India in ‘initial stages’ of higher education massification – Report

India has reached a gross enrolment ratio (GER) of 26.3% of people going into higher education and is close to achieving a target of 30% by 2020. While the country is on the way to massification of higher education, important questions on the quality of institutions and the employment of graduates remain, according to a report by the United States-based think tank the Brookings Institution.

GER is the proportion of 16- to 23-year-olds enrolled in higher education. However, India will see a bottleneck in achieving massification without increased funding for students’ access, said the just-released report Reviving Higher Education in India.

“In addition, a low rate of postgraduate enrolment with many going abroad for postgraduate studies points to a serious need to improve both the quality and capacity of postgraduate programmes in India.”

The Ministry of Human Resource Development has set a target of achieving 32% GER by 2022. “Going by the current growth rates, this target is likely to be met in the next few years,” said the report, describing India as in the initial stages of higher education ‘massification’.

With a GER of less than 15%, higher education is seen as an elite system where access to higher education is limited and is perceived as a privilege. Between 15% and 50%, it is regarded as a mass system, where higher education is seen as a right for those with certain formal qualifications. Higher education systems are described as universal when the GER is above 50%, the report notes.

Higher education expansion

With 51,649 colleges and universities, the Indian higher education system is one of the largest in the world. From 2001 to 2016, India added 26.9 million students to higher education. With 35.7 million students currently enrolled, India is second only to China’s 41.8 million.

India has seen a massive expansion in the higher education sector – an almost four-fold increase in enrolments and institutions since 2001. The increase was primarily driven by privately-owned institutions since the 1990s, although the private sector has not expanded sufficiently at postgraduate level, noted the report.

The frenetic growth has continued in the last five years with more than 6,000 institutions and six million students being added to the higher education system from 2011-12 to 2016-17.

Although lower than the global average of 36.7% GER, at 26.3% India compares favourably with other lower middle-income countries with an average GER of 23.5%, the report notes. For upper middle-income countries such as China, which has already undergone higher education massification, GER is closer to 50%.

GER growth hampered by student finances

GER is often linked to income levels and jobs in the economy. Service economies in developed countries tend to have a greater demand for higher education, the report notes. It adds that for India, further growth in higher education participation could be hampered by lack of financing for students from low-income families.

“As India rapidly expands its higher education sector, the question of affordability will become more urgent. Universal access to higher education involves bringing every student into the system. At present, funds dedicated to financial support are inadequate and have seen a significant decline in the last two decades.

“It may not be possible for the government to suddenly increase the number of scholarships, but it can make credit more accessible and at preferential terms for the economically backward,” the report said.

In India, “households will continue to be the primary funder of higher education studies. So long as gains from higher education remain high.” However: “Between loans and scholarships, less than 10% of enrolled students have access to financial support.” And this does not even include students who cannot afford to enrol in higher education.

Regional experience

The report observed that in the cases of China and South Korea, the transition from a mass to a universal higher education system was not possible without increased financial support.

Between 1996 and 2001, India and China had similar GERs. However, in the next five years, China doubled its enrolment rate from 9.76% to 20%, while India’s increased merely 2%, said the report, attributing China’s dramatic GER rise to increased higher education funding in the last two decades.

With limited funding, very few students receive financial support from the government. For instance, the needs-based National Scholarship Scheme has an annual target of 82,000 students (or 0.2% of enrolments in 2016-17).

Private higher education institutions, which now account for three-fourths of all enrolments, in general charge higher fees than government institutions. In the case of technical programmes, their fees can be almost 10 times higher.

A snapshot of the tuition fees to prepare for courses in engineering and technical education suggests that households are willing to pay large amounts to access these degrees.

Return on investment – Employment

Recent estimates suggest that the rate of return for higher education in India is between 12% and 15%, higher than in many developed countries, and will serve to increase demand for higher education, the report noted.

“With high rates of return, governments can justify shifting the financing of higher education to households. Such households will not rely on scholarships but are likely to rely on credit. To meet this demand, the government should at least look to improve access to student loans,” said the report.

But employment is not what it should be.

India Skills Report 2018 finds that employability across disciplines is just 45%, with engineering and pharmacy graduates the most employable while those from general three-year programmes are the least employable. In the last five years, the India Skills Report has found an increase in employability of more than 10%.

Employability surveys measure skills required in the workplace. In addition to a lack of technical skills, in many cases these tests have found poor communication and language skills among recent graduates. To address the skills gap in fresh hires, many companies invest in lengthy training programmes.

Postgraduate and research enrolment is low

Postgraduate enrolments have more than doubled since 2009-10, according to the report. Nonetheless, undergraduate enrolments account for close to 80% of all enrolments in India.

With around four million students enrolled, postgraduate programmes are a distant second at 11%. General programmes and those with high chances of employment are the most popular.

Research degrees account for a very small proportion of enrolments.

Although the number of PhD enrolments has doubled in the last five years, its share in total enrolment has actually fallen. “With the exception of a few elite institutions, most universities in India do not have research centres or departments,” the report noted.

Only 34.9% of all universities run postgraduate programmes and just 2.5% run PhD programmes, with Indian students increasingly pursuing postgraduate studies abroad.

India has proportionately about 18% the number of researchers China has, 5% that of the United States and 3% that of South Korea. India has 216.2 researchers per one million inhabitants against 1,200 in China, 4,300 in the US and 7,100 in South Korea, according to the report. A high density of researchers has a direct correlation with the quality of education in a country and how it benefits industries and thus the economy.

Most research in India actually happens in stand-alone research institutions, outside of the university system. According to 2016 estimates, some 278,383 Indian students were pursuing tertiary education in other countries, almost double the number from 2005-06.

Indian students studying abroad accounted for 1% of India’s total enrolment. However, a clear majority of Indian students abroad are studying at the postgraduate level.

Around 7% of Indian students in postgraduate education are enrolled abroad, despite the fact that higher education in many of the top destination countries is far more expensive than in India, the report notes.

Lack of research culture

Between 2011-12 and 2017-18 there has been a more than a 60% increase in the number of PhDs awarded. However, the number of academic papers published from 2014-18 is much lower than that for 2004-08 and 2009-13.

“The lack of a performance culture, segregation of research and development institutions and low morale among academics have ensured that even the country’s top universities remain largely teaching focussed with limited research and doctoral education,” the report said.

Further, Indian universities place a stronger premium on teaching rather than research; a significant portion of faculty’s time is devoted exclusively to teaching due to high workloads. The severe shortage of teaching staff along with hiring of ad hoc and part-time faculty members has skewed priorities among faculty members.