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Future of higher education in India
August 24, 2014, 2:40 pm

Higher education in India is undergoing considerable change. With over 600 million people in India under 25 years old, the system is under tremendous pressure to expand. India’s young population has a huge appetite for education and, as the growth in the size of the middle classes escalates, millions are increasingly able to pay for it. By 2020, India will have the largest tertiary-age population in the world and will have the second largest graduate talent pipeline globally, following China and ahead of the USA.

Government plans are in place to transform the sector over the next five years. Every aspect of higher education is being reorganised and remodelled: funding, leadership and management, quality assurance, accountability, relationships with industry, international collaboration, and the way research and teaching are conducted. If these reforms succeed, the breadth and depth of the change will be transformational.

The Indian government is planning huge expansion at all levels of education. While there is no doubt that this will be the decade of change at a transformational scale and pace, India’s rise faces daunting challenges. The education system as a whole is beset with issues of quality, access and equity, and change is happening much faster in some states than others.

The general standard of education in India is low. There are not enough places in schools, colleges or universities to cope with the enormous and increasing demand. Traditional approaches to meet this demand will not be sufficient in the time-scale needed.  With the rise of the middle classes, an increasing number of people need not rely on the state to provide an education service. As a consequence, India has seen a dramatic shift towards private provision across the entire education spectrum, including higher education. The private sector is already playing a significant role in the development of education in India, and its influence and presence will increase substantially.

Education is vital for India’s competiveness and economic growth, but also for social stability. The disparity between rich and poor is growing, and expectations on the part of young people and their parents are high. Geographical differences are vast, compounded by social divisions and inequalities in education provision.

Over the last decade, higher education has been on a steep growth trajectory. India now has the largest higher education system in the world in terms of the number of institutions, and the second largest in terms of the number of students.

However, despite impressive growth, India’s higher education gross enrolment ratio (GER) at 18 percent is currently well below the global average of 27 percent. This difference is even starker when compared to China and Brazil at 26 percent and 36 percent respectively. The government plans to increase GER in higher education to 30 percent by 2020. This will require a transformational change at a pace and scale never seen before. As India currently has 26 million students enrolled in tertiary education, by illustration, it would need another 800 universities and over 40,000 colleges in the next eight years to provide the planned additional 14 million places to reach the target of40 million places by 2020/21.

At current growth rates, India will fall very far short of this figure, therefore the Indian government has put an ambitious five-year plan into place to boost the rate of expansion significantly.

The twelfth five-year plan (2013-17) for higher education addresses three overarching challenges: excellence, equity and expansion.

Excellence: Priority issues include improvements in teaching and learning, and a focus on learning outcomes; faculty development to improve teaching; increased integration between research and teaching; more international partnerships in teaching as well as research; better links between industry and research to stimulate innovation; and connecting institutions through networks, alliances and consortia.

Equity: Further initiatives targeted at underprivileged and underserved populations in society and geography, addressing urban/rural, gender, people with disabilities and community divisions and inequities.

Expansion: Scaling up capacity in existing institutions, rather than creating many new government-funded institutions; enabling discipline diversity, counteracting the skewed growth towards engineering and other technical subjects; enabling flexible and skills-based learning; ensuring a more even spread across the country; alignment to the needs of the economy; and encouraging private investment.

There is a sense of urgency in policy makers, institution leaders and faculty to expand the system at a fast enough pace to meet the surge in demand, while increasing quality and ensuring equitable access. There is a great deal of caution about the way reforms will unfold; progress is likely to follow an unpredictable course. The federal government is enabling states and institutions more autonomy to drive through reforms, which is creating greater potential for international engagement. Indian institutions are seeking more international collaboration on their terms and which will address their challenges.

These reforms and the needs of the higher education sector have implications for future collaboration with Indian higher education. This section provides some considerations and opportunities for UK institutions as they plan for future strategic engagement with India. 

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