Making Quality Higher Education Accessible Across Institutions Through Policy Initiatives

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Prof. Furqan Qamar
Secretary General
ASSOCIATION OF INDIAN UNIVERSITIES

India should take pride in having made remarkable progress in higher education and also in the fact that much of this progress has been attained only after Independence. With nearly 900 Universities, around 40,000 Colleges and 11,669 Stand-alone higher educational institutions, ours is simply the largest single system of higher education found anywhere in the world. This counts for a huge progress since Independence as we in the country then had no more than 500 colleges and just a little more than two dozen universities in 1950. Even in terms of enrolment, ours is the second largest system of higher education with the number of students enrolled in our higher educational institutions already exceeding 3.57 Cores which is simply way too high as compared to about one lakh students that were enrolled in our higher educational institutions in 1950. Speaking in relative terms, the Gross Enrolment Ration (GER) in higher education has gone up from less than one percent in 1950 to over 25.2 per cent currently.

Even in terms of equity and inclusion, the second most critical aspect, our performance so far has been no less impressive. Gender parity index, which measures the ratio of men and women in higher education, is now close to 1 which in simple words means that women are almost equal in number as compared to men as far as enrolment in higher education is concerned. No less remarkable is the increase in access to higher education by the Scheduled Casted and Scheduled Tribes which is reflected by the GER of 21.1 and 15.4 percent respectively. Though still less than the national average, the progress since Independence has been quite satisfactory. Apparently, affirmative actions and enabling policies in this regard have been right steps in the right direction.

The above accomplishments notwithstanding, we are still faced with the challenges of further expanding our higher education system to ensure access by all. Though we have a large number of higher educational institutions, their dispersion across different regions, states and geographies is still not uniform, thereby indicating that the policies of further expansion shall continue to mitigate regional and geographic imbalances. At the same time a very large number of higher educational institutions has also led to a situation where there are a large number of very small-sized higher educational institutions which invariably impact delivery of high quality higher education. Similarly, though the participation of women has substantially increase, there are still institutions and discipline where their participation rate is significantly lower than the national average. The situation calls for a more concerted efforts to make girl students access quality higher education across all higher educational institutions and across all disciplines. It is also important to note that there are certain marginalised sections of the society, particularly the Muslim minorities whose participation rate in higher education is way below the desired level or even the national average. Obviously, we need to do a lot to address these challenges through policy initiatives and proactive approaches.

Our accomplishments in the areas of expansion and equity are shadowed by the perceived lack of quality and excellence in higher education. We have a small number of very high quality higher educational institutions and programmes but they are like islands of excellence in the sea of mediocrity. Even the best of our higher educational institutions compare poorly with the best of the world. Thus our challenges are two-fold in this regard. Firstly, we have to promote excellence in the best of our higher educational institution such that they compete on equal footings with the best of the world and are thus reckoned amongst the top higher educational institutions of the world. Secondly, we have to work to improve the quality of all higher educational institutions such as to reduce the quality gaps between the best and the rest so that on an average a reasonably decent quality of higher education could be provided to all the students in the country.

It is not that the policy planners and regulators are oblivious to the national needs; they infact work overtime to ensure that the nation rises to meet all the challenges faced by the higher education. It is believed that the quality of higher education is critical for the development of the country in future and that India being a young nation must not miss the opportunity of reaping the demographic dividend.

Some of the recent initiatives taken by the government seems worth mentioning. The announcements in the budget regarding PM’s Fellowship is a right step in the right direction. The idea of investing Rs one lakh crores for improving the infrastructure for higher education and research is also laudable, though the details as to how the resources would be mobilised is still awaited. The idea to identify select universities to be recognised as institutions of repute  and then to fund them adequately and to provide them with necessary enabling and empowering conditions is seen as a remarkable initiative and it is hoped that it shall be implemented earnestly and urgently. Realisation that too much control and micromanagement acts as a barrier in promoting excellence in higher education and thus the idea of granting graded, though gradually, autonomy to performing universities ought to be welcome. The initiatives to reform the accreditation process to the extent it reduces objectivity is also good but the idea to involve a large number of agencies in the process is untried so far.

Lastly, one thing that both the Central as well as the State Governments must do, but have not been paying the due attention, is enhancing the public investment in higher education. Private participation has become necessary but leaving everything to the private sector is not likely to work. The governments must commit to rapidly increase their public investment on higher education so that it reaches the level of a minimum of two percent of the GDP and the State Domestic Product (SDP). India has remarkable potential. Our population and demography presents a unique opportunity and we must harness our fullest potential.

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