India's sector has expanded massively; now its research capacity must catch up, says Pawan Agarwal
The recent growth in Indian higher education has been spectacular. The country's current enrolment of 21.8 million students (compared with just 13.8 million five years ago) surpasses that of the US and is now second only to China's. In addition, 4.2 million students are registered with the country's open universities.
The authorities at the central and state level and the private sector have all contributed to this phenomenal growth. The central government-backed institutions accommodate 250,000 more students than they did in 2007. Over the same period, state and private enrolment has increased to 2.4 million and 5.3 million students respectively.
To accommodate the numbers, the central government has established 65 new institutions and the states have created 89 universities, 4,000 colleges and 1,340 diploma institutions. The private sector has expanded even more rapidly, setting up 118 universities, 7,800 colleges and 3,600 diploma institutions. On average, about 5,000 new students were admitted and 10 institutions were set up every single day over the past five years.
This mind-boggling expansion has widened access and improved equity, but India still faces incredible challenges in terms of building capacity to meet growing demand for tertiary education while preserving quality.
Unfortunately, rapid growth in the face of staff shortages and declining per-student spending has affected standards, which is eroding public confidence in the value of Indian higher education. Thus, improving quality has rightly been prioritised in the country's 12th Five Year Plan, which was recently approved by the central government.
Another concern that the plan aims to address is India's weak research capacity. The country's research and development institutions are segregated from the university system, which deprives the latter of funds and research talent. Imaginative measures and more money are needed to catapult the nation to a globally competitive position in terms of research performance and impact.
India has maintained a steady growth rate in research output over the past decade and has made a mark at the world level in certain disciplines, but given the size of the Indian system, the need and the potential for further output are immense. Significant improvements are necessary to strengthen higher education research and training, particularly in emerging fields at the boundaries of traditional disciplines.
It is unfortunate that even with the second-largest system of higher education in the world, not one Indian institution has gained a place in the global rankings, most of which rely heavily on measurable indices of research performance. For example, there is no Indian presence among the top 200 institutions of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2012-13.
Only a few institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Technology and the Indian Institutes of Management are known globally, but these are relatively small in size and renowned mostly for teaching. And institutions that do have a research focus, such as the Indian Institute of Science and the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, are tiny compared with the global research universities.
To build a world-class academy, India must develop a group of multidisciplinary research universities that are capable of undertaking world-class research in a wide range of disciplinary and interdisciplinary areas.
Such universities must be able to articulate their vision in research, select and recruit high-calibre global talent, offer conditions including competitive pay and performance evaluation to ensure high-quality work, autonomously select and admit the best students, foster multidisciplinary research across a number of fields of study, and develop collaborative relationships with external entities such as national research institutions, foreign universities and industry.
All this requires a flexibility and a capacity that most existing Indian institutions do not yet have, given their governance arrangements, administrative norms and organisational culture.
The 12th plan recognises these requirements. Considering that it is neither necessary nor realistic to expect all institutions to achieve high levels of research excellence, India seeks to preselect research-focused institutions so that they can be -selectively nurtured. This nurturing will be delivered through liberal funding, greater autonomy and competitive grants.
Several old and established institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Technology and a few newcomers such as the Indian Institutes of Science, Education and Research have already begun to make an impact.
Current positive demographic and economic factors provide a fertile environment for the growth of research-led universities in India. Given that they will now have both policy and funding support, it is likely that several Indian universities and institutes (mainly those under central government control, but some state and private players, too) will emerge to take their place among the best research-led universities in the world. This process could be accelerated by thoughtful action and more liberal funding.
Pawan Agarwal is adviser for higher education to the Indian government's Planning Commission. These are his personal views.
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