Key Challenges facing the Higher Education Sector in India Featured


educational_revampAs India gained its independence in 1947, the apathy of the State towards research, both basic and applied, not surprisingly changed. India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru strongly believed that it is industrialisation alone that could drag the country out of poverty and into prosperity. However in a decision that had far reaching consequences, the first government of independent India decided to keep the boundaries of the university system largely intact and focused on research in science and technology through institutions that were largely outside the higher education sector. Many publicly funded research institutions were set up to carry out basic and applied research but these institutions did not carry out any significant teaching or training of students. Beside this, engineering institutes such as Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) were set up that were outside the university system and enjoyed greater autonomy than that was accorded to the universities. The separation between teaching and research which started in British India now became a permanent feature of the academic landscape of India.

The university sector in India has grown significantly over the years after independence. At present there are almost 259 State Universities, 42 Central Universities, 130 Deemed Universities, and 65 private universities which are affiliated to different state (provincial) authorities, beside having number of autonomous higher education institutions such as Indian Institutes of Technology and Indian Institutes of Management that are labelled as institutes of 'national importance'.

Major Issues
These impressive numbers however mask several problems of the higher education sector in India.
Differences that exist between the 'State' universities and 'Central' universities: The distinction is a vestige of the colonial past when different provinces were acquired as the British expanded its empire in India. For example, the first universities were established in 1857 in the three provinces - Calcutta, Madras and Bombay - where the British exercised their control. As the empire grew and new provinces were brought under British India, new universities kept being added to the fold and governance of these universities were a responsibility of the provincial governments.

The first government of independent India chose to keep this provincial structure largely intact and thus universities in India came to be mainly under the jurisdiction of state (provincial) governments rather than be under the control of government that is at the centre. The federal structure of the government of India in which some aspects of governance is delegated to different states (or provinces) meant that this structure was a feasible one but the real question is whether it was desirable?

It is clear that policy makers themselves felt the need for a class of universities where control is exercised at the central rather than at the provincial level, hence the establishment of several 'central' universities was undertaken. Over these years, the Central universities in India relative to State universities, have been better endowed financially, have enjoyed better governance and have taken the lead in research and development activities. But as the State universities vastly outnumber their Central counterparts, issues of poor governance and narrow outlook that arises out of provinciality remains key issues for the university sector in India.

The case of National Law Universities is the best example to explain this state-central disparity. National Law Universities are the latest lot of Best-in-Field Universities established by government as the centres of excellence in legal education. But different from IITs, and IIMs, NLUs are not established through an act of Parliament. Rather all the eleven NLUs have been established by the legislations of their respective establishing state assemblies. As another article on Gyancentral by this author has also pointed out, such an approach has not been able to bring NLUs at par with IITs and IIMs in terms of finances, autonomy and industry exposure. This is inspite of the fact that, each NLU produces more student level researches than all the IITs would together be contributing. Need of the hour is to bring such universities under a common central legislation with a common name. This shall fulfil the very purpose of establishing such Institutes of Excellence.

Another key challenge: The issue of Autonomy of Universities: The lack of autonomy for universities and how that has led to falling standards within the higher education sector has been discussed widely. The system has been exclusively under the government control since it inception in British India. Moreover, the situation got more complex after independence as state governments' agenda relating to university operations often differed to that of the central government thus contributing to the conflicting tensions that persists within the sector. The governance of State universities is carried out through a separation of duties between state and central government. While University Grants Commission (UGC) which is a central body is responsible for grants-in-aid from public funds to Central and State universities (including Deemed universities) and also for maintenance of standards, the states are in charge of operations of the State universities including appointment of administrative and academic staff, setting up of curriculum, direction of R&D activities and interactions with industry.

One defining characteristic of the State universities in India is the paucity of research output in these institutions (universities in general contribute around only 4% of total R&D spending in India). From the perspective of state government there is little incentive for using the public funds received from UGC for research purposes as it is difficult to link such spending to direct betterment of provinces though the nation as a whole would benefit from the investment through spill over effect; far better measurements of performance for State universities therefore are the number of students being taught, examined, and graduated. For this reason, there is a strong case for research activities to be channelled and directed at the central level rather than at the provinces.

Financial challenges facing academia: Despite an impressive economic growth that India has registered in the last two decades, it still remains largely an agrarian economy with fifty percent of the work force employed in the agricultural sector. Adult literacy rate is only at sixty five percent (2011 Census puts it at an increased 74%) and gross enrolment ratio in higher education stands at thirteen percent, much below China's twenty five percent (an economy that is comparable to India in terms of population). India's per capita income in 2009 stood at US$ 1,120 compared to Britain's US$ 35,165 and USA's US$ 46,436. It is not feasible for India to make massive state investments in research and development that produced research led universities in the west such as MIT, University of California, Berkeley in the US or University of Cambridge in Britain, whose intellectual properties-a consequence of such investments-attracted industry to their doorsteps.

Observations made above are not something new being discussed in this country. A lot of commissions and committees appointed by the government for suggesting reforms have also pinned upon same obstacles in the Indian Higher Education. They have also advocated for a system which rises above the vestiges of British legacy. A system which takes into account an ever growing innovation demand in the country is being asked for. But there has been sheer dearth of courage and a political will. The way attempts have been made to reform secondary level education in schools, higher education needs to be reformed too. It is high time that universities cater to the growing demand of students or else this human resource boon will soon prove to be population bane for the economy.

Data and Statistics for this article have been sourced from following references:
• Dahiya, B.S., 2001. The university autonomy in India: The idea and the reality, Shimla: Indian
• Institute of Advanced Study.
• "Report of the University Commission" (December 1948-August 1949) 3 Vols. New Delhi: Ministry of Education, Government of India, 1963.

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khitij2 Kshitij Bansal is specialising in Business Laws and Intellectual Property Rights at Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law, Punjab, India. Various articles on National and International Policy matters authored by him have been published in various magazines and newspapers.

Last modified on Tuesday, 10 July 2012 17:23