Opportunity beckons India’s higher education sector

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By Moinak Maiti

Indian higher education system is one of the largest in the world. Today India is among one of the fastest growing economies in the world and has a high share of young population. Education plays an important role in accruing the benefits of this demographic dividend. Good education not only results in individual development, but is equally important for the socioeconomic development of a nation. Indian government has taken several important steps for restructuring the education system to meet the global standards. The University Grants Commission (UGC) is the statutory body responsible for determining and maintaining standards of higher education.

The National Education Policy (NEP 2020) identified several reforms needed in India’s higher education system. Some of the focus areas of NEP 2020 are listed below.

  • Improve the overall quality of the universities and colleges
  • Holistic education and becoming large multidisciplinary institutions
  • Develop International reputation
  • Promoting High Quality Research

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Higher education institutions improve global rankings

Recently some of India’s higher education institutions were in news for the right reasons. The QS World University rankings 2022 ranked Indian Institute of Science Bangalore (IISc Bangalore) as the world’s top research university with a perfect score of 100. Three Indian universities made it to the list of top 200 QS World University 2022 rankings. Overall, 22 Indian universities made it to the top 1000 spots in the QS World University 2022 rankings. Similarly, many Indian universities achieved high ranks in the Times Higher Ranking and Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU).

These are no mean achievements as they mark the rise of many Indian universities as global leaders. Currently, India’s education budget is in the range of 3.5-4 % of the GDP. The government must consider raising it to 5-6% in coming years. The additional funding could be used to upgrade many other universities to global standards.

The department of higher education at the ministry of education has recently released the All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE) for 2019-2020. The AISHE report highlighted many heartening points. The AISHE (2019-2020) report says that there are 1043 universities, 42343 colleges and 11779 stand-alone institutions (hotel management and catering, nursing, paramedical, PGDM, teacher training, polytechnics and others) listed on the AISHE web portal. Out of these 1043 universities, 48 are central universities, 135 are institutions of national importance, and 17 of them are exclusively for women.

The number of institution of national importance has increased from 75 to 135 since 2015-2016. The gender parity index for all the social groups improved from 0.92 to 1.01 in the last five years. Improvement in the gender parity index for all social groups is a good indication of sustainable education and infrastructures development.

The AISHE (2019-2020) report also highlights that Only 4% colleges have enrolment more than 3000. This is one of the concerns not to be overlooked by the higher education institutions of India. One of the focus areas of NEP 2020 is to build infrastructure for holistic education and becoming large multidisciplinary institutions. This issue needs to be addressed more strategically for long-term sustainability.

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More research degrees, but few opportunities

The number of PhD students enrolled in Indian institutions increased to 2,02,550 in 2019-2020 from 1,26,451 students in 2015-16. This figure represents only 0.5% of the total student enrolments at all levels. Thus, the Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of PhD student enrolments was 8.5%. Likewise, the integrated student enrolment number also increased significantly to 9.8% CAGR. The higher education entities of India need to develop a strategic plan for developing and training candidates with strong research aptitude at the post graduate level.

PhD degree was awarded to 38,986 students in 2019. The state public universities (29.85%) have the highest share of PhD students followed by the institutes of national importance (23.2%), deemed universities-private (13.9%) and central universities (13.6%). Engineering and technology followed by the science streams have the highest number of PhD enrolment.

Four public state universities and four deemed universities made it to top 1,000 spots in the QS World University 2022 rankings. The higher education entities of India need to focus on these state public universities for their further holistic development in terms of funding, research infrastructure, internationalisation and skills development.

Recent trends show that the number of doctoral degrees has proliferated in recent years. At the same time the number of job opportunities for PhD holders is limited compared with the number of doctorates awarded. A job in academia is mostly desired by doctoral candidates. A small number of job opportunities also exist with the corporate R&D departments. PhD holders are definitely in high demand, but the problem is that very few PhDs know how to leverage their degree. The lack of advanced skill sets is a hurdle to find a decent engagement after PhD.

UGC recently announced an academic job portal for NET, SET, and PhD candidates. Primary aim of this job portal is to facilitate academic jobs. Soon non-academic jobs would also be listed along with timely updates. The present initiative by the UGC is definitely appreciable. It will provide a sustainable interface between the recruiters and the candidates for finding suitable jobs. Likewise individual universities, colleges and stand-alone institutions should also come forward, and maintain an updated database of their candidates in their official websites. This will improve the employment situation by disseminating information.

The Covid-19 pandemic already transformed the overall sphere of education at all levels globally. To address the pandemic crisis, all educational entities have upgraded their digital infrastructure. The post-Covid era would see significant transformation in the teaching learning model. To support innovative models, higher educational institutions need to leverage advanced technologies and need funding.

The recent trends show that higher education in India is on the right track, but there is a lot more to do. If India plays its cards well, it can achieve remarkable progress in restructuring the higher education system in the aftermath of the Covid-19 crisis. However, it would be interesting to see if the country can seize the opportunity to become a truly global leader in the education space.

(Moinak Maiti is Associate Professor, Department of Finance, National Research University-Higher School of Economics, Saint Petersburg, Russia.)