Funding and state buy-in ‘key to reshaping Indian universities’

Government proposals to create large, multidisciplinary universities hailed as ‘important new drive’ but experts say they have ‘seen this play before’

June 20, 2019
Source: Getty

Plans to majorly reform India’s higher education sector, which include consolidating institutions into large, multidisciplinary universities and creating a differentiated system, have been broadly welcomed – but experts are sceptical that the government will have the funding and the support to implement the proposals.  

India’s draft National Education Policy (NEP) 2019 was published after Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party increased its majority in the national election. Proposals include more than doubling the higher education enrolment rate from 23 per cent to 50 per cent by 2035 and restructuring institutions into three types by 2030: research universities, teaching universities and colleges. The document suggests that 150 to 300 institutions will become research universities, while 1,000 to 2,000 will be teaching universities.

The report also bids to “move towards a higher educational system consisting of large, multidisciplinary universities and colleges”, each of which will have at least 5,000 students, by both “consolidating and restructuring existing institutions and building new ones”. Single-subject institutions will be “phased out”, it adds.

An institution will be considered multidisciplinary if it offers at least two programmes in the arts and humanities, at least two in science and mathematics and at least one in the social sciences, it says.

A source told Times Higher Education that even Indian Institutes of Technology and Indian Institutes of Management are “expected to grow and add more disciplines to become multidisciplinary research institutions”.

The report also plans to “move towards a more liberal undergraduate education”; establish a National Research Foundation, which will provide competitive funding for research across all disciplines; and create a National Higher Education Regulatory Authority.

The government is inviting comments on the policy until 30 June, after which it will be finalised.  

Craig Jeffrey, director of the Australia India Institute at the University of Melbourne, said that the NEP “marks an important new drive in India to reform higher education”.

“India’s research publication output has declined steeply relative to China’s since 1990. Extending a research culture to a wider number of universities could help to address this problem, if accompanied by appropriate resourcing and oversight,” he said.

Key factors for success include “implementation, maintaining momentum across multiple administrations, coordinating between the centre and states, and properly resourcing the initiative”, he added.

Philip Altbach, founding director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, also welcomed the proposals, in particular the plan to introduce a differentiated higher education system, but added that there have been reports recommending changes in Indian higher education since 1949 and usually “nothing is done”.

Given that higher education in India is devolved to the states, “buy-in from the states” would be crucial to ensure that the plans work for more than just “a small part of the higher education system”, he added.

Meanwhile, the target to more than double the gross enrolment ratio was a “total impossibility” if the government also wants to ensure a certain level of quality, he said.

“I might say [the report] is a good first step but these first steps have already been taken and have not yielded the changes that everybody in India who thinks about higher education knows are needed,” he said. “We’ve seen this play before.”

Pushkar, director of the International Centre Goa, which describes itself as a non-profit autonomous society that brings together academics and creative people from India and around the world, said that the report was “very welcome” but lacked detail on how large multidisciplinary universities and the three new types of institutions will replace the current structure.

He also questioned the likelihood of state universities becoming leading research universities, given that they suffer from “infrastructural deficits, faculty shortages, resource crunch and the indifference of state governments to higher education”.

“NEP reads like a statement on what ought to be rather than what can be achieved. It exaggerates the scope and possibilities of reform in higher education and is unrealistic,” he said.

Meanwhile, for Alessandra Mezzadri, senior lecturer in development studies at SOAS University of London’s South Asia Institute, the main drawbacks of the report went beyond implementation.

She said that plans to establish a National Research Foundation and National Higher Education Regulatory Authority should be seen as “a process of centralisation of power”, adding that the creation of the latter “could signal the end of university freedom in India”.

“India is a greatly diverse country, with many different languages, historical trajectories, and communities. Setting [up] only one or two bodies to take all decisions cannot but hamper diversity,” she said.

ellie.bothwell@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Funding and state buy-in ‘key to reform of Indian HE’

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