INDIA: A crumbling system of higher education

India's decision in the early 1990s to open its markets and fully participate in the global economy is widely credited for the nation's spectacular rate of economic growth over the past decade or so, says Professor Fazal Rizvi. But Rizvi says many within and outside India believe this rate of growth is not sustainable unless India overhauls its crumbling system of higher education.

In an address to a Unesco Centre for Comparative Education Research forum at the University of Nottingham last month, Rizvi said the rise of India as an emerging economic power was widely attributed to India's decision to open its economy in early 1990s, deregulate and privatise the key economic sectors, engage with global processes, actors and agencies, and better utilise its enormous pool of knowledge workers.

Rizvi is a professor in the department of educational policy at the University of Illinois and has written widely on theories of globalisation, education and cultural policy. He is currently researching higher education in India.

He said there had been widespread recognition of the role of higher education in sustaining high levels of economic growth and broader distribution of national wealth. Yet there were many indicators of a decline in the higher education system and these included:

* An inability of the system to meet the growing demand.
* Considerable evidence of poor teaching, especially in state universities.
* Ineffective quality control.
* Poor graduate outcomes with unemployment for most graduates from colleges.
* Declining research performance and productivity.
* Low status of Indian universities in international ranking.
* Widespread corruption in appointments of faculty and selection of students.
* Poor governance with cumbersome bureaucratic impediments to reform.

Many of these problems were caused by the structure of higher education in India and its colonial beginning in the mid-19th century, with a strong emphasis on disciplinary learning and examinations, Rizvi said.

Then there was the wide variety of types of institutions, with universities and affiliated colleges responsible for providing curriculum and overseeing academic standards, unitary universities without affiliated colleges and universities with constitutive and affiliated colleges.

A key factor, of course, is the sheer size of the Indian system, now the third largest in the world, after China and the US. India has nearly 18,000 institutions (348 universities and 17,625 colleges), that include a small elite sector of IITs, IIMs and IISs, 20 central universities, and the rest state universities, a large number of research centres and laboratories, and more than 10 million students (but less than 8 % of the age cohort).

As well, there are 26 private universities, 5,750 aided private colleges, 7,650 unaided private colleges and around 150 foreign institutions. Most private and foreign universities and colleges focus on business studies, engineering and IT.

The Indian government established a National Knowledge Commission in 2006 and it has released a set of recommendations for reforming higher education. These include:

* Creating many more universities - another 1,500 to attain a gross enrolment ratio of 15% by 2015.
* Changing the regulation of higher education by establishing an Independent Regulatory Authority for Higher Education.
* Increased public spending and diversifying sources of financing universities.
* Establishing 50 'national universities'.

As part of the reforms, existing universities would be reshaped, undergraduate colleges reshaped, improvements required to enhance quality, and would adopt a policy of inclusion that would ensure access for all deserving students along with a process of affirmative action.

Rizvi said among the issues that remained to be resolved were policy coordination between the different authorities responsible for higher education, the declining authority of the UGC, the complexities of Indian federalism, political and legal inertia, and the "politicisation of policy communication and implementation".

He said the government had promised some increase in public funding which would be sufficient for the knowledge commission's targets but that alternative funding sources were reluctant to invest in higher education and research. There were also problems with the allocation and distribution of funds.

Privatisation was occurring at a rapid rate without a coherent policy framework, Rizvi said. A Private Education Bill was still languishing in Parliament, yet the quality of private institutions was "uneven at best".

For the system as a whole there was no coherent quality assurance mechanism and India faced a decline in the role of professional associations in quality assurance, while the peer review systems by faculty and students was almost non-existent.

On the matter of access and equity, Rizvi told the forum that strong policy dictates for affirmative action were often ignored, a narrow conception of access existed and the educational outcomes for some minorities were deteriorating.