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Higher Education in India – road ahead

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A review of our education policy has been long overdue. The first National Policy on Education NPE was promulgated by the Government of India by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1968, the second by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1986, and the third by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2020. The new national education policy replaces the previous National Policy on Education, 1986. The policy is a comprehensive framework for elementary education to higher education as well as vocational training in both rural and urban India. The policy aims to transform India’s education system by 2030.

The Literacy Conundrum

Literacy and level of education are basic indicators of the level of development achieved by a society. The spread of literacy is generally associated with important traits of modern civilisation such as modernisation, urbanisation, industrialisation, communication and commerce. Literacy forms an important input in the overall development of individuals enabling them to comprehend their social, political and cultural environment better and respond to it appropriately.

Despite Government programmes, India’s literacy rates have only increased marginally over the years. The 2011 census indicated a literacy growth of 9.2 per cent which was slower than the growth rate seen during the previous decade. An analytical 1990 study estimated that it would take until 2060 for India to achieve universal literacy at the then-current rate of progress. Has the state changed today or are we still saddled with an ordained fait accompli?

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Higher education and literacy levels lead to greater awareness and also contributes to the improvement of social and economic conditions. A mother who is educated will always ensure that her children are well brought up with the desired ethical and moral values. It acts as a catalyst for social upliftment enhancing the returns on investment made in almost every field be it population control, health, hygiene, environmental awareness and so on.

It may be a revelation but is a fact that India has the largest population of illiterates in the World, i.e. 287 million, which is 37% of the global total. The UNESCO data of literacy formulated in the year 2018, for the period 1981-2018, gives India a literacy rate of 74%. There is a substantial gap in the male and female literacy in our country which is almost 17%. The literacy gap is higher in the more populous states, like Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh ranging from 20% to 29%.

It is these states which would need to gear up their act to address this important aspect of national growth. The aspect of dropout rate is equally alarming especially at the secondary levels, which is pegged at almost 18%.

Review of New Education Policy 2020

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These are important issues concerning our nation and therefore the New Education Policy announced by the Government of India (NEP 2020) was a welcoming change and fresh news amidst all the negativities surrounding the world due to the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic. The new policy covers all relevant issues in the most pragmatic manner and has focussed both upon school education as well as higher education. It is therefore important to understand how the issue of higher education has been dealt with, is the measures outlined implementable, and are the timelines realistic and what would be the cause-effect relation in the times to come. We would also endeavour to recommend areas where this new policy must focus to bring about the desired results.

Higher education in India has grown in a remarkable way particularly in the post-independence period to have become the largest system of its kind in the World. However, the system has many issues of concern at present like financing and management including access, equity and relevance, re-orientation of programmes by laying emphasis on health consciousness, values and ethics and quality of higher education together with the assessment of institutions and their accreditation. These issues are important for the country as it is now engaged in the use of higher education as a powerful tool to build a knowledge-based information society for the 21st century.

The universities today have to perform multiple roles, like creating new knowledge domains, acquiring new capabilities and producing an intelligent human resource pool through challenging teaching, research and extension activities so as to balance both the need and the demand.

Multi-Disciplinary approach to HEI

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The first important aspect highlighted in the NEP 2020, is moving the higher education system towards a multi-disciplinary approach consisting of large multi-disciplinary universities and colleges with at least one in or near every district. The aim of this entire exercise is to have large multi-disciplinary clusters with each cluster having 3000 students or more. The period set to achieve this is by the year 2040. This is indeed a laudable concept as probably the US Model of Stanford/MIT has been mentioned but will it work in our country due to our vast geographical spread, where land is at a premium especially in urban areas, where the rural areas are still underdeveloped and students largely migrate to better cities. What about the patriarchal society in rural areas where the girl child is discouraged for higher education? The United States does not have these issues; therefore the Stanford Model may not be relevant here. 

A more workable method could be of going in for a private-public partnership model by inviting large corporate houses like Reliance, Tata, Adani etc to set up institutions in rural areas giving them land at discounted rates, a fee structure based on economic conditions of students, a minimum salary structure for teachers with assured housing facilities to make it lucrative for them to re-locate and other hygiene measures. As a first step, this model must be applied in states like Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, where the literacy rates are very low.

The second important measure should be to crack down on mushrooming institutions that have set up shop across the country and are devoid of basic educational infrastructure, lack of good teaching faculties and poor strength of students. The accreditation teams must get into their act. A vast pool of retired educationists, as well as ex-servicemen from the defence services, are available, who could be co-opted for this task.

Proliferation of Educational Institutions

Today, the bane of higher education is the proliferation of a large number of educational institutions as centres of business. We have people with hardly any experience or educational background starting these institutions and translating them into money-making machines. A survey done in 2021 brings out the fact that today we have 3500 engineering colleges, 3400 polytechnics and 200 schools of planning and architecture, apart from many industrial trading institutes in the country. These produce about one million engineering graduates every year. As per recent data, more than 45% of seats in the first year UG courses were vacant in Maharashtra. The same would hold good for other states as well.

All India Council of Technical Education (AICTE) called for a two-year ban on new engineering institutes from the academic year 2020-21. However, the move seems to have done little to arrest the problem of vacant seats. The data obtained from AICTE has shown that the total intake capacity of engineering institutes across India has reduced by more than 21% in the past five years. Over 90% of vacant seats are in private unaided engineering institutes.

A similar scenario is seen with regard to management institutes offering MBA and other allied management courses. Barring a handful of top business schools like the IIMs, most B-schools in the country are producing sub-par graduates who are largely unemployable and therefore earning less than ₹ 10,000 a month, if, at all they find a job, a report has pointed out. The report also observed that while on average each student spends nearly ₹ 3-5 lakh on a two-year MBA programme, their current monthly salary is a measly ₹ 8,000 to ₹ 10,000.

A report from industry body ASSOCHAM blames the lack of quality control and infrastructure, low-paying jobs through campus placement and poor faculty as the major reasons behind the unfolding B-school disaster.

The report also says that only 7 per cent of the MBA graduates are actually employable. There are at least 5,500 B-schools in the country at present, but including unapproved institutes could take that number much higher, the report said.  “The quality of higher education in India across disciplines is poor and does not meet the needs of the corporate world,” Assocham Secretary General D S Rawat said. Therefore, just going in for a multi-disciplinary approach may not work for us. We will need to first address the core issues as outlined above.

Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) 

Another recommendation of NEP 2020, which has been made, is to develop this Higher Educational Institutes (HEI) in underserved areas to ensure full access, equity and inclusion. It has been proposed to increase the Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) in higher education from 26.13 %( 2018) to 50 %( 2030).

This is easier said than done. The first important aspect to consider is to make higher education more affordable and at the same time ensuring that the quality of teaching is not compromised. Today what attracts the students to join an educational institution is three major aspects namely cost factor/fees, quality of the institution and placement record. If these aspects could be addressed the GER will definitely go up.

Six Indian states namely Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Karnataka account for more than 54% of the total student’s enrolment in higher education. We will have to focus on other states too to bring up this percentage.

Of the 39,931 colleges across the country, 50 districts (out of 371) account for more than 32% of enrolment. As a result of this, although the college density (per lakh eligible population) is 28 nationally, it varies from 7 in Bihar to 53 in Karnataka. Such spatial disparity is an impediment towards increasing the GER at a brisk pace. For the disadvantaged sections of the society, the opportunity cost of higher education (commute, hostel fees etc) is often too high and hinders the education process. It can even be the determining factor for choosing a higher education institution or opting to forego the same. Since market forces have played a major role in the higher education landscape, geographical equity has become elusive. Policy interventions for access to HEIs will be essential to match the increasing social aspirations and increasing the GER.

A very laudable initiative of the new educational policy is the independence given to institutes to innovate in matters of curriculum, pedagogy and assessment within a broad framework of higher educational qualifications. This will certainly improve the quality content and applicability of the education being imparted. An industry interface would be a prerequisite since the students should be made future-ready and acquire those skills which would get them easy employability.

Transformation of the Regulatory System

The new policy also touches upon the transformation of the regulatory system of higher education. This new system would ensure that distinct functions of regulation, accreditation, funding and academic standard setting will be performed by distinct, independent and empowered bodies. Four verticals would be set up under one umbrella which is the Higher Education Council of India (HECI). The University Grants Commission (UGC) will cease to exist. All India Council of Technical Education (AICTE) and the National Council for Teacher Education (NCTE) will continue to function. National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) will continue too. The proposed Act delineates the regulatory authority and the means of fund allocation. UGC will be replaced by HECI without financial responsibility. The fund release will be directly under the control of the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD). The system is liable to end up in bureaucratic red tape, leading to delays.

Fund Management and Functional Autonomy

The proposed draft emphasizes the functional autonomy of the universities and deemed universities and at the same time gives the regulatory body the powers to “authorise” the existing institutions to continue or close down within a period of three years. HECI will lay down the guidelines for the award of degrees and publish the curriculum to be followed by academic institutions. One nation, one curriculum does not work. India is a diverse country and we need enormous flexibility in formulating curricula.

In terms of numbers, India has done well in educating the masses in the last seven decades after independence, as is evident from the reports of the All India Survey of Higher Education (AISHE) published by MHRD each year. The bottom of the pyramid has been enlarged to ensure gender equity and societal inclusiveness to ensure that the socially disadvantaged are given a helping hand to move up the ladder. The next task is to improve the quality of education and infrastructure for teaching as well as research to reach the pinnacle of excellence. This requires massive input in terms of funds to improve the basic infrastructure in central as well as state institutions. A number of experts feel that, unless the quality of education and the infrastructure (laboratories) is improved at the college level and the university level, leaders of science and technology and arts and humanities will simply not emerge!

Improvement of Infrastructure

A closer look at individual institutions would reveal that the infrastructure in many state and central universities is below par. Efforts have been made over the years to remedy the situation through the Fund for Improvement of S&T Infrastructure in Universities and Higher Educational Institutions (FIST) operated by the Department of Science and Technology, New Delhi. The Equipment grants made sure that basic equipment was available in most of the colleges and universities; however, the improvement in the basic infrastructure has not kept pace with changing times.

A look at developed countries would reveal that the difference in infrastructure between the top institutions and the institutes down the line is limited. Regardless of where a student joins, certain minimum quality of education is guaranteed in those institutes. We need to invest heavily, not just in top institutions, but from the bottom up. We need to improve the facade of the old buildings (some of them have the heritage tag) and make all laboratories state of the art.

International Exposure

There is an urgent need to internationalise our academic institutions. We need to actively admit foreign students and appoint foreign faculty. We must make our campuses conform to global standards. Safety in the laboratories is not an option. It is a way of life. There are scholarships available, in principle, to students from SAARC nations. But nobody seems to know how to go about applying for them.

One can make estimates of the funds required to improve the basic infrastructure in all academic institutions. We need to plan and invest over a period of time, in a systematic manner. Very quickly the argument gets diverted into state versus centre. The Centre has to ensure that funds are provided to central as well as state institutions. The taxpayer has been paying educational cess over the years. This can be made use of.

Best Practices in Teaching and Research

Recently, there was big news about UGC granting autonomy to many institutions. Acts and Statutes of many institutes provide autonomy to them. This has been eroded over the years. This has to be restored across the board. Autonomy is needed in the admission of students and in designing the curriculum with changing times. Institutions of national importance have used their autonomy in ensuring quality education and research over the last five decades.

Ensuring quality in academic institutions has to start with the appointment of quality educationists and administrators as Directors and Vice-Chancellors. The vast pool available of retired officers of the armed forces could be utilised. Search cum Selection committees have been reduced to Selection Committees. Candidates are expected to apply. Many qualified and deserving candidates would simply not apply.

It would be prudent to set up Institutes of Eminence/ Excellence, but this also requires that the basic infrastructure in the feeder institutes (read colleges and universities) is improved. Let us not forget the old dictum: quality input begets quality output. Quality faculty will ensure quality graduates and they, in turn, will ensure quality faculty input into the system. There is a convective relationship between quality students and quality faculty.

In many institutes, funds allocated are not utilised in time, thanks to archaic purchase procedures. The Government is fully aware of the problem with L-1 (lowest quotation). Administrators are afraid of taking decisions as they are afraid of audit objections and reference to the Central Vigilance Commission. Best practices elsewhere have to be adopted in Indian institutions in a time-bound manner, if we are serious about saving them.

In most Indian institutes, the research done is incremental in nature. Colleagues should be encouraged to take risk in undertaking projects that are in frontiers of science and technology. This can happen only in an atmosphere of trust and freedom.


The NEP 2020 has comprehensively covered all major aspects of educational reforms. However, there are some key result areas that need to be identified so as to ensure these reforms get implemented in a time-bound manner. The State Govts would need to function in close collaboration with the Centre to make this happen. After reviewing what experienced educationalists had to say, a few recommendations for the same are given out in the succeeding paragraphs.

  1. Decentralisation: There is a need to decentralise and deregulate higher education; appoint able leaders as Directors and Vice-Chancellors; give them training in academic administration and financial management; provide adequate funds; come up with user-friendly GFR for academic institutions; keep decisions of academic institutions outside the microscopic purview of the Government and Judiciary.
  2. Autonomy: Autonomy is essential in all aspects: autonomy in recruitment, in admission, in curriculum and in functioning. This will ensure furtherance of quality and improvement in content.
  3. Diversification: India’s strength is its diversity. There is a need to diversify the structure to meet the aspirations of the students from various backgrounds. There is no need for everybody to become an engineer or a doctor. The country needs scientists, sociologists, philosophers, economists, historians, artists, linguists.  It will be a pity if all academic institutions become IIMs/IITs.
  4. Teaching and Research: Teaching and research have to go hand in hand. For practical reasons, colleges will continue to focus on teaching, but research has to become an integral part. University departments may focus on research, but without undergraduates, research will not flourish. The GDP allocated to research is only 0.7%. This must increase to at least 2%.
  5. Continuous Evaluation: Continuous evaluation of students is essential. Continuous evaluation of the faculty is needed too. Bodies like NAAC need to become independent to ensure strict evaluation of institutions. The present evaluation system is a farce. There is a need for review and reform.
  6. Ensure Quality: MOOCS and Swayam cannot be a substitute for classroom teaching. They can supplement the teaching process. If the availability of quality material is the key factor, MIT courses available online should have raised the standards across the globe. NPTEL could have raised the standards across the country. But that did not happen. Therefore, there is a need to ensure quality in every aspect of higher education.
  7. Simplification of Purchase Procedures: Academic institutes are not government departments. They need to procure things and make things for effective teaching and useful research in a time-bound manner. Many institutions receive funds, but they cannot make use of them because of the archaic procedures. Purchase procedures need to be simplified and transparent.
  8. Improvement of Hygiene Factors: It is imperative to get the best talent in the country to join the teaching profession. To do this we would need to improve hygiene and motivation factors like service conditions, pay and allowances, dignity and respect and a host of other issues.

Learning anything requires commitment and the ability to push through the uncomfortable feeling of not being very good until reaching competency. While on the path to competency, a little motivation can go a long way. Let us all endeavour then to make our education system more relevant and purposeful.

Finally, I am reminded of this famous quote by Eric Hoffer which states, “A plant needs roots in order to grow. With man, it is the other way around: only when he grows does he have roots and feels at home in the world.”

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Maj. Gen. Dr. Rajan Kochhar, VSM
Maj. Gen. Dr. Rajan Kochhar, VSM
Maj Gen Dr Rajan Kochhar, VSM, retired from the Indian Army, as Major General Army Ordnance Corps, Central Command, after 37 years of meritorious service to the Nation. Alumni of Defence Services Staff College and College of Defence Management, he holds a doctorate in Emotional Intelligence and is a reputed expert on logistics and supply chain management. Gen Kochhar, a prolific writer and defence analyst, has authored four books, including “Breaking the Chinese Myth” which was released recently. He is a Senior Adviser with Defence Research and Studies, Member, Manoj Parikkar Institute of Defence and Strategic Analyses, New Delhi, Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS) and Society of Airspace Maritime and Defence Studies (SAMDES). He is also on the Board of Management and faculty with Noida Institute of Engineering and Technology, Delhi NCR.


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