Indian Higher Education: Opportunities and Challenges

(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)

TRIDIP SUHRUD, INDIA’S FOREMOST GANDHI SCHOLAR, is provost at CEPT University, Ahmedabad. He says that the goal of his institution, one of India’s premier ones in several streams, especially architecture, is to make students “practice-worthy apprentices”. Each college or university that finds prominent mention in this issue shares such lofty targets, although it is in translating word into action that they differ.

India is home to 1,043 universities, 42,343 colleges and 11,779 other standalone institutions that offer higher education collectively to close to 38.5 million students of whom 49 per cent are female. And all those who walk in through the gates of these institutions do so with great expectations from the degrees they are pursuing and the avenues that will open up for them. After all, dreaming big is a characteristic of youth.

But a pragmatic approach helps. Outside of our education system, like elsewhere in the world, is the cut-throat and highly competitive world of employment and entrepreneurship. Are our degrees compatible with the requirements of these jobs and other creative pursuits? Are employers asking for too much by insisting that new hires, fresh from college, add immediate value to organisations?

More such questions linger even as our educators brace to provide what Suhrud calls “ideal education” through a raft of measures which, at CEPT, include close coordination with the professional world and choice-based curriculum on the menu. In institutions such as his, students are given the liberty to choose their teachers and vice versa, and keep a classroom as small as possible to ensure utmost individual attention for learning. Many colleges in the country have made it to our rankings across 14 streams based on an extensive survey across states. That includes those institutions looking to improve upon what they already offer students to either retain their reputation or grow further in their fields.

With technology and the vagaries of global events rendering old methods obsolete at an unimaginable pace, challenges tend to grow for students and the faculty. Not to talk of parents with huge hopes of their children being armed with the latest knowledge and skills. After all, we live in a world where certain functions are disappearing faster than they have emerged—a world where a substantial chunk of future jobs is tough to predict. What past surveys and studies have suggested is that colleges must do their best to help students develop a trait of learnability so that they pick up new knowledge, wring out archaic ones, upskill and reskill themselves to thrive in new functions.

While it is only natural for students and their parents to be gung-ho about getting admitted to government or private educational institutions of name and fame, experts across the world have routinely warned that enrolment is only the first step towards a long journey of life and career. Awareness of professional ethics in jobs that each student in each stream is expected to land is always a plus, too. A career, however, is like a vast ocean infested with the proverbial deep-sea fishing pros, much to the anguish of a new recruit who has so far been at the beachfront.

Professor Ravinder Kaur, associate professor of Modern South Asian Studies at the University of Copenhagen, opines that what she thinks as ideal for any student—from her experience in teaching for more than 20 years now—is a hands-on experience via internship in an organisation. “This gives an insight into how one’s education/training/abstract ideas work in professional settings,” she notes.

Most institutions emphasise professional collaboration, but employers are still crestfallen about the job-preparedness of fresh graduates, however hard colleges and universities try—the expectations outside of academia remain much higher, and it is in closing the gap that more focus is in order.

Campus life at Sir Jj School of Art in Mumbai (Photo: Getty Images)

Alternatively, are students equipped enough through their undergraduate or postgraduate education in India to be prepared to pursue research in their respective streams? How academically empowered are they, if not for jobs, for further research in areas of their specialisation? Economist and author Rajesh Raj SN says, “I believe a course on research methods is crucial for an enhanced graduate research experience, which is not the norm in the present curriculum. Moreover, it is much more important because of the changing nature of use of data in research. I believe gaining the capability to understand data and using this data to learn how to make useful decisions is very important. As there is a significant increase in the volumes of data and an increased emphasis on a data-intensive economy, it is very much essential for undergrads to gain data and research literacy skills for future employability.”

Colleges affirm that they do prepare their wards for such challenges, but expectations from both potential employers and doctoral advisers are higher. Bridging that gap will be where institutions and universities are being assessed now—and emphasis on that grand exercise is only going to get tougher in future when vacancies in jobs are going to rise while they remain unfilled for want of required acumen from applicants.

Numbers from this survey show that much more needs to be done to put the country’s research ecosystem on track. Close to 79.5 per cent of students are enrolled in undergraduate-level programmes; 2,02,550 students are enrolled in PhD courses, which is about 0.5 per cent of the total enrolment.

While there is good news on the rise in the number of educational institutions in the private sector, yet, for a country that hopes to be a greater economic powerhouse with a stress on manufacturing, India requires more good engineers and technology wizards to steer it towards glory. It is true that Indian engineering graduates occupy top-level positions in some of the world’s biggest technology companies, yet the quality of courses offered by many engineering colleges is apparently in decline for a variety of reasons, including a shortage of teaching staff, lack of regulation in the segment, outdated curriculum, and so on. Besides, although several institutions are working hard in tandem with the industry, unemployability of a large chunk of Indian engineering graduates is a crucial drawback that hurts the country’s growth prospects.

That being said, there is no doubt that India’s topmost institutions, especially IISC (Indian Institute of Science), IITs, top-notch law, architecture and medical academic institutions, have all played a stellar role in imparting education to hundreds of thousands of successful Indian students, and continue to do so, in the face of growing challenges in a rapidly changing world of jobs. Open had earlier dwelt at length on the need for Indian institutions, especially those in technical and business streams, to align studies with the demands of the fourth industrial revolution or Industry 4.0, which is marked by unprecedented interconnectedness compared to the previous ones, starting with the popularisation of steam engines, telegraph, and the internet.

There is a need for Indian institutions, especially those in technical and business streams, to align studies with the demands of the fourth industrial revolution or Industry 4.0, which is marked by unprecedented interconnectedness

Clearly, the need of the hour is a multi-disciplinary approach to education—what Suhrud lays emphasis on—that makes each academic subject relevant and helps complement others in a job market that sees the proliferation of new functions. For instance, an English teacher can also be attached to a business department and a business professor in a humanities department in a flexible manner to help students doing respective courses gain knowledge and skills. With communication acquiring a halo lately, and because CEOs are expected to speak eloquently and write well so as to inspire confidence among the staff as well as investors, a course in grammar or creative writing will add value to an engineer or an architect’s résumé. We often hear of foreign universities doing away with humanities departments and placing those staff in other departments that attract more international students and, therefore, money. In the process, they save jobs and promote comprehensive learning. Although India hasn’t yet reached that threshold where international students determine the feasibility of courses, it makes great sense to expand the scope of humanities across science, tech and other streams to make learning more meaningful and useful to meet the new standards of professional life.

Even within respective streams, much thought has been given over time to diversification as well as specialisation. For instance, in a recent paper titled ‘Advancements in Legal Education in India: Challenges and Opportunities for Inter-disciplinary Research’, K Rajashree, Chetan Singai and Shimreichon Awungshi Shimray advocate a “transformative vision” on the part of institutions, “to align the curriculum and teaching methods, which is reflective of the social, economic and political changes in the society”. They write, “More subjects that reflect the ethos of inter-disciplinarity can be offered to students, such as law and social transformation, political thought and obligations, law of poverty, etc, at the BA LLB level. Subjects such as space laws, forensic sciences, psychology and agricultural sciences can be offered at the BSc LLB level, and business management and communication, human resources, leadership, marketing and organisational behaviour at the BBA LLB and B Com LLB levels. Hence, discipline-specific alignments can be made to encourage inter-disciplinarity.”

They also recommend collaboration of law schools with multiple institutions and organisations, such as corporates, non-governmental organisations, municipalities and Parliament, in order to diversify the areas of research and help students gain first-hand experience, understand their functioning and develop the ability to contribute to other fields. “Clinical legal education, such as on legal aid, access to justice, pro bono services, professional obligations and ethics, and moot court competitions can be best achieved through external collaborations,” they write. The same, of course, is true of environmental and climate change laws.

A class in progress at the East Central Railway inter college in Mughalsarai, Uttar Pradesh (Photo: Getty Images)


The thrust of all such recommendations of rigorous studies is to constantly innovate by keeping oneself abreast of the changes in various streams and sectors. This survey finds that many such endeavours are done and being contemplated by educators and the government in India, and at state levels, to make the country’s demographic dividend an advantage, not a burden. Data offer insights into certain undercurrents and the direction that policymakers can take, going forward. Sample these:

– The top eight states in terms of the highest number of colleges in India are Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat.

– College density, the number of colleges per lakh eligible population (population in the age-group 18-23 years), varies from seven in Bihar to 59 in Karnataka as compared with the all-India average of 30.

– As high as 60.56 per cent of colleges are located in rural areas. And 10.75 per cent of colleges here are exclusively for women.

– Only 2.7 per cent of colleges run PhD programmes while 35.04 per cent of colleges run postgraduate-level programmes.

– As high as 78.6 per cent of colleges are privately managed. Andhra Pradesh and Telangana have about 80 per cent private unaided colleges and Uttar Pradesh 78.5 per cent private unaided colleges, whereas Chandigarh has 8 per cent.

– Uttar Pradesh tops in student enrolment, followed by Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu.

As is often said, the uberisation of the global economy continues to upset the status quo. The sway of traditionalists in some sections of our educational system isn’t going to help at this juncture. Time is now ripe for a comprehensive revamp of our mindset towards education—which is acquiring degrees and titles that come with it. What may have taken some of our techies to the top positions in Silicon Valley may not help the new generation of graduates unless we draw lessons from countries such as Germany, which invest heavily in linking colleges with industry and employers (and, to beat it all, offer free world-class higher education to citizens). For his part, Suhrud insists on free and fair feedback and evaluation of the performance of students as a key ingredient of good education to make our universities a festival of learning.

India’s National Education Policy, which will refurbish the existing system into a 5+3+3+4 format and plans to attract international students in hordes, is likely to make the country’s educational system—in terms of equality of opportunity to quality education—more competitive than ever before. Efforts are on to promote the startup scene in the country by promoting vocational courses, and through funding. Although there are challenges galore, a new beginning has been made, as is evident from the number of unicorns that India is home to. The nation has the third-largest startup ecosystem in the world, after the US and China.

Khalsa College in Amritsar (Photo: Getty Images)

Stories of engineering students making cost-effective solutions to make the lives of the poor less cumbersome are not uncommon in India. From designing cycle rickshaws to drones, alumni from IITs and other institutes have proved their skills. Like numerous such startups, BotLab Dynamics, which early this year earned fame thanks to the 1,000-drone light show it did for the Beating the Retreat Ceremony, has been supplying homegrown drone technology solutions to the Army. The startup is led by two IIT Delhi alumni, Tanmay Bunkar and Anuj Kumar Barnwal, besides Sarita Ahlawat, an alumnus of the University of Illinois. This is just one example of hundreds of tales of success of India-educated engineering grads. Simply put, the startup segment shows great signs of growth, notwithstanding
certain hurdles.

However, much more is expected in the field of electronics to pump digitalisation. Any rapid growth on that front requires quicker adoption of global educational standards and enhanced collaboration with the professional arena. There are rays of hope from several institutions that are embracing the new to meet the demands of tomorrow’s jobs and job opportunities. To borrow from Alexis de Tocqueville’s expression, what we need now is not education that “hinders, restrains, enervates, stifles, and stultifies”, but a multi-disciplinary one that allows its beneficiaries to break free and scale new heights. Hard work on the part of some of the top colleges listed on the pages that follow is proof that we are in the right direction, and that graver challenges must be tackled before India becomes a hub for global education.

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