What is wrong with the Indian higher education system?

Only seven Indian universities were ranked in the top 400 universities by the well-regarded QS World University Rankings for 2019. And predictably, six of these seven are Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs). The only non-IIT Indian institution in the top 400 is the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bengaluru.

According to the University Grants Commission’s website, the total number of universities in India was 874 as of 25 September 2018. That figure includes 47 central universities, 391 state universities, 125 deemed universities and 311 private universities.

QS rankings are based on academic reputation (40%), employer reputation (10%), faculty-student ratio (20%), citations per faculty (20%) and international faculty/international students (10%). In the Times Higher Education rankings industrial income is also a factor.

Quality of teaching and research

If we look only at academic reputation and the faculty-student ratio, we can see where most of the universities in India stand. Academic reputation as described in the QS ranking is based on teaching and research. Teaching and research in any university depends on the quality of faculty as well as the quality of students.

The quality of teaching depends on the quality of teachers. For teachers to impart knowledge to students they must have a broad knowledge of their subject matter, the curriculum and educational standards as well as enthusiasm and a desire for learning throughout the course of their career.

They must have a desire to learn from students and other sources about the impact of their teaching and how it can be improved. There are a large number of universities in India, but scarcely 20 to 30 universities are considered to have faculty of high standing.

In this context the National Education Policy Draft Report by TSR Subramanian makes some very serious observations and recommendations. According to the report, the "quality of many universities and colleges and the standard of education they provide are far from satisfactory”.

An estimated 40% of college teachers work on a non-permanent, ad hoc basis and are designated variously as temporary, contractual, ad hoc and guest faculty. This is a serious problem as people with a good academic record do not want to take such positions as these are less attractive than a permanent one.

Pressure to publish

Even faculty who have been working for many years are under pressure to produce a certain number of papers to gain promotion. Thus they often publish papers in journals that may not be of high quality. This also means that there is more emphasis on publishing papers than on teaching.

Also, apart from the highly recognised higher education institutions like IITs, Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) and All India Institutes of Medical Sciences (AIIMs), most colleges and universities lack basic and high-end research facilities. Most of the central and state universities are supposed to be autonomous, but in practice government intervenes extensively in how they are run.


Next comes the appointment of vice-chancellors who are supposed to provide academic leadership as well as administrative skills.

But in one of its judgments the Madras High Court stated: “The heads of universities and the most visible symbols of the university system are these days appointed not because they are distinguished academicians, but because they have the right political connections in the Ministry of Human Resource Development in the case of central universities, or appropriate political or caste affiliations in the concerned state – in many cases, they pay huge amounts of money with rates varying from one crore to three crore [INR10 million to INR30 million or US$140,000 to US$421,000] in some states.”

Quality of student intake

Another important factor that affects quality education is the level of students admitted to universities. India’s undergraduates are students who have graduated from higher secondary level schools (for 16- to 18-year-olds).

No serious attempt has been made by central or state governments to open any new higher secondary level schools for the past few decades. The only new such schools opened by central government are Navodaya Vidyalaya and Kendriya Vidyalaya (both of which are central schools).

According to a recent British Council report on Indian school education, the number of central government-run secondary schools is 42,119 and higher secondary schools is 24,808. These schools provide education to deserving students for nominal fees.

In comparison, the number of private higher secondary level schools that receive no government aid is 17,302. These charge high fees so it is difficult for poor and lower middle class families to send their children there.

Conditions at other local higher secondary level schools and private schools that receive government aid are worse. They rarely have the necessary number of teachers and it can take a long time to find a new head teacher too.

In India students do not select their field of interest for further studies. The most popular courses are engineering or medicine. Sports and arts are considered very much as a second choice. If a student is not able to get admission into a science or business stream, they choose arts and social sciences.

Students are encouraged by their parents to go into streams that have higher pay levels or a higher number of jobs, rather than according to their field of interest. The best students go to IITs and AIIMS and the rest go to other universities if they want to continue their studies at tertiary level.

As for postgraduate students, many come from the various colleges affiliated to universities. These colleges have no basic facilities and are like teaching workshops.

Faculty-student ratio

Since a large number of positions are lying vacant at various universities the teacher-taught ratio is not up to the required level.

However, staff shortages aren’t the only cause for concern. The gross enrolment ratio of college-aged people in tertiary education in India was 25% in 2013 (according to the latest available data). This compares to around 60% in countries like France and Britain, and 36% in Brazil – another BRICS country.

The road ahead

In order for Indian universities to improve their ranking and become world class, the deficiencies mentioned have to be tackled. There is a need to implement an innovative and transformational approach from primary to higher education level to make the Indian educational system more relevant and competitive globally. There is also a need to free universities and colleges in both public and private sectors from political interference.

Some progress is now being made by the National Institution for Transforming India in this regard.

In a recent draft University Grants Commission (UGC) regulation sent out to universities, it was suggested that the top 50 universities in the country will be required by the UGC to reserve 20% of faculty positions for foreign faculty and that, in addition, they should be hired on longer term contracts.

But proposals for one fifth of the faculty body to be drawn from overseas have met with local opposition as universities are concerned that they will be left to fund foreign academics without any increase in their budgets. Some balance has to be maintained by increasing the fund allocation to these universities.

Dr Mukhtar Ahmad is a former professor in the department of electrical engineering at Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh, India.