With a slew of parliamentary bills in the pipeline aimed at revolutionising the higher education sector, and increasing participation from international education providers, 2011 may well turn out to be a watershed year for higher education in India - in particular making the playing field clearer for private players and increasing vocational provision.
Several bills pending in parliament are expected to be approved during the year, including a bill on accreditation of higher education institutions and programmes to ensure quality education in both government-funded and private institutions.
The bill would make it mandatory for institutions to go through a regular accreditation programme that would evaluate curriculum, faculty, infrastructure and student satisfaction.
According to Mrinal Miri, former vice-chancellor of North Eastern Hill University in Shillong, 2010 was the year of initiating reforms. "The education minister opened up the higher education sector for debate. He reached out to foreign players and private providers in India for partnerships.
"In 2011 this will yield results, with more collaboration on research and joint academic programmes."
Miri continued: "The [pending] bills will not only bring in transparency, they will force education providers to be accountable to their students. This will strengthen the private sector by weeding out the dubious players, and encourage more public-private partnerships."
The private higher education sector has grown exponentially in the last decade, with 80% of enrolments in professional education taking place in private institutions.
However, the central government has not yet formulated a clear policy on private universities: all private universities to date have been set up under state legislations.
To encourage private participation, the central government has now made it easier for private companies to open and run higher education institutes.
It has also reduced the land requirement for establishing new technical institutes in cities, particularly in cities that have none at present. The land required to open engineering, management and architecture institutes in cities has been reduced to just over a hectare (2.5 acres) from 1.4 hectares (3.5 acres). Management and architecture institutes have also been allowed to add more storeys to their buildings to aid swift expansion.
India's corporate sector will visibly increase participation in higher education this year.
For example, Reliance Industries is planning a world-class university either in Delhi or in Mumbai. The BK Modi-led Spice Global group is planning a university of more than 40 hectares in the populous northern state of Uttar Pradesh. And Azim Premji University in Bangalore is set to enrol its first students this year.
While most private universities are set up as non-profits, they clearly have a for-profit mode of functioning, with the entire operational cost coming from student fees.
The government will encourage private firms to join hands with central or state governments to set up higher education institutes, operate them, recover their cost, and hand them over to the government.
The public-private-partnership and 'build-operate-and-transfer' model will be used in 241 districts where there is no institute already recognised by the accrediting body, the All India Council of Technical Education.
The focus will not merely be on expanding the range of providers but also the range of provision to include more vocational education.
During 2010 Education Minister Kapil Sibal aggressively pursued foreign universities and governments to engage with the higher education sector. In 2011, his focus will be on implementing the National Vocational Qualification Framework.
"Last year we concentrated on formal higher education. While universities are important we must not forget that a huge number of high school graduates do not enter formal higher education. India therefore needs a strong vocational education network such as that in the US," Sibal said.
"If we want to increase higher education enrolments by 30 million, it means 1,000 more universities. Government cannot do everything. We need the private sector, foreign education providers, expansion of distance learning and enlarging the online format of learning," Sibal added.
According to the minister, 150 million students will need quality vocational education.
"India's target of training 500 million people by 2022 can get a boost if institutes in the country collaborate with those in the US. Vocational education should be integrated with higher education to do away with the mindset that skills training is all about making your hands dirty," said Sibal.
However, as higher education expansion continues apace India will face the challenges of faculty shortage, inadequate infrastructure and stagnant curricula in its quest to improve higher education quality.
"The government is opening new institutions. It is also encouraging private players in order to increase access. But where are the teachers?" asked PC Jain, Principal of the Sri Ram College of Commerce (SRCC) in Delhi.
"We have a dearth of qualified faculty. The government does not provide enough funds for maintenance and improvement of infrastructure in colleges and universities. We also do not have the freedom to innovate and evolve the curriculum. While taking care of quantitative expansion the government should not forget the pressing quality issues," Jain argued.
Although strong central leadership and the education ministry's active role in formulating higher education policies has been criticised by some state governments, experts said definitive national policies were the need of the hour.
"Quality, transparency and access are national issues. What is true of one state is true of the others. Students across India are suffering from bad quality institutions, and lack of enough institutions. I am hopeful that the various [national] legislations will bring some much-needed homogeneity in the quality of higher education in India," said BB Bhattacharya, a former vice-chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi.
"The tempo has been set. Expansion with urgency is the key message that the government has put forward, not only for itself but all its education partners," said a senior government official. "There is a need for the states to match this tempo by increasing investment in higher education.
"This year and the years after this will be about the higher education growth story."
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