Nishi Malhotra

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What Ails Higher Education in India?

What Ails Higher Education in India?

In its quest to meet the goal of universal education at the primary level, India has neglected its institutions of higher learning. And we might have to pay a heavy price for that.

Ranjana has a post graduate degree in political science. A person with her academic qualification, in possibly any country in the world, would be considered capable of working with a think-tank or even in a media or research organization. But she is now toiling away in a job that millions of illiterate teenagers and women perform for lack of basic education – she is a maidservant in a middle-class home in Delhi.

Surprising as this may sound, Ranjana’s story is absolutely true. Think of it and you’ll find that we all have, sometime or the other in India, encountered graduates driving auto rickshaws, PhD holders behind retail sales counters and post grads operating neighborhood grocery shops – not out of choice but because the educational degrees they possess are worthless. Not because these people aren’t bright and industrious but because the extremely poor quality of ‘higher education’ they received has failed them, failed the resources gathered and invested by the state in educating them, and thereby failed the development needs of our nation. In this ten-point agenda prepared by Hardnews to ‘change the face of India’, upgrading the capacity and quality of higher education tops the list.

Here’s why:

Even as graduates and postgraduates continue to swell the ranks of the 41 million registered unemployed in India, virtually all sectors of industry from health to manufacturing to aviation engineering are reporting or projecting acute personnel shortages.

Low quality education

Indian higher education today does not produce enough of a workforce with relevant skills and training in disciplines needed by the nation. When it does, ironically, the education is of such poor quality that the output is ‘unemployable’ in the very sectors in which it is needed, unable to make a meaningful contribution.

The managing director of a Chennai-based manufacturer of capital machinery says: “As the CEO of a medium-size engineering company deploying multi-disciplinary technologies in its products, I grapple with the task of continuous induction and training of engineers and technicians. In 20 years at this job, a glaring lack of serious proportions became apparent. Most candidates being interviewed for technical positions and armed at the minimum with a Bachelor’s degree in engineering were found wanting in understanding the fundamentals of high school mathematics and physics. Screening tests had to be dumbed down to yield at least a minimum set of plausible candidates. Lack of conceptual clarity, inability to perceive patterns, no competence in applying concepts to diverse areas, are some of the issues that I confronted. And yet, the so called ‘first class’ graduates were quick to recite arcane formulas by rote, but without conceptual clarity. I came to the sad conclusion that 70 percent of the candidates are not employable and considerable fundamental re-education would be entailed in preparing them to deliver results at work.”

The capacity is not great either

If the quality of education is low, the capacity is not great either. Only 8 percent of India’s population in the college going age-group enrolls for higher education. Most seats in the best institutions and universities are competed for and taken by the brightest high school graduates: these prime portals of higher learning today do not serve the needs of the country or act as feeder institutes to universities abroad.

Besides the brain drain, the flight of capital is immense – India has now become a net consumer of foreign education with Indian parents paying to the tune of $3 billion a year to educate their children abroad. Expert guesstimates, based on the current employment scenario, suggest that as many as 70 percent of these children are unlikely to return to work or resettle in India - they have flown the coop for good.

There is an urgent need to increase, both by expansion and upgradation, the number of quality higher education institutions that can teach and train, in relevant disciplines, the bright and perfectly capable high school graduates who have not necessarily scored 90+ or even 80+ percentages in CBSE or other school- leaving exams.

Many of them cannot afford to go abroad or have no ambitions in that direction. They are, however, desperate for a good education, not the kind they receive in the second and third-grade colleges they are forced to enroll in, to do irrelevant general courses. More importantly, the country desperately needs them - they are the raw material from which a future knowledge economy can be fashioned.

Where did India go wrong?

Why has the supply not kept up with the demand? And why has higher education in India been neglected for so long?

There are other answers as well but the most crucial perhaps is what Dr Amartya Sen, Nobel Prize winner for Economics, once said: “Fifty years of under-investment in education are at the root of all the development ills of India today.”

It was way back in 1965 that the Kothari Commission recommended the country spend at least 6 percent of its GDP on education, as against the 3.5 percent being spent. More than 40 years later, not a percentage point has changed. And of this amount, the maximum funds received by the higher education sector were 25 percent during the 4th five-year-plan. By the time the 8th five-year-plan rolled around, the expenditure had dived to a mere 7 percent; it continues to slide further.

It is understandable that India wanted to meet the goal of primary education for all. But ignoring higher education in favor of ‘lower education’ has turned out to be the equivalent of feeding infants at the expense of adolescents – the latter have been starved of the nourishment needed to meet the challenges of adulthood. The result is visible: unless immediate action is taken, India will face an acute shortfall of knowledgeable manpower in the coming years – at a time when it is most required for the country to be competitive in a global economy.

Numbers Don't Lie

  • 2 million of the several million students graduating from the 12th standard every year in India have good to acceptable skills in English, science and mathematics. About 75 percent of them end up in low quality colleges, teaching shops and engineering colleges.
  • Of the 3 million students graduating from Indian universities each year, only 25 percent of engineering graduates and 10-15 percent of general college graduates are considered suitable for employment in the offshore IT industry, says Nasscom. The Indian IT sector will face a shortfall of 5,00,000 professionals by 2010. Shortages are already kicking in even though only 10 per cent of an estimated ‘addressable’ market of $300 billion for global off- shoring is being tapped today.
  • Less than 8 percent of India’s college-going age group is enrolled in the college and university system. The worldwide enrollment ratio for all developing nations is 11 percent, while for the developed countries it is 37 percent.
  • In the next five years, India’s working age population will increase by 71 million, from 691 million to 762 million.
  • India has a five million strong academic community, most of it dysfunctional by standard yardsticks; amount of research, papers published, doctorates earned, etc.
  • Only three Indian institutions of higher learning rank among the world’s top 500.
  • Premier Indian institutions of higher learning like the IITs and Delhi School of Economics face faculty shortages of up to 40 percent.
  • India has become a net consumer of higher education, spending almost $3 billion a year to educate students abroad. Yet, the Indian education system is not able to mobilize funds from students at home. Indian students, whose fees are paid by their parents, have become net subsidizers of British higher education.
  • The largest number of foreign students at American universities comes from India, about 80,000.
  • For every patent held by an Indian, Indians abroad hold 28,000 patents.
  • The current size of Indian higher education system -- 356 universities, 17,625 colleges, 10.5 million students. Almost 80 percent of higher education is publicly funded while 20 percent is privately funded.


Professor N.S. Ramaswamy is the former founder director of the National institute of Technical & industrial Engineering in Mumbai, the Jamnalal Bajaj institute of Management Studies, Mumbai, and the Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore. He is currently the Bangalore- based founder-trustee of the Centre for Action Research & Technology for Man, Animal & Nature, as well as the Indian Heritage Academy. His recommendations to Hardnews:

  • Sectors and communities that can afford should pay the cost of education. Unaided institutions should be allowed to fix fees that students and parents are prepared to pay. The government should take care of the needs of the poor, weak, backward, handicapped sections by providing free or subsidised education from LKG to PG Levels.
  • Deregulation and public-private partnerships should be the guiding direction for reform. Private sector’s entry into education should be encouraged and supported by way of subsidised land, soft credit for buildings and equipment, autonomy in operations and management and government recognition. At present, educational institutions have little or no autonomy. Central and state governments are interfering far too much, in fixing fees, seat allocation, quotas, etc.
  • There is no need to subsidise IITs and IIMs. Cost per seat in the IIMs is about Rs 5 lakh per year. The fees are only Rs. 1.5 lakh. By fixing the fees at Rs 5 lakhs, IIMs can earn Rs. 30 crore more per year, the surplus of which can be utilized for starting new IIMs every year. Salaries of IIM graduates range from Rs. 8 lakh to Rs. 60 lakh per year. They can easily afford Rs. 5 lakh fees which they can recover in two to three year’s time.
  • The present practice of providing faculty quarters and student hostels should be limited to specific institutions. In most parts of the world, faculty quarters and student hostels are not provided. 
  • Most of our physical facilities are underutilized. Institutions work only for 200 days a year and that too for six hours a day. This is a criminal waste of resources. This will, by itself, double the capacity.
  • Parents cannot always produce brilliant children of A category. An enlightened society should provide quality educational facilities for all categories: say B, C and D categories of applicants also. 
  • There should be a high level accreditation authority that would recommend accreditation and disqualification for all institutions – public and private. The present procedure is ineffective and cumbersome.
  • There is a serious shortage of teachers in engineering and management institutions. Government can subsidise this effort.
  • Workloads in IIMs and post-graduate institutions in the universities are very low compared to Western standards. Most teachers work less than 100 hours a year, which is ridiculous. There are teachers who do a lot of research and bring out publications. They need teach only 100 hours. But there are a large number of faculty who do not do research or bring out publications. They should put in more number of hours in the classrooms. 
  • Teachers Training Institutions (TTIs) should be started. For polytechnics there are TTIs.
  • Education means character building. Very little attention is being given to inculcation of ethical values. India’s heritage in science, mathematics, culture, music, dance, yoga meditation, philosophy, spirituality, does not find a place in today’s education. Students should be given inputs to foster national integration, inter-religious and inter-caste harmony, pluralist human values, civic consciousness, environmental awareness. 
  • The present rigid curriculum should be replaced by an open system. Every student need not stick to a two year or four year programme. Flexibility can be brought in by having modules and credit courses. This will enable students to take up courses at their own pace. Some can take light loads and others heavy ones. 
  • Teachers should be allowed to take up jobs in the industry and then come back to teach. The rigid system of government employment with pay scales, annual increments, various kinds of allowance, pension, etc., should be replaced by a flexible system.
  • Now the exam system is merely memorizing and reproducing. Application of mind is not encouraged. The present system of exams should be replaced with classroom assessment, extracurricular activities, social work, etc., and a final exam.
  • Out of 20,000 students applying for IIM, hardly 2,000 get in. Many go abroad after being educated at subsidised IITs and IIMs. All those who go abroad should be asked to remit a certain amount back home. Or make a concrete contribution as payback.

(This article was first published in Hardnews magazine (under the heading “This High is Low) in January, 2007.)

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