An unsustainable education model

In India, it has suddenly become fashionable to talk about the poor global rankings of higher education institutions. In the three widely referred to global university rankings of 2013 – those of Shanghai, QS and Times Higher Education – India had no institution among the top 200.

Only one Indian institute figured in the Shanghai ranking’s top 500 and just five were among the top 400 in both the QS and THE rankings.

The academic community in India must be bemused by the shrill pitch of this discussion because they know first-hand how deep the rot is. And for the same reason, academia in India will be hoping against hope that this time meaningful action, beyond rhetoric, will be initiated.

Increased awareness brings a focus on one of the two most critical challenges that India faces due to its demography, the one being education and the other healthcare.

The all-important question to be asked now is, after the discussions and debates are over, what policy actions are we going to initiate? India’s continuing poor performance surely indicates that there is a national crisis.

Unfortunately, going by past trends, the outlook is not hopeful. Back in 1966, in a report submitted by an Education Commission constituted by the government, the commission noted: “The destiny of India is now being shaped in her classrooms.”

The same sentiment is magnified many times more now, across a number of forums. Many more commissions, such as the National Knowledge Commission, have been formed for that purpose in recent times, but the Commission's term ended suddenly, at best generating a list of recommendations without a clear sense of ownership or implementation plans for those recommendations.

India has the world’s highest number of young people now, unparalleled in global history. In absolute numbers, India’s under 15-year-old age group, at 410 million, is 3% less than that of the entire developed world – 199 million – and China’s 230 million put together.

India has undergone a massive expansion in higher education since the beginning of this century and in primary education over the last couple of decades. This has been accompanied by a focus on the need for improvement in higher education quality and India needs a lot of work done in this area.

Primary education reached near universal enrolment, but simultaneously its quality was close to the bottom of global standards. In higher education, which has around 20% enrolment, India still remains far below the global average.

Downward quality spiral

For a few decades now, various internal and external studies have repeatedly pointed out that the quality of India’s education, from primary to higher education, is in a downward spiral.

Global rankings of universities, a concept barely a decade old, are the product of market forces arising from the increased globalisation of higher education.

Therefore, the alarm bells should not start ringing now that these global rankings are out. The alarm bells have been ringing for decades, as noted educationist Philip G Altbach noted regarding university reform in India back in 1972.

Unfortunately, those alarms failed to elicit necessary and timely regulatory clarity in forward-looking policy formulation and implementation, namely reforms in university systems encompassing all the country’s higher education institutes.

Statements like ‘higher education institutes in India are over-regulated and under-governed’ have now become a cliché. And over the years, with all this procrastination, the task gets more difficult and is now nearly impossible since expansion has resulted in a gigantic and complicated higher education set-up, with many vested interests.

India’s top-heavy system has fewer universities and many more affiliated colleges compared to the United States or China. The number of universities in India is a fraction of those in the other two countries but the number of higher education institutes is much higher.

The scale of operations, therefore, for higher education institutions in India is much less than for their counterparts. Moreover, around 70% of these institutions – which cater for 60% of enrolled students – operate in the private domain and are locally known as ‘self-finance institutes’.

Privatisation of the primary education system has also started spreading widely in spite of people’s low income levels.

In the Indian university system of affiliated colleges, it is common to see the curriculum and courses developed at the university level. Affiliated college faculty members teach a course at the hundreds of affiliated colleges the university may have.

However, the university designs the question paper and evaluation of the course is done by different faculty members than those who taught the students or designed the course or set the question papers. These different groups of faculty members seldom coordinate among themselves. In any of the top-ranking universities, such lack of coordination is unthinkable.

In the case of research, a student may pursue a PhD with one university, on a distance module, with supervisor/s from other institutes; and here again, there is very little coordination between the student, guide and university granting the PhD.

This has made the expansion of higher education, with unprecedented private support, easier. However, there has been little thought – and subsequent over-regulation aimed at improving quality has proved counter-productive, particularly for the very few serious and innovative-oriented institutes in the private domain.

Moreover, higher education institutes – including our famed Indian Institutes of Technology or IITs – have historically been mainly teaching centres. Only recently have a few IITs focused on PhD programmes. But the target for the numbers of PhDs, set to increase tenfold by 2020, is stretching the system beyond its academic limits.


On top of this, the minimum teaching hours most faculty members need to perform, as per the University Grants Commission – a statutory organisation for university education – varies from 14 hours to 16 hours a week.

This surely is on the high side, as per global standards, bearing in mind other teaching-related work including curriculum review, introducing new courses, evaluations, and thesis or project supervision.

Most institutions in India do not have separate categories of teaching-only and research-active staff, and faculty members are expected to teach, research and do often time-consuming administrative work. The vast majority of Indian academics also do not enjoy the luxury of having research associates to help them in any of these tasks.

It is important to mention here that the quality of secondary education in India has also been found to be lacking and falling, be it in 2009 PISA – Programme for International Student Assessment – test scores or various other local studies. In 2009, India secured 73rd position out of 74 nations; and surprisingly, one finds that India did not even participate in the next PISA tests in 2012, although global participation in 2012 was higher!

Any nation always worries more about the quality of its primary education because it affects the largest number of future citizens. India, with nearly 26 million enrolments in higher education against 180 million at primary level, should naturally be more worried about its primary education than its higher education.

A very disturbing signal is therefore being sent by the nation. In higher education, the obsession with ranking leads to discussions with THE about having India-specific parameters, whereas the nation ignores various internal and external quality measures for primary education.

Traditionally, India has always misplaced its priorities. India always tried to have a 'Wall Street' before building its main streets.

Back in the 1950s to 1980s, when South Korea and China focused heavily on primary education, India tried to balance both primary and higher education, and thereby neither achieved universal enrolment by the 1980s at primary level nor improved its higher education institutions significantly.

A positive feedback loop, from primary to higher education, enhances both, as can now be seen in South Korea or China.

Unsustainable model

The evidence shows that the Indian model is simply not sustainable.

Autonomy and appropriate-governance have been the key success factors for higher education globally.

The IITs, which prominently feature among those Indian institutes finding a place in the global rankings, have traditionally enjoyed more autonomy than any other Indian universities, and autonomy for other private colleges is practically nil. Had IITs enjoyed a fraction of the autonomy leading global universities do, their performance could have been much better.

The philosopher Joseph de Maistre observed that every nation gets the government that it deserves. By the same argument, every nation gets the education system (and media) that it deserves.

Unless India adopts structural reforms in its education sector by focusing more on primary education and by allowing quality private participation, and grants more autonomy and sets uniform rules for all players in higher education, the opportunities we have today will slip out of our hands.

* Professor Ranjit Goswami is Dean (Academics) of the Institute of Management Technology (IMT), Nagpur; and is a graduate of the IIT system including masters and PhD degrees. A shorter version of the article, “India's obsession with university rankings”, was first published by the East Asia Forum.