Student access soars, but challenges remain

India's efforts to increase higher education participation have paid off, with the gross enrolment ratio (GER) or the proportion of school-leavers aged between 18 and 23 years entering college-level courses, rising from 12.5% in 2007-08 to close to 20%.

However, the rise in GER does not necessarily mean an increase in education quality or the supply of skilled personnel, academics and policy-makers have warned.

The latest official figures released in this month show 17.5% of the cohort entering higher education in 2009-10. The figures computed by the University Grants Commission (UGC), are based on National Sample Survey Office data published last year.

According to UGC chairman Ved Prakash, if 2011 data is taken into account the enrolment ratio would be closer to 20%. On current trends it would reach 25% by the end of 12th Plan 2012-17.

This rise has brought cheer to policy-makers, with India's Education Ministry emphasising its aim to increase the GER to 30% by 2020. The government's target was to achieve a GER of 16% by the end of the 11th Plan in March 2012.

At the start of the decade, only one in 10 students were in higher education. In 1980, India's GER was just 5%.

In the past five years, 200 new universities and 8,000 new colleges have been set up, taking the higher education enrolment in India to a little over 15 million, around four million short of American enrolments.

Big challenges remain

But the good news ends there.

The increase in the number of students opting for higher education only complicates the challenges faced by the sector: teacher vacancies estimated to be as high as 30% to 33%, poor infrastructure and low quality courses.

And some experts are cautious about the latest data.

"The increase in GER was expected. Several new institutions were set up in the private sector, with little contribution from the central government," said Pawan Agarwal, higher Education adviser to the Planning Commission.

However, Agarwal argued, the fixation on GER is misconceived. "A bigger challenge lies in how we cater to the aspirations of young people passing out of school; how we align higher education opportunities with the jobs that the Indian economy is creating," he told University World News.

"While the GER of Singapore is just 23%, it is one of the most advanced economies in the world."

The growth in courses and institutions is also uneven with engineering and management courses dominating the expansion. Few new institutions have opened for vocational education and training.

"Expansion is no doubt essential. It is also good news that more of our students are getting an opportunity to pursue higher education," said Professor Yash Pal, chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

"But quantity without quality has been the bane of higher education in our country. We need graduates who can think, solve problems, create jobs and be socially and emotionally capable. Our colleges are failing to do this."

For industry, the rise in educated manpower means nothing without quality and higher proficiency.

"When we go for campus placements a majority of students across Indian universities fail to meet minimum standards in presentation, personality and communication. These are basic qualities that any graduate education should equip them with," said M Susant, director at Starcom Media Ltd in Gurgaon, speaking as a recruiter of graduates.

"Even subject knowledge required for certain profiles is lacking," he added.

The increase in participation rate also fails to highlight the lack of equity in access to higher education.

While the national figure is impressive, the state-level picture is uneven.

State-level participation rates are still to be released officially, but a study in 2011 by Ernst and Young and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry showed Delhi leading the table of best-performing states with a GER of 31.9% in 2009-10, followed by Maharashtra, where the enrolment ratio was 25.9%.

At the bottom were the north-eastern states of Tripura at 6.6% and Assam at 6.7%. Bihar, one of northern India's poorest states, had a GER of 8.5% and West Bengal 7.8%.

The 12th Plan, which commences this year, "needs to focus on equity. We need quality colleges, vocational institutes and universities in less accessible districts of Orissa, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir and backward districts of the more prosperous states," said Pradip Narayan Ghosh, vice-chancellor of Jadavpur University in Kolkata.

"If we ensure that all sections of society are getting the opportunity to access higher education, expansion will become relevant."

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Enrolments in higher education soaring?

India's estimates on enrolments in higher education and the gross enrolment ratios, as given in the Statistics of Higher and Technical Education (2009-10) of the Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India, need to be interpreted with caution. Looking at the figures carefully, one can make three alternative estimates on total enrolments and accordingly gross enrolment ratios:

(a) enrolments in all formal (conventional) under graduate, post graduate, including post-graduate diploma programmes and MPhil and PhD programmes;

(b) (a) plus enrolments in post school diploma programmes; and

(c) (b) plus enrolments in open university programmes.

Normally only (a) can be considered as enrolments in higher education (consisting of ISCED 5 and 6 levels as defined by UNESCO), as (b) includes enrolments in all post-secondary education programmes, which are post-secondary but not higher education; and (c) is not generally considered, as enrolments in open universities/distance education programmes belong to different age groups, with actual duration of studies not comparable to formal education.

Enrolments in distance education may also include dropouts who have not formally withdrawn or deregistered from the programmes.

According to UNESCO (and UIS) only (a) is appropriate.

These three estimates give us three different figures on enrolments, as per the same report - 15.9 million, 17.3 million and 20.7 million; and the respective enrolment ratios are: 11.5 per cent, 12.5 per cent and 15.0 per cent. The MHRD report quotes the last figure, giving an impression that we have already achieved in 2009-10 itself the target set for 2011-12.

To add further to the complications and confusion, the UGC's Annual Report 2010-11 reports a figure of total enrolment in higher education in India in 2009-10 as 14.6 million, but does not give any estimate of gross enrolment ratio, though it goes on repeating the target of the 11th five year plan (15%), and that the ratio was much less for scheduled castes and others. If we take the population estimate given by the MHRD in the same report, UGC data on enrolments mean a gross enrolment ratio of 10.6 per cent.

Jandhyala B G Tilak, National University of Educational Planning and Administration, New Delhi