Poor quality and too few seats push 600,000 students abroad

Inadequate higher education infrastructure and poor quality courses are pushing 600,000 Indian students to top universities overseas – and are costing the country around Rs950 billion (US$17 billion) in foreign exchange annually – a study has found.

The study, “Higher Education Scenario in India”, was conducted by the Associated Chamber of Commerce and Industry of India, or ASSOCHAM, and is yet to be published.

It found that most Indian students go abroad because they do not find seats in quality institutions within the country. The huge capacity constraint in quality higher education could be tackled through public-private partnership models, the study suggested.

Competing for too few seats

With an aspiring middle-class, the limited number of quality higher education institutions is failing dismally to meet demand.

In 2012, 500,000 students sat the entrance exam for 9,590 seats at Indian institutes of technology (IITs), India’s premier technical colleges. The Indian institutes of management (IIMs) received close to 200,000 applications for 15,500 seats.

Notably, in 2011 Sri Ram College of Commerce (SRCC), one of the leading commerce colleges in the country, set a minimum marks cut-off for admission of 100% for students with science subjects. Anything less than a perfect score would disqualify an applicant.

The move outraged students and sparked debate about access and quality in higher education. According to the SRCC principal, PC Jain, the problem lies in the supply of and demand for higher education.

“The number of students who score 90% and above is increasing every year. But we have a limited number of seats. If everyone applies for SRCC then we have to find a way to limit the number,” said Jain.

“We need more quality higher education institutions since the number of students graduating from school with good performance is surging every year.”

In 1987, when a million students took grade 12 exams, SRCC had 800 seats. In 2011, 10.1 million students wrote grade 12 exams but the college had the same number of seats.

Struggling to achieve quality

Even if more seats were available, students who have experienced a foreign education said they would rather go abroad for the academic and cultural experiences, than study in India.

“Even average institutions in the US and UK are better than most colleges in India. Critical thinking, freedom to express your thoughts and to interact with faculty members, and inter-disciplinary studies is what distinguishes many foreign universities from their Indian counterparts,” said Shaleeni Chopra, a postgraduate of the University of Sussex in the UK.

According to experts, even if universities began strengthening the quality of education, it would be a very long time before the tide of students going abroad could be arrested.

“The role of universities is to produce knowledge, apply knowledge to research and build an academic culture,” said Professor MK Sridhar, member secretary and executive director of the Karnataka Knowledge Commission, a think-tank under the chief minister’s office.

“Unless universities re-orient themselves, embrace technology and open their doors to competitive research and faculty building, India will keep losing students and professionals to foreign universities, which provide students and teachers with a richer academic environment,” Sridhar said.

Caught in red tape

According to the ASSOCHAM study, higher education in India is subsidised enough by the government to attract students, provided that they gain admission to quality institutions.

“An IIT student pays an average US$150 monthly fee, while students opting for education in institutions in Australia, Canada, Singapore, the US and UK shell out US$1,500 to US$4,000 in fees every month,” said ASSOCHAM Secretary General DS Rawat.

“Demand for education loans has also been increasing by over 20% annually,” he said.

The paper suggested that India set up more quality institutions along the lines of IITs and IIMs to ease the outflow of students.

Notably, under the 11th Five Year Plan from 2007-12, the government announced the setting up of 51 publicly funded higher education institutions – including eight IITs and seven IIMs.

Most of the proposed institutions have been plagued by setbacks, including delays in land acquisition, shortages of qualified faculty and, in several cases, disputes between the central government and states.

Sriram Kelkar, an associate professor at the University of Hyderabad, said universities needed more autonomy in order to innovate and experiment, to attract students and achieve internationally competitive standards.

“Just providing funds for expansion is not the answer. Norms for hiring faculty need to be liberalised so that fresh talent can be brought in. The conventional teaching and grading systems need to be re-looked at and teachers need to be given more autonomy.

“Only then can we compete with our global counterparts,” Kelkar said.