Crisis facing Indian higher education – and how Australian universities can help

Over the next 10 years, there is forecast to be 14 million more students studying in India. Flickr/reinholdbehringer

India is facing a crisis around access to good college and university education.

Although there has been an enormous expansion in higher education in India over the past 30 years – the proportion of those attending college or university has increased from 6% in 1983 to 18% in 2014 – there is still a huge problem around quality.

The Indian government is aware of this situation and in 2013 launched a new higher education improvement programme.

Currently 18% of Indian youth aged 18-21 are enrolled in university. The government aims to increase this to 30% by 2020, which will mean increasing the number of university places from the current 26 million to roughly 40 million.

With India invested hugely in to reforming its higher education sector, it’s now time for Australia to view this as an opportunity to capitalise on this growth and look for ways to collaborate with and support Indian institutions.

Here are a few ways Australian universities can help:

Train staff

Between 1983 and 2013, the number of engineering colleges in India grew by 20% each year. This meant the number of trained academic staff needed to increase by 30 times over the same period in order to cater for the rise in the number of students studying engineering.

But in practice, academic staff numbers only increased by twofold. Private college management committees responded to this situation by hiring teachers who lacked the required qualifications and professional experience.

There is a major opportunity here for Australian universities to partner with Indian institutions in the training of those in the fields of engineering and science.

This could help boost enrolments to Australian universities through the development of joint courses across Australia-India institutions, and also increase the profile of Australia among Indian young people.

With numbers of Indian students choosing to study in Australia continuing to fall due to a combination of the visa crackdown, high Australian dollar, and safety concerns, forming partnerships could help rebuild links with India.

Root out corruption

Although the Indian government decrees that universities must be not for profit, corruption is rife in the sector, with private colleges often asking students to pay cash donations before they start their course.

Other cases of corruption include: higher castes (a division of society based upon differences of wealth, rank, or occupation) seizing scholarships meant for low castes, hiring irregularities to academic positions, establishment of bogus colleges, cheating in examinations, and the use of colleges to launder money.

In one example, a private education entrepreneur set up an online college called “zap”, which – after collecting donations from students – disappeared without trace.

In the period between the early 1980s and late 2000s, the market was unable to solve the problem of bogus and poor quality private education because demand so massively outstripped supply.

By around 2010 this situation had been reversed in some areas, leaving institutes forced to compete.

There are opportunities here for Australian institutions to partner with the Indian government in reform, to engage in talks about introducing compulsory accreditation, assessment, and accountability processes. This would feed into the wider effort to export financial services from Australia to India.

Share knowledge on access to higher education

Although India has managed to increase the number of women entering higher education – the ratio of men to women in higher education moved from 8:1 in 1950 to around 1:1 in 2014 – other issues such as class divide still persist.

Only the very best performing poor students can obtain a good education via scholarships to elite institutions.

The vast majority attend the poorer quality, and therefore cheaper, private colleges or public-sector institutions.

Easy access to student loans might address this situation. Currently less than 3% of students in India take loans, reflecting the difficulty of acquiring finance for courses that do not have transparent, set fees.

Australia has a great deal of experience in this area and there is considerable potential for the Australian government to advise India on suitable methods of enhancing public access to higher education. Solutions could include allowing universities and colleges to set their own fees in a transparent manner while also creating a loans or graduate taxation scheme.

Research partnerships

There are only seven Indian institutions in the top 400 in the 2015 QS World Rankings and none in the top 100. India arguably does not contain a single world-class university.

Here again there are opportunities for Australia to partner with India. For example, Monash University already has a longstanding tie up with the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay; the University of Melbourne has links with ITT Kanpur, and many others are stepping into this space.

Using such links to encourage social science and arts teaching would be an innovative and very helpful step.

There are also excellent initiatives being led by Deakin University in the area of skill provision in India. Just two months ago, Deakin University announced a strategic research partnership in India with Bharat Forge Ltd – here researchers will collaborate to conduct research relevant to the manufacture of car parts.

Australia/India collaboration in the higher education sector is an area of enormous opportunity. Now is the time to act.