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Higher education: A long way to go

The higher education system in India needs to overcome several challenges to be at par with global university standards.

Lakshmi Iyer | New Delhi |

The higher education system in India still has a lot of challenges to overcome. The present number of institutions is much lower in accordance with the growing young population. India’s higher education Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) is at 25.8per cent and stands well below the global average of 27per cent. Though the Indian Government’s target is to achieve a GER of 30% by 2020, yet it is not very ambitious.

In addition, the performance of undergraduate (UG) students in India is considerably low, out of approximately 30 million students enrolled at UG level, only six million graduated in 2017. By 2030, India is expected to have the largest number of people of college-going age – a staggering 14 million. Currently, 889 universities educate 28.6 million students. To accommodate this huge influx of students, India will need at least another 800 new universities and 40,000 new colleges by 2030.

Also, there is a lack of Indian universities in global rankings. Only two Indian universities featured in the top 400 in the Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings, 2016-17. The competition for quality education in India can be estimated by comparing the number of students from senior secondary schools to the total number of seats available for them at top institutions. That is to say, top educational institutions such as the Indian Institute of Technology have less than 30,000 (approx.) seats across the country. The budgetary allocation in higher education is also declining. Despite a growing economy, the budget allocation by the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) for education has not grown proportionately.

Spending on education budget as a percentage of total central budget declined from 3.71 per cent in FY2018 to 3.48 per cent in FY2019. India is yet to capture its potential demographic dividend. With the rapid growth indicated by macroeconomic parameters, India remains the world’s fastest-growing economy. However, the higher education system is unable to keep pace with the potential demographic dividend, thereby producing “unemployable” youth graduates in India. As a means to improve the quality of education Industry and Academia linkages are essential to ensure that the academic curriculum is in line with the demands of the job market.

The collaborations can be facilitated through Public-Private Partnerships where the collaboration can provide high-tech industries with skilled workers who meet the standards of their industry. This will eventually facilitate skill building and meet the fast-changing employability demands. Like international universities, Indian ones can also offer short term courses for foreign students. This will ensure better recognition of Indian institutions.

To achieve this, the government must ease regulations and promote India as a destination more aggressively, which it is trying to do with the Study in India programme focused on South and East Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Professional institutions should be encouraged to collaborate with research-based academic institutions in curriculum development and skill building. The higher education sector must focus on research to develop strategies and mechanisms for the effective application of knowledge to specific national and local needs.

Research-based collaborations through faculty exchanges with domestic as well as international universities must be encouraged. This would also enable Indian universities to enter the global ranking. Universities in India may engage with emerging industries in creating internships and other short-term work opportunities for students. Industries may also partner with universities in co-developing content/programmes related to the emerging market demands. For this, universities may participate in live projects, research, training and seminars.

Industries can also benefit from such collaborations by engaging their staff in continuing education programmes and soft skills training. With institutional limitations and an increasing aspiration to experience quality education, India is turning into a significant outbound market. It is commonly believed that Indian institutions fail to cater to the changing demands of the job market and international education leads to better employment opportunities. By 2030, with India having the largest number of people of college-going age 140 million, it is expected to have a causal relationship with the volume of foreign tertiary enrolments. India is today the second largest source of international students with approximately 700,000 students studying abroad in 2018 at all levels.

The aspiring middle-class population along with prospects of experiential learning are pushing Indians to explore the overseas UG market. The annual spending by Indians for studying abroad is twice the amount allocated in the Union budget for higher education, and nearly 20 times what the Indian higher education institutions have spent on research collectively. Traditionally, the US and the UK have been the most popular destinations for Indian students. However, there has recently been a shift to countries like Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. The key reasons for the rise in student mobility to international universities are diverse cultural and socio-economic environment. There is a perception that the quality of higher education is better than India.

They provide a balance between theoretical and applied knowledge; ideal for meeting the employment criteria in leading companies. There are concerns around immigration and racism currently worldwide and traditional destinations are reeling under the impact of changing political and economic landscape. Cases in point are the USA and the UK. USA has experienced what we now call as “The Trump Effect” and UK has had the fall out of stopping post-study work permit and BREXIT. However, there are still Indian students seeking to study abroad and good quality institutions find it competitive but are still seeing the growth. Foreign universities offer a wide range of fees so that there is a university to suit each pocket and are similarly priced to some of the private universities in India.

The writer is executive director and head of education, Sannam S4 Management Services India Pvt Ltd