Higher education blown by light winds of change

If not quite the ‘winds of change’, there is a gentle breeze blowing through Indian higher education. An evolutionary process of change is underway.

The 2016 release of a draft New Education Policy, based on extensive consultation with stakeholders, acknowledged the need for reform in the sector through, for example, more autonomy for institutions, greater price or fee flexibility, a stronger emphasis on employability and quality, and more transparency and accountability.

It paved the way for further specific measures either announced, mooted or before Parliament. Three such areas are highlighted here.

Regulatory authorities

One critical aspect is the proposed Higher Education Evaluation and Regulation Authority or HEERA, which will result in the termination of existing regulatory authorities, including the University Grants Commission, the All India Council for Technical Education and the National Council for Technical Education.

There are two key benefits of this: providing scale, critical mass and a greater focus for an otherwise very fragmented regulatory system; and potentially creating a stronger linkage between higher education and vocational and technical education.

In the latest Global Talent Competitiveness Index, India ranks 104 out of 119 countries on enrolment in vocational education. It is a segment of India’s education that has typically been the ‘poor cousin’ in terms of resourcing and status, yet it is vital to providing employable skills and to meeting ambitious government skills targets.

It remains to be seen, however, whether regulatory change manifests itself in ‘on the ground’ changes in terms of stronger links between vocational and higher education and vice versa and related accreditation and course content.

The other key feature of the proposed HEERA is that it will not only define academic standards, specify learning outcomes and evaluate performance but will also actively mentor institutions to raise their standards. This suggests a much stronger outcome- and quality-oriented approach to higher education compared to the traditional heavy-handed input-based approach to regulation.

Whether the new body will have the capacity and capability to undertake these tasks, especially mentoring, is probably open to question, but it is an important initiative.

Further, it will be interesting to see whether this new regulatory arrangement gives rise to greater freedom and relatively more autonomy for institutions – a crying need in India – or whether it will be one ‘dead hand’ replacing another.

Another important development is that HEERA will not have grant-disbursing powers as the University Grants Commission has done. This separation of regulation and standards from grant giving will help to overcome any conflicts of interest and enhance transparency.

According to reports, the new body will have more powers to ensure that institutions are not able to admit students if quality standards have not been met. This again is a welcome change and should go at least some way towards addressing some of the poor admission and student recruitment processes that are evident.


Another emerging area of focus is internationalisation of the Indian higher education scene.

According to reports, the Indian government is poised to provide an additional 15,000 places for international students across 160 universities in 2018-19 – and 150,000 student places over the next five years – with full and partial fee waivers being a key component of this.

Given that there are approximately 45,000 international students in India currently, this would mean a target of around 200,000 international students in five years’ time. The Study in India programme will seek to double India’s global market share of education exports from less than 1% to 2% and will focus on Asia and Africa.

The number of overseas students in India has been low historically and India’s inbound tertiary mobility is ranked 102 out of 127 countries in the Global Innovation Index. Moreover, based on data from the All India Survey on Higher Education, the top 10 countries of origin account for 62% of overseas students and just one country, Nepal, accounts for close to 24% of students from abroad.

Current international students are mainly from neighbouring and less developed areas of South Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Further, just one state of India, Karnataka, accounts for nearly one-third of international students by location in India, indicating the narrow spread of students from abroad within India and the lack of diversity in the system.

One can’t help but feel that a more ambitious approach could see India target more students from the developed world and centres of research and teaching excellence across the globe, as well as postgraduate students – international intake is dominated by undergraduates.

This would hasten institutions’ exposure and access to ideas, knowhow, expertise and capabilities from around the world and lead to a greater enmeshing of India’s innovation system with global innovation systems.

Of course, it is recognised that creating a reputation globally as a place to study and conduct research takes time and ongoing improvements in quality are needed.

Moreover, whether India has the facilities, infrastructure and support structures to take on students in larger numbers is open to debate. India does not feature particularly strongly in the QS best student cities rankings, for example.

Institutions of eminence

Another key feature of the Narendra Modi administration’s plan is the selection and promotion of top 20 ‘Institutions of Eminence’ as leaders in research and teaching. These will receive government support, enjoy complete autonomy and be recognised globally.

Latest reports indicate that it is a struggle to find such institutions. This highlights the difficult challenges India faces in raising the quality and capability of its institutions.

Further, one would suggest that a more appropriate way forward is to build the next tier down of capable, high-quality institutions to cater for India’s massive skills needs, provide strong all-round education for its expanding young cohort of students and realise its aspiration to become a knowledge-based economy.

While the elite Indian Institutes of Technology and institutions of similar ilk have been very important for India, the issue of quality gaps elsewhere in the system have not been adequately addressed. One would hope that this experience is not simply repeated.


In conclusion, there is change in the air in Indian higher education. A number of welcome developments are taking place. As with a number of things in India, effective, efficient and timely implementation will be key.

Moreover, there is much more to be done to foster high quality across the board, further promote education access for India’s vast cohort in the 18-23 age bracket, strengthen links between education and industry and create a robust research culture. Providing institutions with the ability and freedom to innovate and create is a fundamental enabler.

Dr Anand Kulkarni is consultant and principal adviser for Victoria University, Australia. His book India and the Knowledge Economy is to be published by Springer later this year.