Limited investments in universities has meant that India has not been able to match up to China’s rapid strides in higher education over the past two decades
If the covid-19 pandemic has exposed the vulnerabilities of India’s healthcare system , it has also exposed the inadequacy of India’s university system. At a time when the world’s universities have been at the forefront in the battle against the novel coronavirus, Indian universities are still not on the frontlines yet. Researchers at the Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine in London have built epidemiological models of the spread of the virus that have influenced public policies in the UK and elsewhere. Researchers from the Peking University in China first produced evidence last month that there was not one, but two strains of the novel coronavirus.
There have been no comparable breakthroughs from Indian universities, and to the extent that studies on India have been done, most have been carried out by scholars based in foreign universities rather than those working in Indian universities.
“Forget science, as far as I know, not a single person is trying to create a model in India of the spread of the disease," said Dinesh Singh, former vice-chancellor of the University of Delhi. “No statistician, no mathematician, nobody! All our models are coming from abroad".
The frailty of India’s university system is also apparent when one takes a cursory look at global rankings of universities. Consider the widely tracked Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) rankings. India has struggled to raise the number of universities in the top 500 global list over the past decade. In stark contrast, China has more than doubled its share in the top 500 over the same period.
China’s rise is even more astounding because not so long ago, India had a clear advantage over China at least when it came to higher education. And till the 1990’s, India’s university system was globally recognized as more robust than that of China. Since then, China has raced ahead with significant investments in higher education even as India has struggled to protect its elite institutions from apathy and politicking.
Even in terms of college enrollments, China outpaced India by the early 2000’s, with college enrollments in China zooming from 8% in early 2000s to 50% now.
The apathy towards institutes of higher learning has inevitably resulted in lower research output compared to China. China’s success is due to its high priority on education and effective reforms in education funding. Since the mid-1980s, Chinese institutions of higher education were encouraged to diversify their financial base by seeking non-government sources of support in the form of tuition fees, profits from school-sponsored enterprises and consultancies, and donations. At the same time, public investment was stepped up to ensure that the masses could access the fruits of higher education (Higher Education Reform in China and India: The Role of the State).
In contrast, university finances in India remain badly managed and even top public universities find it difficult to access funds. Subscriptions to several basic databases and journals are not available in Delhi University , among the premier universities in the country. The University doesn’t have enough funds to appoint teachers and is largely dependent on a vast army of temporary staff to run its sought-after undergraduate courses .
In other universities, the situation is even more dire. The latest budget’s allocation towards higher education was a mere 1.3% of the overall expenditure, the lowest since 2010-11.
India's slow progress in higher education is also a reflection of its inequalities. While gender parity has improved over time, college enrollment among scheduled caste and scheduled tribes are still lagging even as the overall gross enrollment ratio (GER) is stagnating.
The enrollment rates are particularly low in poorer states in the north and east. College enrollment rates are relatively higher in the south, official data shows.
The gap in public funding of college universities has been compensated to some extent by the rise of private colleges and universities. But most of them charge fees which are unaffordable for a large section of Indians even as the quality of teaching remains poor.
“Although private higher education institutions are de jure non-profit, they are de facto commercial and profit maximizing," wrote the political scientists Devesh Kapur and Elizabeth Perry in a 2015 Harvard University working paper. “Federal higher education institutions (so called central universities) continue to attract better students due to their better funding, greater autonomy from politics, selection criteria (competitive national exams), relatively modest fees (and generous scholarships and easy loans for needy students), and some commitment to research. However, most students in public universities are in state universities… and virtually all of them are poorly governed."
Around 46% of students pursuing higher education continue to be enrolled in government institutions and in rural areas they cater to almost half the students enrolled, NSS data for 2017-18 showed.
Both central and state universities have faced fund crunch in recent years and have struggled to fill up vacancies, data shows. Around 34% of faculty positions in higher education institutions under central government and 27% under state governments were vacant last year, according to data presented on the floor of the parliament in Dec 2019 (). Overall, more than a hundred thousand teaching posts remain vacant across the country.
The vast majority of Indian college students are enrolled in private and state institutions of “poor quality, with no research facilities and a dearth of qualified faculty", noted Kapoor and Perry.
“India does not create high quality PhD programmes that could provide the pipeline for top quality teachers and researchers," said Pratap Bhanu Mehta, former Vice Chancellor of Ashoka University. “Nor do we attract enough faculty from abroad due to a general lack of trust in Indian institutions and a conducive research environment."
This is the ninth of a ten-part series on India’s budget priorities.
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