Fixing Indian higher education is the ideal way to rescue students

Photo: Mint
Photo: Mint


India must not just aim to fulfil swelling demand but also reform the entire sector for the empowerment of human resources

Indian students going abroad for education is not a new phenomenon. Enrolling in a foreign university for higher education is a well-accepted path across India. Besides exposure, foreign universities provide high-quality education and often also job assurance, and importantly, it typically helps elevate the social as well as economic status of the family. This multitude of benefits makes foreign education attractive and lucrative in the long run. However, at times like the covid pandemic or the current war situation in Ukraine, students stand at a loss. We have witnessed the plight of Indian students who were stranded in Ukraine. Two years earlier, India undertook one of its largest rescue operations from China after the onset of the covid pandemic. In both these situations, students had to suffer on educational, economic, mental health and physical fronts. The abrupt discontinuation of foreign education takes a severe toll on students. But we must ponder why students in such large numbers prefer to go abroad for education.

Inadequate education facilities in India: According to United Nations Population prospects, India is home to the largest number of young adults (aged 18 to 23) worldwide. Our education system simply does have the capacity to cater to this demand. Take medical education, for instance. On an average, 1.5 million students compete in the National Eligibility Entrance Test (NEET) for around 100,000 seats in the country. Only a few thousand manage to get a seat in a government-run medical college. The remaining aspirants are forced to explore foreign universities. There are only 88,120 seats for MBBS students in the entire country, half of them in the private sector. Similarly, there are just 27,498 seats for dentistry in India. Additionally, for many aspiring students, cost is a major hindrance. Again, take the case of medical education. The cost of private medical education over 5 years is about 1 crore or more. Such high cost burdens inhibit students and compel them to explore cheaper yet better options available on foreign soil. Ukraine, Russia, China, the Philippines and Mauritius offer medical education in the range of 25-50 lakh. Besides, these countries offer hands-on experience with the latest equipment and technologies. As a result, many Indian students opt for economical and quality education elsewhere rather than here.

Quality of education and professional exposure: There are a limited number of colleges providing quality education in India. In comparison, foreign nations with smaller populations and a variety of education options allow these students to pursue their dream academic credentials overseas. A significant number of foreign universities facilitate learning in an inter-disciplinary environment. They usually have a special focus on in-depth research. They also tend to provide scholarships, on-campus jobs and work-permit opportunities that attract Indian students. The success of work permit programmes available to international students and graduates is also one of the main drivers that contribute to the rise of Indian students studying overseas. Degrees offered by foreign universities are recognized across the world, thus students can exercise their freedom to choose a workplace. In short, quality education, global exposure, job availability and quality of life after education are key factors that drive Indian students to go abroad.

According to the information provided by the government in the Rajya Sabha, there are over 1.1 million Indian students studying in 99 countries across the world. These students cumulatively spend more than 2 trillion (approximately $30 billion) overseas for their education. For fiscal year 2022-23, India’s budget for higher education is estimated at 1.04 trillion.

We are losing not just monetarily, but in various other ways as well, as talented human resources leave the country. India’s gross enrolment ratio (GER) for higher education is just above 27%, which means only 27 students of every 100 who complete high school enrol themselves for degree-level education. The National Education Policy 2020 envisages achieving a GER of 50% by 2030. Our present education infrastructure, however, is inadequate even for handling demand at a GER of 27%; do we have enough resources to cater to increasing demand for higher education?

We must urgently take the following measures proactively to arrest this drain of wealth and human resources.

One, increase the supply of public and private institutions. Promote and incentivize private entities to set up educational institutions.

Two, rationalize the country’s current caste-based reservation system. The government could consider introducing a ‘creamy layer’ criteria for Schedule Caste and Schedule Tribe candidates. It could also enforce the seat reservation-limit that was mandated by a Supreme Court ruling.

Three, standardize the curriculum across universities. Facilitate inter-disciplinarily learning and promote research-oriented education.

Four, start scholarships and on-campus jobs such as those for research and teaching assistants, etc. Also facilitate loans for education .

The plight of Indian students in a pandemic or war-like situation has underlined the need to relook at our higher education system. It is not merely an issue of a large gap between demand and supply. A good-quality education can lead to the creation of better human resources and will be an asset for the country over the long term.

Sudhir Mehta is chairman & managing director, Pinnacle Industries Ltd and president, Mahratta Chamber of Commerce, Industries and Agriculture (MCCIA)

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