The higher education system in India is one of the largest in the world with 51,649 institutions. The enrolments have also seen a significant four-fold increase. Despite the increased access, challenges remain. Insufficient funding, overarching regulations, low employability of graduates and poor quality of teachers plague the sector.
In a panel discussion by the US-based think tank The Brookings Institution on reviving higher education in India, experts weigh in on the disruption required in the sector.
Prof V. Ramgopal Rao, Director at IIT Delhi says one needs a financial model in place to take IITs to the next level. "One cannot run these institutions like another department in the government, which is currently the case. My biggest challenge today is we have created IITs but there is no financial model to run them."
He explains that the investment for these premier institutes depends on the budget decided by the Ministry of Human Resource Development, which is not linked to either the number of students in the campus, the research requirements or the numbers of papers published. "I do not know how much money I will receive next year."
The premier institutes in the US get one-third of their revenues from fees, another one-third from the endowment fund and another one-third from research fund. Among IITs in India, all three revenue means are absent. "We need Rs 700 crore every year to run IIT Delhi and fees constitute only five per cent of the total budget," says Rao. IIT Delhi recently launched its global alumni endowment fund but the concern is all funds received by the institute become 'government money'. Another key challenge is overarching regulations and lack of autonomy with the institutes to take decisions. The higher education sector needs to be regulated to ensure quality education and equity and social justice, as well as to prevent unfair practices. But, the sector has been over-regulated since independence, leading to several inefficiencies. Brookings' report "Reviving Higher Education in India" finds that there are 14 regulatory bodies in the higher education sector in India across general education, technical education and professional education.
The major chunk of higher education institutions (HEIs) in India fall under the affiliating university model where the supervisory authority for most colleges is the university or a government authority. They often lack the capacity to effectively regulate their colleges and hold them accountable.
Having autonomous institutes is an option but they constitute a very small per cent (only 2.1%) of the total number of HEIs in the country. Earlier instances, says the Brookings report, have found that autonomous HEIs are at an advantage since they have the power to constitute their own academic councils and make decisions on academic matters.
Prof Pankaj Chandra, Vice Chancellor of Ahmedabad University, says, "An institution is about people, its processes, it's about the aspiration of that institution and not the aspiration of the regulatory body." He suggests for a robust accreditation process. "The way we do accreditation currently is by giving grades and numbers, which is not an enabling mechanism. One needs to look at one institution at the time, get a mentor to work with this institution, identify its weaknesses, build the capabilities that are needed and then enable it to move up the ladder," he says.
Several of these issues have been there for the last 20 years but not much has changed. Today, we have reached a flash-point where one needs urgent reforms. Pramath Raj Sinha, Founder and Managing Director of online professional education platform Harappa Education calls for disruption in the sector. He says, "Increasing institutes capacity, improving student faculty ration are all incremental measures. We need to come up with an alternative model for education to teach at scale the 25 billion Indians and meet their aspirations." There are no answers yet, and that is where the opportunity is.