It is widely recognised that higher education is the key to individual prosperity, economic security, social progress and the enduring strength of democracy. Wide access, equity and diversity in higher education are regarded as essential if higher education is to effectively contribute to the development of societies in economic, social, political, cultural and technological spheres – both at national and global levels. Besides producing a huge set of externalities, as a public (or at least as a quasi-public) good, higher education is considered one of the most important instruments to break poverty-related constraints and other structural issues of deprivation and inequality by offering fast upward mobility on the occupational, economic and social ladder to everyone in society. The overall gains, or even narrowly defined economic pay-offs from equitable education, are generally found to outweigh the losses in efficiency, if any.
Higher education in India has expanded quickly in the post-Independence period – from an extremely small base consisting of 32 universities, 700 colleges and 0.4 million students at the inception of planning in the country in 1950–51, to more than 900 universities, 42,000 colleges and about 35 million students in 2017–18. There are also more than 1.4 million teachers in the system. In terms of the current size, the higher education system in India is the second largest in the world, next only to China; the United States system now ranks after India.
These numbers have led to the observation that our higher education system is about to enter the phase of “massification” or mass higher education, though the gross enrolment ratio (GER) is only around 25 percent currently. (It is generally felt that a ratio of 40 percent or can qualifies a country as moving into the phase of massification).
The phenomenal expansion of higher education during the post-Independence period has contributed a lot to the socio-economic development of the country in several spheres. At the same time, it suffers from severe inadequacies, if not failures.
Realising that higher education is essential for the social and economic transformation of the nation, India, like many other developing and advanced societies, intends to reform higher education in a big way to widen access, improve equity, raise standards and excellence, and promote diversity in higher education. However, again like many other countries, India faces several kinds of dilemmas in reforming and rejuvenating its higher education system. Often, choices have to be made between expansion and excellence, and between equity and excellence, as the strategies that promote each might be mutually conflicting. For example, plans for the massive expansion of higher education are accompanied by limited budgetary allocations.
Similarly, intentions to promote participation of the disadvantaged strata of society are accompanied by expansion of full-cost-recovering and profit-seeking private institutions, rather than subsidised public higher education. It is somehow presumed that private institutions will improve equity, access and quality in higher education. The strategies adopted include a basket of measures, prominent among them being the promotion of the private sector, increased reliance on cost-recovery measures such as student fees and student loans, and internationalisation of higher education.
Globalisation, along with liberalisation, marketisation and privatisation, has added new dimensions to the reforms, necessitating that the higher education system be responsive, inter alia, to the changing national and global circumstances, and to the state and society on the one hand, and markets on the other, simultaneously. Globalisation and internationalisation has also hastened the spread of new values and approaches into even those societies vehemently opposed to market-oriented views on education. The Indian higher education system has not been able to withstand this strong global tide.
Debates on whether higher education is a public good or not are also gaining momentum. The role of the state in higher education is under attack; public financing of higher education is discouraged and cost-recovery mechanisms have been introduced, the most important among them being student fees and student loans, besides enabling the rapid growth of private education. Today, the major dilemmas revolve around three areas: how to choose among the alternative methods of financing higher education, the role of the private sector vis-à-vis the state and the selection of appropriate modes of internationalisation.
A system that has been predominantly funded by the state for centuries faces the task of generating resources from several non-conventional, non-state sources. The role of the state in not only funding higher education, but also in the overall development of higher education is being questioned, as the private sector tends to grow at an alarming rate. How do we internationalise the higher education system while protecting and promoting our national values and concerns at the same time? At a fundamental level, the higher education system has to address the issue of the elusive triangle of quantity, equity and quality, and ensure a delicate balance between these.
Faced with the dilemma of setting up a few world class universities as against investing in the advancement of quality in the system as a whole, the government initiated a few reforms – recognising a handful “institutions of eminence” and liberally supporting them by granting them a high degree of autonomy and liberal public funding, with the hope that some of them may turn out to be world-class universities. Based on rankings under the National Institute Ranking Framework (NIRF) and the scores received from the accreditation agency (National Assessment and Accreditation Council), a few institutions are also granted a high degree of autonomy under the graded autonomy policy that was recently introduced.
A few selected institutions are also allowed to recruit foreign faculty on temporary basis to address the questions of faculty shortage on the one hand, and deteriorating quality in higher education. Accreditation of higher education institutions has been made mandatory and new accreditation mechanisms are being thought of. Is the system too much regulated?
To improve governance of higher education system, proposals to replace the existing regulating bodies like the University Grants Commission (UGC) are under serious consideration. But the system is also so large and diverse that all the existing institutions cannot be done away with. The dilemma here is to restructure UGC or replace it with some other body; and replace or restructure only UGC or all the regulating bodies in higher education.
Many of such dilemmas are not only educational in nature, but are also social, economic and political, requiring a broader and holistic vision and longterm policy for the development of the nation and its higher education system.
JANDHYALA B.G. TILAK
Jandhyala B. G. Tilak is Distinguished Professor at the Council for Social Development, New Delhi, and the former Vice-Chancellor and Professor at the National University of Educational Planning and Administration, New Delhi, India.