INDIA: Strategic plan for skills gap

A robust system of higher education is essential for India's continued rapid economic growth, social cohesion and international competitiveness. Rapid economic growth and technological advancement in India are changing the nature of work. Many more jobs now require higher levels of education. Higher education is seen as critical to a country's ability to reap the demographic dividend in the short to medium term. As a result, India needs more and better higher education.

The previous five-year plan emphasised broadening access by setting up new institutions for higher education, both publicly and privately funded. As a result, enrolment growth accelerated to 7-8% of the population compared to 5-6% under the previous plan. Academic reform, including institutional governance, was also undertaken. However, some issues remained unresolved and there are many new challenges to be tackled in the 12th five-year plan, which needs to be flexible and allow for direct feedback so that it can be responsive to and adapt rapidly to the country's changing circumstances.

In a dynamic environment, higher education practice has to cater to new skills and lifelong learning. There is a shift from traditional undergraduate and graduate studies to continuing education and studies linked to career changes, using both on campus and online methods. Higher education expansion has to cater to these changing circumstances.

My view is that there should be continued commitment for higher education expansion, albeit with a strategic shift from the creation of new institutions to their consolidation, focusing on quality and raising the bar for high quality institutions to make them globally competitive. Expansion needs to be aligned with the skill needs of the country and there should be seamless integration of higher education, vocational education and training provision.

Despite accelerated growth during the past five years, our current gross enrolment ratio (GER) of about 18% is much below the global average and one-fourth that of advanced countries. Raising the GER to 25% by the end of the 12th plan is possible without compromising equity and quality. This would mean creating an additional capacity of 10 million places during the twelfth-plan period.

Higher education growth has to reach out to underrepresented sections of society. We need to increase participation particularly among those who have been traditionally underrepresented on account of poverty or for other reasons.

Capacity expansion has to be linked to changing labour market conditions and youth aspirations, while also maintaining a balance between general and professional education on one hand and sciences, the humanities and social sciences on the other. In a balanced system of higher education, excellence takes different forms - not all institutions should and can be "world-class" but they can and should adopt the best institutional and pedagogical practices possible. Hence institutional differentiation needs to be encouraged and institutions should be allowed to grow at their own pace.

Open and distance education provision can also increase capacity and widen participation for those who face time-constraints imposed by personal responsibilities and commitments.

Currently, about 18% of all government spending on education is on higher education. This works out to be about 0.70% of the GDP. This needs to be raised to 25% and 1% respectively.

State universities and colleges which account for more than 95% of students suffer from poor governance and lack of funding. States should be encouraged to draw up comprehensive higher education plans. With strategic investment, state universities and colleges could add significant capacity and improve quality. An institutional mechanism for joint funding of state plans by the central and state governments could be developed.

There could also be a joint review mechanism of outcomes of the programmes which are jointly funded. Central funding could be linked to governance and academic reforms. Similar strategic funding for private institutions can also help improve quality.

To ensure that public funds are used efficiently, allocation of money needs to be based on competitive grants and performance contracts. For leading institutions in research, a proper mix of standard allocation and competitive funding for research appears to be the best option. Research funding may be sector-blind (that is public or private) to promote excellence and competition while not overly reducing the autonomy of institutions. We should also encourage universities to fund raise through consultancies, research contracts and donations.

It is not possible to making higher education tuition-free. We will need to keep a reasonable level of fees, but ensure there is appropriate publicly-funded financial aid for poor students. The scale and reach of scholarship schemes has to be substantially increased and a web-based portal could be used to improve the efficiency, timeliness and transparency of the system and to target disadvantaged students better. Student loans have to be significantly expanded.

Historically, Indian higher education has been organised into two separate streams - general and professional. Most students are enrolled in the general stream which, because of its poor quality and rote-learning-based pedagogic practice, fails to equip graduates with work skills.

It must be recognised that general education can be an excellent form of preparation for the flexible, knowledge-based careers that increasingly dominate the upper tiers of the modern labour force. Thus, instead of denigrating general education, efforts are needed to improve its quality through innovative curricula and interactive pedagogic practice.

Professional programmes, which have become increasingly popular, are often expensive and long. They are usually run by narrowly specialised institutions which offer few, if any, liberal-arts components although these are essential for the development of intelligent and able citizens, capable of contributions to the polity beyond their field of academic specialty. This calls for an integrated curriculum and innovative pedagogic practices and is being tried by a few institutions at present but there is a case to make it more widespread.

The vocational education and training sector is not only small but its limited capacity is not fully utilised because of poor quality and its low prestige - a result of the lack of links to the higher education sector. During the 12th plan, the country needs a large sector offering short-cycle qualifications like associate or foundation degrees in intermediate skills that are essential in modern economies.

Such degrees would carry with them the social prestige that vocational diplomas and certificates do not have and would also be less expensive and academically less rigorous, catering to poor and less well-prepared students. This sector would provide a bridge between the vocational education and training sector and the mainstream higher education, integrating the vocational and mainstream higher education qualification frameworks. Such a strategy would ensure that higher education expansion is linked to sector diversification - a key feature of all large systems of higher education.

Private higher education has contributed significantly to India's higher education expansion over the past decade. It accounts for more than a third of overall enrolment and about four-fifths of enrolment in professional higher education. While this is more than that in China, it is much lower than in places such as Japan and the Republic of Korea.

Private growth has, however, been uneven - it is restricted to a few fields of study and confined to some states and regions. There are concerns about the quality of private provision and complaints of many private providers indulging in unfair practices. New laws to curb unfair practices and accreditation would address these concerns, but we must beware introducing legislation that stifles private growth, innovation, institutional distinctiveness or competition. Hence there is a need for a specific policy with regard to private education, a statutory framework for its establishment and development and a transparent, comprehensible set of rules and regulations.

During the 12th plan, private growth has to be directed to serve underserved areas and ensure that it is more broad-based. Innovative public-private partnerships could be explored to achieve this. Countries such as the US have a large and growing for-profit higher education sector and several others such as China are experimenting with legal for-profit higher education.

It might be useful to explore the possibility of for-profit higher education as long as it is limited to vocational and professional education and quality and equity are not compromised. Finally, the private sector could be provided access to public funds in the form of students' financial aid or funding for postgraduate and doctoral programmes and competitive funding for research.

It is unfortunate that even the best Indian universities are nowhere close to the world's best. Serious efforts are needed to get some of the country's universities in the top league. High concentration of talent, abundance of resources and autonomous governance structure are features of the world's best universities.

To achieve this as quickly as possible, India should create new universities, upgrade existing very good ones and merge and support clusters. We need to recognise that only a few universities can be world class and they must be lavished with top researchers, teachers, students, and funding - all of which are limited.

We also need to boost the quality of staffing in India's universities by fostering innovative methods for faculty training and certification and reviewing the qualifications required for faculty positions. Learning must be tailored more to the individual needs of students and be more interactive and collaborative, using the latest telecommunications and digital infrastructure. Accreditation must also be harnessed to improve quality.

More broadly, higher education institutions should also engage more intensively than before with wider society and contribute to local and regional development and provide intellectual leadership to society. Higher education is increasingly a global enterprise; hence Indian institutions should embrace internationalisation in their own different ways, whether that be through partnerships or clustering which can also help boost performance.

The 12th plan is an opportunity for Indian higher education to move forward and create a more broad-based higher education system which responds to the needs of the 21st century.

* Pawan Agarwal is advisor, higher education, in India's Planning Commission. He is also the author of Indian Higher Education: Envisioning the future (Sage 2009). The views expressed here are personal. Email

Mr Aggarwal is too obsessed with privatisation. He makes a comparison with Japan and not with the European countries such as the UK and others with a low number of private institutes. He just mentions about equity but without any reasonable solution.

Dr Sanjay Dabhade