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Why India’s universities can’t keep up with the masses

Is India’s Higher Education sector capable of serving its burgeoning youth population? shutterstock

How can the Indian government improve the quality of education at the majority of the country’s universities, colleges and institutes? This is more than a question for questioning’s sake: it’s of vital importance in a country of 1.27 billion people, of which half are under the age of 25.

Nearly 190 million Indians are aged 18-25. Their numbers will rise until about 2030 after which they will begin to decline. These young women and men will need a college education or vocational training to secure a better future.

India needs them to succeed as well; otherwise the country’s much talked about demographic dividend – the economic boom that is expected to eventuate when a great majority of the country’s population is of working age – will turn into a demographic disaster.

India already has 700 universities and 48,000-plus colleges and institutes across the country. But it’s evident it must build more higher education institutions to educate its millions. Still a more difficult task before the government is to improve the quality of education at the already-existing institutions. Better access to education will do little to improve the life chances of young Indians if the quality of education isn’t of a high standard.

The Indian government has taken several steps to this end. But the country is still under-prepared to address its higher education needs. It’s highly likely that in 10 or 20 years, the government will still be trying to fix the same problems that exist today.

Given the growing influence of world university rankings, the absence of Indian universities among the world’s top 200 institutions makes headlines frequently in India. But world rankings offer only a partial glimpse of the quality of India’s universities; institutions fare poorly on national-level tests of quality as well.

According to the data last gathered by the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC), 62% of universities and 90% of colleges count as average or below-average.

But those numbers are based on information collected from a mere 20% of the total number of institutions that obtained NAAC-accreditation. The government has now made it mandatory for all institutions to be accredited, meaning we will soon know exactly how good or bad India’s colleges and universities are.

It is thought most of India’s higher education institutions will fall short in NAAC assessments, if they are carried out in a fair manner.

According to recent reports, the employability rates of Indian graduates are estimated at between 34% to 53%. Going by such figures, it seems indisputable India’s colleges and universities are not getting their teaching right.

The problem is in part about the quality of school education (the students entering college are not really prepared for college) and the quality of college education (where college teachers are unable to lift those with potential out of mediocrity).

My pessimism about India’s higher education is based on two factors.

First, it is evident India is in the middle of a higher education crisis – and one that was not produced overnight. Its roots lie in the “lost decades” of the 1980s and the 1990s when national and state governments neglected higher education, whether in terms of funding or proper regulation; predatory private providers began to operate with impunity (they still do); and there was a dramatic decline in the social status of the academic profession.

During this time, it’s fair to assume, many men and women who joined higher education were not hired on the basis of merit. Some 20-to-30 years later, many of them hold powerful positions. In other words, those who participated in and contributed to the making of the higher-education crisis are now expected to revive higher education.

Second, improvements in the quality of education will require the support of a well-qualified faculty. But government and university officials have reported acute and widespread faculty shortages, even at the most venerated Indian institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Technology, which are said to be some of the best in the country.

The irony is that there seems to be a surplus of well-qualified Indian faculty members at Western and Eastern institutions. This is part of a wider social phenomenon in India known as the “brain drain”, whereby the country’s top minds seek their fame and fortune overseas rather than on home soil.

In India, nothing is as it seems. Government and university officials say all the right things about higher education in their public statements; but lip service won’t be enough when it comes to improving the lot of our citizens.

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