Bigger can be better

January 1, 1990

Regulation and world rankings provide a way to meet the challenges presented by India’s higher education expansion, argues Ashok Thakur.

With more than 27 million students enrolled, India now has the second-largest higher education system in the world. Enrolments surpassed those in the US in 2010. Since then, the gap between India and the world’s largest system, China, has continued to close: and with a much larger (and still growing) proportion of young people in its population, India will soon topple its eastern neighbour.

Things have changed rapidly: seven years ago, India was struggling to achieve a gross enrolment ratio of 12 per cent, but today it has breached 20 per cent. Our target to reach 30 per cent by 2020 appears to be well within range.

When India achieved independence in 1947, it had only 20 universities and about 500 colleges. Today the figure is 723 universities and university-level institutions, 37,204 colleges and 11,356 diploma-level bodies. The country has by far the highest number of tertiary education institutions in the world and new ones are being set up almost every day.

Over the past decade, India has witnessed rapid economic growth, creating new jobs that require higher qualifications. The aspirations of the young have also risen, so there is huge demand for higher education. Fortunately, India’s academy has the momentum to meet it.

However, expansion has its downsides: for example, there is mounting concern about quality, particularly as a result of recent dramatic growth.

India has devised a multi-pronged strategy to meet the quality challenge. This includes filling academic shortages; addressing problems with scholarly standards and accountability; using technology more effectively; addressing issues of governance; and increasing funding while using it more wisely.

In addition, the country has finally woken up to the centrality of evaluation, benchmarking and rankings: both of the Indian academy’s regulators – the University Grants Committee and the All India Council for Technical Education – state that all higher education institutions must now be accredited.

Although accreditation has been made mandatory, the challenges are huge because of the sheer numbers involved. Currently, there are only two government-backed accreditation agencies – the National Assessment and Accreditation Council for general education and the National Board of Accreditation for technical education. There is no doubt that their capacities need to be multiplied several-fold to make any meaningful dent in the problem: the NAAC, for example, has been able to accredit only 172 universities (28 per cent) and 4,857 colleges (15 per cent) over the past 19 years.

It is hoped that quality will be bolstered with the likely establishment of the National Accreditation Regulatory Authority, a proposal that is being seriously explored.

But to meet the huge challenges of accreditation, other agencies, including private and state bodies, will have to help.

Another positive development has been a final resolution of the argument about whether the country should fully commit itself to taking part in the world university rankings. This has mercifully been laid to rest by none other than the president of India, Pranab Mukherjee, who has made it clear that as a matter of policy, all institutions in the country have to participate wholeheartedly in the rankings process.

The Ministry of Human Resource Development’s Department of Higher Education has been actively engaged in promoting participation by Indian universities and colleges in the world rankings over the past two years (eg, conducting workshops with Times Higher Education, Thomson Reuters and others). This is having an effect: for example, the IIT Council, the apex body for all 16 Indian institutes of technology, has decided to participate systematically in the rankings.

In the days ahead, more and more Indian institutions will engage with agencies to evaluate and benchmark themselves. They are working to make ranking methods more transparent and relevant in the Indian context.

Each centrally funded institution will have a senior nodal faculty member in charge of collecting data for the rankings, and the ministry will proactively sponsor more discussions and workshops so that institutions can work out common strategies for collecting and reporting information in a systematic and consistent manner.

Because research and publication is a vital aspect of the rankings, it is important that Indian universities’ doctoral and postdoctoral programmes are strengthened. As a large quantity of research in the country is done outside the university system – for example, in national research laboratories – the recent approval of joint appointments involving the laboratories and the academy will go a long way not only to filling vacant academic positions, but also to strengthening university research and linking it to industry and entrepreneurship.

The Central Universities’ efforts to fill vacant posts and achieve the ministry’s target of a 1:15 staff-to-student ratio is another welcome step.

No matter what fears we may have about international ranking systems, they are here to stay and cannot be wished away. Students and their parents can now take more informed decisions when selecting institutions and programmes, as the rankings ensure that information is available to all on a transparent basis. How institutions are perceived globally is vital and this is influenced by the rankings.

With the new government now taking over and with its stated commitment to providing students with quality higher education, there is no doubt that the participation of the universities and institutions of national importance will only continue to grow.

Ashok Thakur is India’s secretary for higher education.

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