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Higher education needs to tackle bureaucratic barriers

Although Indian higher education suffers from many dysfunctionalities and the system overall is characterised by what some have termed "pinnacles of excellence in a sea of mediocrity", it does reasonably well on some international comparisons.

Here are a few examples:

  • India is a global leader in terms of gross domestic product (GDP) spent by public and private sources on higher education. At 3% of GDP (1.2% from public and 1.8% from private sources), India spends more than the United States (1% public and 1.6% private) and Korea (0.7% public and 1.9% private) on higher education.

    This suggests a limited scope for further increase, although more is required since, in absolute figures, investment in higher education does not measure up in international terms. Furthermore, there is an urgent need for effective and efficient use of funds to promote both equity and excellence.

  • The gross enrolment rate – the proportion of the age group accessing higher education – of 18% is among the highest for countries at India’s level of development. This is particularly impressive given India’s size and complexity. The recently approved 12th Five-Year Plan aims to raise the gross enrolment rate to 25% by 2017, which is both desirable and achievable.

  • Finally, academic salaries, by accurate purchasing power parity comparisons, are quite good. Among 28 countries in a recent study, India ranked fourth in entry salaries for academics – better than Brazil, China and Russia, which are other nations in the BRICS bloc. China scored near the bottom for average salaries. This good showing is the result of the major pay increase implemented in 2006.

Value for money

Is India gaining value for its investment in higher education? Also, is more money the answer to the challenges? Most observers would agree that on average Indian colleges and universities do not do a very distinguished job and are definitely not ‘world class’.

A number of factors are related to the positive trends noted here. Although India invests significant sums in post-secondary education, with the funds increasingly coming from students and their families, it does not spend the money effectively.

There is little coordination between the states and the central government.

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 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 of small institutions. But the affiliating system is vast and deep rooted and, therefore, it is neither feasible nor desirable to dismantle it.

However, decentralisation of part of the curriculum holds great promise. With greater academic autonomy, core courses could be retained by a university, while responsibility for the rest of the curriculum could be devolved to colleges. This would create a desired innovation culture in colleges.

Clustering and even merging colleges that are very small would also have to figure in reform. In addition, universities that affiliate a large number of colleges would need to be reorganised into two or more universities, with each affiliating a smaller number of colleges to improve overall academic effectiveness.

While gross enrolment rates are not bad by relevant international standards, India is about four decades behind most advanced nations in enrolments.

While the US had an enrolment rate of 15% 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% respectively in 1975. Korea enrolled only 8% in 1975, which rose to 13% in 1980 and then rapidly increased to 34% in 1985.

All these countries have achieved a system close to universal higher education; but it must be recognised that enrolments have grown based on the rise in demand for qualified people, with agriculture contributing to less than 5% of the workforce.

Considering that over half of the people in India are still engaged in the farm sector with limited need for higher qualifications, current levels of enrolment in India appear to be adequate.

The bigger challenge is that students do not choose to study in fields that will best contribute to economic growth – or to their own job prospects. Also, employers regularly complain that graduates are not adequately prepared for available jobs.

While it is true that Indian academics, by international standards, are relatively well paid, they are not necessarily effective. Academics, and especially college teachers, are constrained by rigid bureaucracy. Furthermore, their work is not carefully evaluated – salary increases and promotions are awarded on the basis of seniority.

Unfortunately, when salaries were increased in 2006, this boon was not accompanied by any reforms in the teaching profession or requirements for evaluation. A System of Academic Performance Indicators for promotion and appointment of professors and lecturers is yet to take root.

It appears that Indian academics want to do a good job and most are committed to their profession. However, structural impediments and an ossified culture get in the way.

Our general impression is that despite several areas in which India compares well globally, deep structural and cultural impediments prevent the academic system from performing effectively.


India has some areas of accomplishment in higher education. The challenge is to capitalise on these and reform an ossified system.

In the Indian case, expenditure does not necessarily mean effectiveness.

In this way, Indian higher education may be compared to the American health care system. The US spends the most per capita on health care, but expenditure does not yield results. The Barack Obama reforms, like the 12th Plan in India, may finally improve an ossified system traditionally dominated by special interests and conflicts between the federal government and the states.

The 12th Plan provides a good framework for change. It seeks to align central government investment with that of the state governments – align new capacity with demand. It also seeks to create a performance culture through deepening of competitive grants and creation of related institutional arrangements.

However, success depends on effective implementation.

* Philip G Altbach is professor and director of the Centre for International Higher Education at Boston College in the US. Pawan Agarwal is advisor for higher education in the Planning Commission, government of India. This article first appeared in The Hindu.
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