Does India Need A Different Higher Education Model?

Kapil Sibal, India's Human Resource Minister, estimates India needs 1500 universities, almost three times as much as the current 564, to serve its young and aspiring population, and meet the economic growth expectations of the pundits. This oft-quoted but unofficial observation reflects the scale of ambition of the Indian policy-makers, and the direct connection they make between Higher Education and Economic Growth. Consequently, India is the only major economy in the world where the Government is still spending money on setting up new Higher Education institutions, and building up capacity in the old ones. This effort will get a further boost by the recent appearance of three of the IITs (Kharagpur in 226-250 bracket, Bombay in 251-275 bracket and Roorkee in 351-400 bracket) in the Times Global 400 league table, though none of them made it to the top 200, yet.

Some effects of this additional investment, as well as the government's enthusiasm on getting private sector to get involved in Higher Education, is visible in rapid expansion of Higher Ed provision in India. The number of colleges, mostly private sector, have grown by 150% and now reached 33,000. The student numbers have expanded too, though this has been slower than the expansion of school capacity. The most intriguing part of the statistics is that despite the student growth, the Gross Enrolment Ratio, the number of people moving into tertiary education after leaving school, remains stubbornly below 20%. This is partly because of the rapid expansion of literacy, as observed in the current census, and the expansion of school level education. However, it is also observable that some of India's new Higher Education institutions are already struggling, if the number of empty seats in the Engineering and MBA colleges are any guide. It seems that while the investment has poured in and seat capacity has been expanded, the students are not interested in what the schools have to offer and overall student numbers in Higher Education, while growing, aren't going up proportionately.

This observation will be accentuated if we see this in the perspective of demography. For plain demographic reasons, there would be 5 million more students in the college by 2015 than there is now, a growth of 25%. Also, less than 20% Gross Enrolment Ratio is way lower than a comparable country, say China. By historical precedent, a country's GER tends to grow alongside its income, levelling off somewhat as it approaches 40% level: It needs a somewhat bigger leap in income thereafter to take GER grow again. The Indian model, therefore, represents an anomaly. The student numbers have grown, but this can be solely attributed to demography and growth in income. Once we have considered the impact of these two factors, there is little to show for all the extra money that the government is spending, and for the huge expansion of capacity in the private sector. In fact, it seems there is an apparent  supply glut in the private sector, and unused infrastructure is more common than not. Colleges are up for sale, and this trend is likely to accelerate in the coming days. It surely seems that the current model of Higher Ed expansion is somewhat out of sync with what the Indian students want.

This is a key issue, then, which needs to be addressed before Mr Sibal's aspiration could be met (which is modest, given that United States has 4500 degree granting institutions for its 300 million people). Higher Education isn't a burning issue for the government, but this is purely because this government was struggling with so many other burning issues. It is likely to be the biggest thing in the agenda soon, definitely after the next election, when the attention returns to getting economic growth back on track and employing the population gainfully. This is a good time, therefore, to reflect where the model is going wrong.

Since countries like India often model their Higher Education systems after the United States, it is a good place to look at what really happened there. A quick parallel can be drawn to the United States in 1940, when the high school enrolment jumped to 73% of the school age population but the college-going population was at only 16% of those who completed High School, somewhat the level India is at today. The wartime American government wanted an expansion of the system as they planned for the returning personnel after the war: They wanted to find gainful employment for these young men after the distasteful treatment of the Great War veterans, which resulted in a stand-off between American troops and disgruntled veterans in Washington DC in 1932. The resultant Serviceman's Readjustment Act of 1944, popularly dubbed as GI Bill, was the biggest act of mass expansion of Higher Education in human history: It enabled 7.8 million returning veterans to attend college by the end of the validity of the act in 1956.

Indian government should feel similarly besieged, and scared, by the rapidly growing young population of the country, and the fact that a march on Delhi is no longer an unthinkable prospect. If, at this stage, the government is wondering why the public investment and private initiatives are not lifting the participation in Higher Education, they need to look closely at the American experience of this expansion: Faced with the expansion of the student population, President Truman appointed a Presidential Commission, which came back with the recommendation for an expansion of two year colleges, which they called Community Colleges. This was the rapidly expanding bit of American Higher Education system which absorbed the demand, served the growth of the knowledge economy and drove up the Gross Enrolment Ratio; but, indeed, in the glitz and glamour of the American Research universities, this is the bit of the story that rest of the world misses.

New millennium India isn't similar to post-war America and India's policies are likely to be different. But there is an important lesson in the American model (and subsequent developments of this thinking, as exemplified in Clark Kerr's vision of the Californian Higher Education system) and a clue to Indian Higher Education's current malady: The growth is misdirected and top-heavy, which is neither addressing the issue of quality nor quantity. The public investment is primarily going to create more High Prestige national institutions and private investment is directed towards creation of provisions in Engineering and post-graduate provisions in Business, leaving out the large swathes of general education colleges to disinvestment and neglect. Despite the success of India's IGNOU, which has grown into the largest open university in the world with more than 3.5 million students, and various other Open University systems across the country, the Indian government has treated these as below par offerings and wasted a great opportunity of expansion of Higher Education provision. In summary, India's expansion of Higher Education has been directed at a sliver of its expanding middle class, and failed to take into account its rapidly changing nature and composition.

There are a number of things which need to be done to create a Higher Education model that may work for India. The starting point, the obvious, is to overhaul the regulatory model, to make it friendly to private investors (and even allowing For-Profits, which is needed to expand capacity) but make it robust at the same time, more focused on student experience and outcome and less on the buildings and infrastructure. As it stands today, the imperative of legislation is political - that the providers must not make a profit - and this has to be replaced by something practical, the students must learn and enjoy the experience, et al. 

The public investment may be directed towards the top and the bottom, i.e., in creating excellence in research and teaching in select national institutions, which is already happening, but also to those colleges which directly serve the new demand. In the last few years, the government has spent millions in creating a vocational education system, but the money, from the sound of it, was mostly squandered: So far, there is little to show for the money spent, except that the foreign advisors and providers have mostly pocketed the money. One may wonder why the government embarked on creating a parallel system when the public institutions, ITIs and local colleges, are starved of investment. Besides, the government's quest to create a vocational education system, mostly following the British model, is probably already antiquated - a rapidly rising Middle Class is unlikely to favour a two-tier system of higher and lower education. The government must bring its investment in vocational competence in line with the need to rejuvenate the public institutions and local colleges, as these are the institutions best placed to reach out to the local population in need.

Lastly, the government must unleash private enterprise. As is common, Indian government so far curbed private activities in education and kept For profits out altogether (which is absurd, as some of the best educational work in India was carried out by For Profit companies like NIIT, Aptech and Educomp), but then handed out subsidies and contracts to a few favoured providers to create a parallel system of vocational education, which has proved to be mostly wasteful. Market-based solutions work perfectly for an aspiring Middle Class and the government should withdraw its subsidies and let private For-Profit universities to form in India, which will greatly expand high quality provisions and re-establish the cost-to-outcome link as appropriate in a market situation. This is indeed difficult, and the vested interests, both political and business, would want to keep the doors closed as long as they can. However, with the pending collapse of the Indian Higher Education model, they may not have much time left.


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