There can be no two opinions that the quality of higher education in India is poor and non-competitive on a global scale. The latter point is aptly illustrated by QS (previously QS-THE) World Ranking of Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) of 2015 wherein no Indian HEI finds a place within the Top 100, the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore securing 147th position followed by the IITs within the 179-450 group in the list of 700 institutions.

The excellence of an institution by global standards is measured by the consolidated parameters of QS accreditation, namely, academic reputation (40 per cent weightage), employer reputation (10 per cent), student:faculty ratio (20 per cent), citations per faculty (20 per cent), international faculty ratio (5 per cent) and international student ratio (5 per cent). While the first two indicators are measured by primary data collected through survey by globally reputed academics and employers, the rest are determined by statistical computations of hard data provided by the HEIs.

In order to provide a level playing field to universities by removing the wide and huge differences in infrastructure etc, the ranking process has been restricted by QS Group to BRICS nations on the basis of marginally different indicators. In this ranking too, IIT Bombay occupies 13 position followed by other IITs in the 18-50 slot. The higher positions are secured by institutions in China, Russia, South Africa and Brazil. QS rankings in Asian Universities also reflect a similar trend.

Apart from international rankings, other parameters of judging quality of a HEI are employability and employer satisfaction. According to a survey conducted by World Bank and FICCI, about 64 per cent of Indian employers are “somewhat”, “not very”, or “not at all” satis?ed with the quality of engineering graduates whom they assessed to hire.  In a recent meeting with assessors of QS and other agencies, President Pranab Mukherjee expressed utter dismay over our performance and urged the Ministry of Human Resource Department (MHRD) to take suitable steps for ensuring that our HEIs climb the rankings as early as possible.

Innovation and creation of new knowledge are major areas in which universities in the developed countries have an edge over their Indian counterparts. Investment in R&D in developed countries is not limited to public funding alone. Funding from the private sector (especially industry) is equally important. This has helped universities and industries in such countries maintain their competitive edge. An analysis of global R&D investments shows that the bulk of such investments comes from countries like USA (32.4 per cent), Japan (13 per cent) and China (9.2 per cent). India&’s share remains low at 2.2 per cent. 

MHRD has identified the quality deficit as the most serious problem in our higher education system. It seems that the system has paid attention more to access and equity than to quality and excellence. This is illustrated by the number of HEIs in India, making up the third largest system in the world behind China and the United States and comprising 795 universities, 39,671 affiliated colleges, 10,15,696 teaching faculty and 2,37,64,960 students including 29,34,989 post-graduate and 2,00,730 research scholars ( 2014-15 session ). It is of course a fact the even after this, the Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) is only 19.4 per cent which means that only a fraction of the population in the age group of 18-23 years is enrolled  in colleges/universities.

In addition to very low access to higher education in general, there are wide disparities between various social groups. The GERs for SCs, STs and OBCs are far below the average GER and those of other social groups. There is also a wide gender disparity; GER for males is 20.9 per cent while that for females is only 16.5 per cent. There are also divergences in the quality of institutions, enrolments between rural and urban areas and between developed states and not so-developed ones. There is no denying that the GER is at a ridiculously low level. MHRD has vowed to increase it to 32 per cent by the end of XIII Plan.

However, the emphasis appears to be more on access, inclusivity, social justice and equity than on improving the academic infrastructure, both human and physical, the standards of teaching-learning processes and overall quality. Yet another over-emphasis has been the policy to make NAAC accreditation mandatory across the board by November 2016.

There is a broad consensus among academics and other stakeholders that our higher education system can be called an ocean of mediocrity with islands of excellence. The policy has often been to widen the base of excellence without caring to discriminate the apex. While it is erroneous to focus exclusively on these islands, the burden of public policy should be on deepening this excellence to other institutions having potential to join the league and giving liberal financial assistance. The challenge of attaining quality lies in a majority of non-elite institutions which admit most of the learners but fail miserably to render services properly. Some initiatives have been launched for 2012-17 and these include funds for expansion of physical infrastructure (more classrooms, laboratories, better and IT-based library resources, girls hostels etc ); attracting quality faculty; promoting faculty mobility; continuous faculty development programmes; reforming faculty development centres; student mobility, evaluation of teachers by students and peers and leveraging technology for curricula models.

It is heartening to note that very recently, by way of a mid-term appraisal of XII Plan goals and success rates, some new initiatives have been put in place with a view to achieve better quality and more excellence in the context of a National Education Policy initiated by the MHRD. The new National Education Policy is mandated to meet the changing dynamics of the population&’s requirement with regards to quality education, innovation and research, aiming to make India a knowledge superpower by equipping its students with the necessary skills and knowledge and to eliminate the shortage of manpower in science, technology, academics and industry.

For the first time, the Government of India is embarking on a time-bound grassroots consultative process, which will enable the MHRD to reach out to individuals across the country through over 2.75 lakh direct consultations while also taking inputs from citizens online. This is in sharp contrast to the top-down approach used so far and citizens have been encouraged to actively participate in the discussions to influence the new policy. It is expected that the new National  Education Policy will be finalised very soon.

Let us now examine the new steps launched recently in order to strengthen the over-all quality of higher education, build a durable social interface of the curricula and foster partnership between University and  Industry. There is also a focussed effort to invigorate vocationalisation of curricular work for skill development and enhanced employability keeping in mind the huge age dividend in our population, for example, a rough estimate is that half the Indians in 2020 will only be aged 30 or less. This process will have another highly desirable impact of eliminating mediocrity from admission to the post-graduate level. At present, for want of jobs, a majority of graduates seek higher education because they would otherwise be loitering on the streets.

There has until now been a legitimate inward focus – India has expanded its higher education system to an extent that is barely comprehensible from a Western perspective where, on average, around 5,000 new students have been enrolled every single day over the past five years. That is an incredible feat.

For the majority of institutions, this focus on access with equity and local priorities must continue for expanding GER and extending learning opportunities to under-represented groups, working with the local community and providing higher level vocational skills to ensure that India’s "demographic dividend"  does not turn into a demographic disaster. But for other institutions, the journey to achieve excellence must continue with renewed vigour to catch up with global benchmarks of quality in higher education. Recent initiatives of the Ministry of Human Resource Development are commendable.

The writer is former Registrar, University of North Bengal and can be reached at [email protected]