gross domestic product for decades. Right now, it is a little over 4%. “We believe the private sector can play a bigger role here. Besides, the upcoming higher education funding agency will support the fund requirements to some extent," the HRD official added.
On branding, the official said IITs and IIMs are looking beyond India. Sangeet Chowfla, president and chief executive of the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), the global body that conducts GMAT exam, told Mint recently that it has agreed to make management education in India an attractive destination for international students.
Initially, students from 27 countries in Asia, Africa and Europe are on the radar, Mint had reported on 8 September.
On the regulatory front too, the country has a poor record with both the University Grants Commission (UGC) and All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) being seen more as controllers of education than facilitators. Even now, the apex higher education regulator is headless, highlighting the state of education regulation in India.
“UGC and AICTE should be enablers of education than blocking reform at an institutional level. These regulators need to be reformed first for educational reform to accelerate in India," said Harivansh Chaturvedi, director of Birla Institute of Management and Technology, or BIMTECH, in Greater Noida.