India needs a world-class higher education system (Commentary)

India has the third largest higher education system in the world. In 2016, there were 799 universities and 39,071 colleges spread across the country. These numbers are staggering. The growth of higher education in India in just over half a century has been even more staggering.

Between 1950 and 2014, the number of universities in India increased 34 times. And, between 1950 and 2013, colleges increased 74 times.

This quantitative explosion of higher education institutions has not been accompanied by the quality of the education they provide. In fact, the gap between quantity and quality is so wide that it constitutes one of the main obstacles to India’s position as a world leader. To become such a leader, India must develop a world-class higher education system.

Two years ago, the Narendra Modi administration attempted to emphasize quality in higher education with the introduction of draft regulations for a new initiative called “UGC (Declaration of Government Educational Institutions as World Class Institutions) Guidelines, 2016”. In 2018, when the first six institutions were named under this initiative, they were referred to as “institutions of eminence” as opposed to “world-class institutions”.

Although the label has changed, the intent remains the same. It is about giving considerable discretionary power to these institutions and raising their status. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But that will do little to solve the underlying problems of higher education in India.

This is true because the focus is completely wrong. These universities are just the tip of the higher education iceberg. Improving the capacity of a few institutions, thus possibly allowing them to be a little higher in the world ranking of higher education institutions, does nothing for the majority.

This is not to say that India does not need world-class higher education institutions. That is to say, more importantly, India needs a world-class higher education system.

A world-class higher education system is one centered on the student or client rather than the institution. It includes certified and caring institutions that have the necessary resources and whose main mission is to ensure that students/clients acquire the knowledge/skills/abilities and dispositions they need to achieve their individual goals and maximize their contribution to the society.

India’s current system is almost the exact opposite of this. The focus has been primarily on a select group of institutions and individuals rather than embracing and meeting the needs of the whole.

Many steps need to be taken to change this and make the Indian higher education system world-class. They include:

– Increase public funding. Federal and state governments currently provide limited funding for higher education. As a result, more than 70% of higher education institutions are run by the private sector. These institutions are not well regulated and vary widely in quality. Public sector funding could be used to support existing public institutions and create new ones in areas where higher education opportunities are limited.

– Improve the infrastructure. Colleges and universities across India have inadequate physical facilities, lack equipment and suffer from a shortage of qualified teachers. Ensuring that every higher education institution has a solid infrastructure creates an environment conducive to learning and growth.

– Broaden access to and participation in higher education. Enrollment in higher education represents approximately 15% of the eligible population. This percentage must be much higher for India to be considered and become a developed or developing country. It must also be representative of the entire population, including women, those in the weakest sectors and rural areas.

– Apply standards and requirements appropriately. The announced replacement of the University Grants Commission (UGC) with the Higher Education Commission of India (HECI) has created considerable debate within and outside the education community. The essential question whether there is a UGC, a HECI or another agency with an acronym. should be: Are appropriate data being collected and used to monitor performance and ensure accountability of each institution in the higher education system?

– Emphasize vocational education. The higher education system must meet the needs of potential employers and potential employees. Currently, there is a lag. The higher education system must equip itself to be the provider of first resort and provide the country with the qualified manpower it needs.

Many other steps need to be taken like addressing the politicians who control many educational institutions to make the Indian higher education system world class. But there must be only one state of mind. This mindset must be that the higher education system of the country must be restructured, redesigned and renewed in a way that benefits all India and all Indians.

(Frank F. Islam is a Washington, D.C.-based entrepreneur, citizen, and thought leader. Opinions expressed are personal. He can be reached at



(This story has not been edited by Business Standard staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

Janice G. Ball