Padma Shri Pritam Singh, a leading personality on the higher education scene in India said, over a decade ago, “Laxmi the goddess of wealth, was freed from chains in 1991”, when the government, faced with an imminent default in meeting the country’s Forex commitments, liberalised the economy and amongst other things, de-licensed industrial manufacturing.

However, he summed-up the situation in regard to education in our country aptly, as he continued with his comment, “Sarasvati the goddess of learning, continues to be chained”. India as a country has a great opportunity today, as a consequence of our demographic situation, whereby by 2020, we will have a surplus of labour to the tune of 56 million.

Whereas the developed world, as a consequence of an ageing population and low birth rates, will have a manpower deficit of 56.5 million, according to an Earnst & Young research.

Of course, we can lose this opportunity, in case we do not succeed in our endevaours to skill and educate our manpower, both in terms of quantity and quality.

However, the big question is, as to how have we fared qualitatively. In the QS World University Rankings, India has only six institutions, in a total of 500. No university features among the first 100.

It is only when one moves on to the next 100 that we find the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur at 237; IIT Madras at 284, and the University of Delhi at 291. Our former Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, acknowledged in 2007, whilst he was still in office, “Our university system is, in many parts, in a state of disrepair.

In almost half the districts in the country, higher education enrollments are abysmally low, almost two-third of our universities and 90 per cent of our colleges are rated as below average on quality parameters.

I am concerned that in many states university appointments, including that of vice-chancellors, have been politicised and have become subject to caste and communal considerations, there are complaints of favouritism and corruption”.

University Grants Commission had over the years realised that state funding will continue to be inadequate and as such have encouraged expanding education by allowing the establishment deemed and private universities. The deemed universities got under a shadow, when a committee appointed by the Supreme Court, reported that many of these universities, had very poor infrastructure and the education delivery systems were un-satisfactory. The private universities have certainly performed better.

However, some of them are focusing primarily on delivering mass education, with quality taking the back seat. The story is the same, in terms of several autonomous institutions approved by the All India Council for Technical Education.

Besides a sprinkling of both engineering colleges and management institutes, which have achieved the reputation of delivering high class education, a vast majority of these also suffer from the malaise of mediocrity. The foreign universities bill continues to languish in the Parliament.

Many leading educationalist have expressed that if we are to attract the leading universities from across the globe, we will need to amend many of the provisions, in the present draft.

The regulatory environment will continue to be very challenging and most leading universities globally, will not venture into India. Most observers agree that our higher education, the significant and impressive developments of the past few decades notwithstanding, faces major challenges in both quantitative and qualitative terms.

Perhaps “Report to the Nation 2006” of the National Knowledge Commission, set-up by the ministry of HRD, concludes that there is a quiet crisis in the higher education in India that runs deep.

(The writer is chairman, Universal Business School)