Higher Education in India: Issues

A UGC report of 2003 has recognised knowledge as a prime driver of Indian economy, with it being expected to infuse into all the strata of Indian society leading to a better quality of life and living conditions. 

More recently, knowledge is increasingly being recognised for its major role in development in various fields and has infact emerged as a driver of tomorrow’s economy; the ‘knowledge society’ which was envisaged by Peter Drucker where knowledge will be a major resource and knowledge workers a dominant work force is true in the 21st century (Shah, 2010). Ram (2010) underscores this viewpoint as he points out that higher education will be a key driver in an increasingly globalized and knowledge driven world.


Higher education is credited for India to emerge as a country known and accepted for its ‘knowledge prowess’ throughout the world, a system that creates a workforce known for its excellence in the field of information technology and technological innovations (Shah, 2010).


Despite higher education being recognized as a powerful tool to build a knowledge-based information society of the 21st Century, the system in India has many issues of concern at present, like financing and management including access, equity and relevance, reorientation of programmes by laying emphasis on health consciousness, values and ethics and quality of higher education together with the assessment of institutions and their accreditation. (UGC, 2003). 


This paper aims to bring out some challenges facing higher education in general. The paper then narrows to addressing the issue of quality of higher education, measured by various parameters, chief among them being employability of students. 


Issues facing higher education:


Decline in Quality: One of the surest signs of quality of the products of institutions is the acceptability in the employment market (Singh, 2012).  As a reflection of this ‘sign of quality’, a report by ASSOCHAM, brings out that 90% of the fresh graduates of India’s universities are found lacking in terms of knowledge and skills needed by employers in business, industries, government and social services (Ghanchi, 2012). While higher  education has increased its institutional capacity since independence, whereby number of universities has increased 20 times, number of teachers has also increased manifold, resulting in greater enrolment of students, there is a marked decline in the quality of education as a result of mushrooming colleges which have earned the disrepute of being ‘degree shops’ and at present, Ram (2010) claims the country’s higher education sector is failing with only 7% of Indians going to college; 99% of them receive indifferent teaching in poor classroom conditions , a lack of libraries, laboratories and computers and 80% are unemployable. According to the ‘Academic Ranking of World Universities’ for the year, 2008, only 0.5% of India’s total universities, i.e. only 2 qualified in the top 500 universities worldwide, and that too in low ranks. 


Inadequate physical infrastructure: Quality education is possible when facilities, resources and technologies are upgraded. For this state funding is needed which has infact been declining over the years, requiring universities to raise their own resources However, the 11th Plan has proposed the ‘Bridging of Quality Gap’ between A and C grade universities and colleges by providing financial assistance to C grade institutions to improve their infrastructure. (Ram, 2010). 


Faculty: Availability of adequate and qualified faculty is a prerequisite of quality education. However, availability of adequate faculty is a serious impediment due to various recruitment restrictions, such that universities and colleges have employed temporary and ad-hoc faculty (Ram, 2010). At a convocation ceremony in a university, D. Purandeswari , Honorable Minister of a state for HRD, stated excellence in institutions in higher education can be sustained only through highly motivated teachers carrying out high quality research and development. 

However, Varghese (2010) states that the education system faces a ‘crushing faculty shortage (pp.91) such that 25% of teaching positions nationwide are vacant and those being recruited not having the prescribed qualifications. Basumajumdar (2010) puts forth the need for Performance Appraisal as a tool for professional development in higher education, while acknowledging that quality of teaching vis-à-vis performance of any institution is determined by various external and internal factors.


Excessive regulation and corruption: Political interference has been detrimental to the higher education. In the recent years, opening of deemed universities was introduced to ease the rigidity of the system of higher education. However, to compliment this move, there was no new institutional set-up, nor any expansion of the existing mechanism to cope with the expansion, resulting in corruption entering the higher education system (Palanithurai, 2010). Infact, Sharma (2009) believes the whole education system is caught up in corruption and thus, not delivered the goods needed to the economy, people being exploited and adding to the problem of unemployment (Palanithurai, 2010). 


Disparities in Higher education: Expansion in higher education is critical especially with respect to access and provision. While there has been considerable expansion of education, much of disparities with regards to gender, social groups like SC/ST, minorities, regions, etc. has remained unaddressed in the case of higher education. (Siddique, 2010).


Higher Education run as business: Poor performance of the regulatory mechanism for supervision of the functioning of higher education institutions (Ramachandran, 2009) has resulted in  a number of purely temporary and driven by profit motive with poor quality of professionals and inadequate facilities, exploiting the increased aspiration needs of the middle class and the poor as well as the existing, weak and corrupt regulatory mechanism , producing students of poor quality , below the market expectations ((Palanithurai, 2010).


Low reach of higher education: At present the gross enrolment ratio (GER) in India is a mere 11%. In other words, while the Indian higher education is large in numbers, it caters to the needs of only 11% of the target, i.e. the youth population in the age group of 18-24 years. As per UNESCO estimates, at least 20% GER is necessary for rapid socio-economic development of a country. Thus, the Indian education system needs to expand fast to cater to the increasing student population. However, such a rapid expansion may further worsen the quality issue faced by the higher education in India (Chouhan, 2010). The National Knowledge Commission Report (2006) also acknowledges this issue that while India need to increase its universities to 1500 so as to attain a GER of 15% by 2015, it is equally important to raise the average quality of higher education in all aspects(Chouhan, 2010).


Quality of Indian Universities: Research : It has been seen that not more that 20% of all students enrolled in a doctoral research programme complete their work and almost 80% drop out. A lack of motivation amongst university faculty to conduct and supervise research also stems from unavailability of good research students and a lack of professional incentive for research (Palanithurai, 2010). However, to increase research output, the UGC began giving scholarships to students enrolled for a PhD in central universities, which, no doubt is a move in the right direction, but ignores State universities. Another malady of this scheme has been students are enrolling for doctoral programmes for the scholarships and not for research. Research is an intellectual endeavour requiring talented persons with high levels of interest, aptitude and motivation and scholarship for all cannot automatically generate interest and aptitude for research (Chouhan, 2010). The implication thus seems to be scholarships need to be awarded to deserving candidates with potential for quality research. 


Quality-Monitoring: For quality control mechanism, the government created some regulatory bodies such as MCI, AICTE, NCTE to oversee various professional institutions –however, these regulatory bodies themselves became known for corruptions with case of bribery and giving recognition to dubious institutions (Chouhan, 2010). In a welcome move, in the direction of quality assessment, the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) was set up by the UGC in 1994 to evaluate and grade performances of institutions in higher education. However, NAAC has been extremely slow in assessing and accrediting existing universities and colleges in the country . NAAC’s poor functioning has been exposed when it provided A grades to deemed to be universities, many of which were among the list of 44 deemed to be universities decided to be closed by the MHRD as they did not deserve even a deemed to be university status. (Chouhan, 2010). However, Ingle (2010) believes both NAAC and NBA are heading in the right direction and should be encouraged and strengthened. 


While the discussion till now brought forth the broad challenges in the higher education sector, the paper narrows down to an area of what the authors believe is a pressing matter: the relevance of higher education and its quality. 


Kurup (2010) writes there is no consensus in what quality of higher education really means. 

Our perspective of quality of higher education stems from some stated objectives of higher education. The Ramamurthy Committee identifies Excellence, Efficiency and Equity as the objectives of higher education in India (Kurup, 2010). According to Rao (2010), higher education should address the ultimate aim of the graduating students, which , it can easily be assumed is to finds suitable employment in the job market. Gogoi (2010) quotes the report of the World Bank (1994) stating that institutions of higher education are primarily responsible for equipping individuals with the advanced knowledge and skills needed for positions in government, business and professions. 


But as the reports of ASSOCHAM point out these objectives are not being met by higher education. Even from the point of Fitness of Purpose (Employability ), NASSCOM and McKinsey reports brings out that not even 10% of students graduating from general higher education and 25% from technical institutions are directly employable in modern institutions.(Kurup, 2010). 


Apart from the objectives listed above, the authors believe higher education must address the objectives aimed at individual students which we propose would be the following:


i. To develop good, responsible citizens grounded in ethical values and strong character

ii. Individual should feel he/she is not a burden of the family, but instead is one who adds to the economic sustenance and growth of his/her family

iii. Individuals should make fruitful contributions to the society at large

iv. The education should build self-esteem in the individual to live life with dignity and economic independence

v. Individuals coming out of our higher education system should have strong value system 

vi. Individual should develop and grow in the field or discipline chosen allowing further career growth and a life with financial security. 


The authors also contend that provision of placements in companies should not be an objective or responsibility of higher education institutions; instead higher education should itself produce employable students. In other words, higher education institutions are taking on the role of placement agencies which is a development taking higher education away from its primary purpose that of providing quality higher education and developing individuals for career in their chosen discipline.


Gogoi (2010) lists Employability skills to include:

i. basic skills such as oral communication, reading-understanding and following instructions, basic arithmetic, writing-writing draft, letters, application;

ii. higher-order thinking skills such as problem solving, learning skills and strategizing, creative and innovative thinking, decision making

iii. affective domains and traits which include dependability, responsibility, positive attitude towards work, conscientiousness, punctuality, efficiency, interpersonal skills, team worker, adaptability, enthusiasm, self-management and other area of a positive personality.


Amongst these, the author points out communication, ability to work with others and conflict resolution are becoming increasingly important. Further, Rao (2010) adds employability of graduates includes subject knowledge of discipline studied; attitude formation, inculcation of values, general competencies –ability to express and special competencies related to the discipline.  


Reasons attributed to poor employability skills :


1. Outdated and irrelevant curriculum: The contents of courses taught which are mostly theoretical and conceptual in nature and the abilities and skills required needed for practical real life situations explains in  part why higher education is not attaining its objective of creating employable students.


2. The traditional examination system aim to test the students’ learning abilities and writing skills to answer a few questions normally asked and do not test abilities needed to face work related responsibilities (Rao, 2010).


3. A major factor attributed to poor quality in terms of poor employability of students is a poor research and industry interface (Kurup, 2010) whereby Universities have failed to promote development related research and industry/user-sector relationship. 


The Future:


To understand the problem afflicting the higher education institutions , the government of India constituted committees resulting in the Knowledge Commission Report, the University Grants Commission Report and the Yashpal Committee Report: all the three reports stress the need for revamping the entire higher education system (Siddiqui, 2010). 


Some Recommendations in committee reports and by experts include: 


Curriculums need to be reoriented to address the need for more sustainable production and consumption patterns. In other words, the curriculum needs to address the needs of the market. Provision of a relevant curriculum also includes providing locally and culturally appropriate, reflecting the environmental, economic and social conditions of the targeted community. 

Improved teacher management through the use of appropriate performance and assessment strategies. Various government elected committees also have emphasized higher quality of teachers in larger numbers by recommending introduction of performance based incentives to teachers in higher education; NET being the minimum eligibility criteria; faculty members without M. Phil. and Ph.D. should get an opportunity to do so through faculty development programmes. 

For academic-industry interface, mechanisms such as MOU, tie-ups, partnerships, alliance in the corporate world, Indian Universities and research institutions have started to take shape such as the MOU signed between Indian Institute of Chemical Technology (IICT) and Innocentive, a US based e-business company. With such encouraging developments as such knowledge sharing becomes a regular feature, it should ensure sustainability of knowledge management programmes.

An action plan is being envisaged for an emphasis to be placed on the 3 Ts: tools, technology and talent .  

To build a high quality education system, adequate funding must be made available by the Central and State governments to improve quality, at the same time, making higher education affordable and thus, increasing access.

Academic reforms are recommended such that academicians and educationists should find the needs and requirements of students and society in terms of skills and administer changes based on such findings. 

Administrative reforms through governance by Central and State universities and Ministry of Human Resource Development or the respective administrative ministry. This also involves developments in policy formulation, accountability and finance. 

The authors also put forth that top higher education systems such as IIMs and IITs , which are given considerable support from the government should be held responsible for making meaningful contribution to the Indian economy and society by producing competent human resources for the same , rather than creating students to fill jobs in multinational companies or companies located abroad. 


In conclusion, it may be said, the Higher Education System in India while critical for the development of the economy is afflicted with some serious concerns. It is a long way from a transformational change which is envisaged by various committees. However, recommendations if implemented can pave a way towards at least a beginning of Higher Education moving in the right direction and with time, it may evolve into the critical driver of the Indian economy that it is to be.  


UGC (2003), “Higher Education in India: Issues, Concerns and New Direction”      Recommendations of UGC Golden Jubilee Seminars


 Ram, A, (2010), “Perspective and Issues in Higher Education”, University News, Vol. 48, No. 28


Siddique, M.A. (2010) , “Rural-urban Disparity in Higher Education”, University News, Vol. 48, No.28


Palanithurai, G. (2010), “Higher Education: Where are we Leading”, University News, Vol. 48, No. 28


Chouhan, C.P.S. (2010), “Are We Heading Towards World Class Universities?”, University News, Vol. 48, No. 28


Varghese, M.A. (2010), “Quality Impediments in Higher Education”, University News, Vol. 48, No. 28


Kurup, M.R., (2010), “Quality of Higher Education: Impediments and Initiatives”, University News, Vol. 48, No. 28


Rao, N. (2010), “Strategic Model for Employable Graduates”, University News, Vol. 48, No. 28


Gogoi, L, (2010), “Developing Employability: A Task Ahead for Higher Education Institutions”, University News, Vol. 48, No. 28