Urbanisation and equality ‘key for Indian development’

India could be HE ‘giant’ if social issues were addressed, expert says

February 10, 2021
Source: iStock
The IT hub of Gurgoan outside Delhi

A lag in urban development, socio-economic inequality and corruption are some of the main hurdles to the development of India’s higher education sector, according to a leading scholar.

Only about one-third of India’s population is urban, compared with about one-half worldwide. However, that situation is quickly changing as rural populations move into cities and as outlying areas become more developed.

“Higher education is an urban phenomenon,” said Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at the University of Oxford. “In cities, demand for HE is concentrated. Also, governments find cities cost-effective, especially if specialist equipment is required. It’s rare to find [higher education institutions] in every small village.”

Speaking at Times Higher Education’s India Universities Forum on 10 February, Professor Marginson predicted that “Indian HE could be a giant, but to do that, it needs to build national, regional and local infrastructure”.

If that happens, there could be great potential in India, which is the world’s fourth-largest producer of scientific research. 

“Nowhere else in the world, except maybe China, is HE’s mission, responsibility and challenges greater,” he said. “Nowhere else in the world is there such a reservoir of people with intelligence and energy – but they need the opportunity to use it.”

The Indian government is planning on a building spree with its ambitious National Education Policy 2020 (NEP), whose goal is to raise the gross enrolment ratio (GER) to 50 per cent by 2035. That would roughly double the size of the higher education sector and, at least in terms of enrolment, put it on par with where China is today.

India has already experienced a sharp increase in GER, from less than 10 per cent in 2000 to 27 per cent in 2018. That accounts for 37 million Indian students enrolled in tertiary education, about one-tenth of the world’s total.

The Asian giant has size and youthful demographics on its side. By 2022, the median age of the Indian population is predicted to be 28, compared with 37 in China and the US, 45 in Western Europe and 49 in Japan. 

However, Professor Marginson said that the lofty goals of the NEP would be “difficult to achieve” without more equality and modernisation.

Students and staff “need resources, support and respect for the rights of all social groups, both women and men, and freedom from the fears and distortions induced by cultural conflict, arbitrary political intervention, and corrupt administration”, he said.  

On a practical level, higher education is hindered by the fact that it remains unaffordable for many poorer rural populations, who have been left behind by a “relatively low rate of urbanisation”.

Even disadvantaged students who do make it to tertiary education may not be receiving the learning they need.

“Many are at small private colleges, and it’s no secret that some are of questionable quality,” Professor Marginson said. “But better enrolled than not enrolled.”

The urban-rural divide was highlighted during a Covid-19 lockdown that began last March, and caused campuses to stay closed until recently.

The government tried to use a combination of centralised digital resources and universities’ own online classes to keep courses running in the past year.

However, Professor Marginson said that, in terms of bridging the urban-rural gap, “relying on technology alone will not do it”.

Currently, 65 per cent of Indians do not have adequate internet access, with the situation worse in rural areas than urban ones. Even those who have some online access may only be on mobile phones and therefore unable to fully access educational programmes.

Professor Marginson advised that, in order to make NEP targets “meaningful”, physical campuses must still be built and improved.

“HE must be provided – in adequate quality, in an equitable manner – in brick-and-mortar form,” he said.

This is because “campuses are a modernising space”, especially for female students who can move away from situations where they are under familial or community pressure.

He noted the vast differences in views on gender between major cities and less developed outlying areas.

“Gender is tough in parts of India, and the national debate about gender has been really unpleasant,” he said. “Education provides a way through that.”

“When women are educated, everything changes – birth rates, childhood education,” he concluded. “India’s success will depend on its willingness to put women into leadership roles.”

joyce.lau@timeshighereducation.com 

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