Should India Re-Think Higher Ed for the Economy’s Sake?

India’s vast network of colleges and universities may need to reorganize to become more effective, says an Indian government Planning Commission adviser. Working with American professor Philip G. Altbach, Pawan Agarwal surveyed the state of higher education in India for The Hindu. Indian students are committed and enthusiastic, but colleges aren’t preparing them enough for [...]

India’s vast network of colleges and universities may need to reorganize to become more effective, says an Indian government Planning Commission adviser. Working with American professor Philip G. Altbach, Pawan Agarwal surveyed the state of higher education in India for The Hindu. Indian students are committed and enthusiastic, but colleges aren’t preparing them enough for real jobs.

As many as 34,000 small colleges are spread out through the population of India, serving neighborhoods and towns under umbrella affiliation with large universities. Agarwal and Altbach point to this as the chief weakness of Indian higher education:

Many of India’s 34,000 undergraduate colleges are too small to be viable. They are generally understaffed and ill-equipped; two-thirds do not even satisfy government-established minimum norms, and they are unable to innovate because of the rigid bureaucracy of the affiliating system that links the colleges to a supervising university. All this makes the system highly fragmented, scattered and difficult to manage. There is a strong case for consolidation and merging small institutions.

At the same time, Indian business and industry is very supportive of reforming higher education to send better-equipped graduates to the work force. By decentralizing the university/college system, the government might free these small schools to start partnering with industry or trying new ways to teach. Perhaps some of the largest universities could be broken down into smaller regional universities, they suggest.

Rising salaries for college and university teachers should help to support these reforms. Five years ago, a pay raise to draw more qualified teachers was one of the top priorities.

Among 28 countries in a recent study, India ranked fourth in entry salaries for academics — better than the other BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) nations. China scored near the bottom for average salaries. This good showing is the result of the major pay increase implemented in 2006.

India’s college and university enrollment has risen steadily. As much as 18% of India’s young adult population is enrolled in higher education. Agarwal and Altbach compare this rate with other nations whose education levels rose quickly during the 20th century:

While the United States had an enrolment rate of 15 per cent by the 1940s, most advanced nations reached that stage several decades later. The United Kingdom, Australia, France, and Japan had enrolment rates of 18, 23, 24, and 25 per cent in 1975; and Korea enrolled only 8 per cent in 1975, which rose to 13 per cent in 1980, and then rapidly rose to 34 per cent in 1985.

While India has targeted its desired enrollment rate, by 2018, to be as high as 25%, the nation faces some unique challenges. Although India educates and employs some of the most advanced scientists in the world, most of its adult population still works on low-technology farms. When over 50% of a nation’s workers do not need to read or write in their work, many young adults who make the investment in education are taking a risk. 18% participation in higher education is a remarkably high rate for a mostly agricultural nation.

India has always been a leader in sending its students abroad for study, too. Recently, the former British colony dropped from the top international feeder to British universities, giving first place to China.

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