Can India achieve its enrolment target post-pandemic?

India’s higher education enterprise is one of the largest in the world, with 37.4 million students enrolled in 2018-19 in just under 52,000 institutions, yet it serves only about one in four of the nation’s 18- to 23-year-olds. Successive governments have advocated expanding higher education participation, setting gross enrolment ratio (GER) targets to guide the growth of the system.

These goals were shaped by a desire to stimulate economic growth by strengthening the nation’s human capital while increasing educational opportunities for less privileged classes.

The Modi government’s RUSA 2.0 (Rashtriya Uchchatar Shiksha Abhiyan) initiative, which funds improvements in state higher education institutions, set a GER target of 32% by year 2022, an increase of about seven million students over current enrolments. The Draft National Education Policy released in mid-2019 is even more ambitious, suggesting a GER target of 50% by 2035.

The two main pathways for enrolment growth in India’s GER – regular or face-to-face and distance mode programmes – are not smooth. Enrolments in regular programmes have grown steadily since the late 1990s, but recent growth rates in regular enrolments are not sufficient to achieve either of the GER targets.

Face-to-face programmes will struggle to keep pace with the certain growth in the school leaver population in the coming years. To date much of the growth has been driven by private institutions which enrolled almost every student who could pay the fees, but this sector of the market is approaching saturation.

The distance education pathway also has some pinch-points, notably the cost and limited reach of internet connectivity in India, which hampers the growth of online delivery.

Reaching the GER targets has been further confounded by the sweep of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is affecting demand, constraining economic growth and re-shaping family aspirations and capacity to pay. These factors will influence the pursuit of a GER target of 50% and shift the way higher education is delivered in India.

Impact of the pandemic

Higher education is usually a counter-cyclical industry, growing in times of economic recession. But a pandemic-induced recession is likely to be different on at least two counts.

First, it is likely to be more severe, with the World Bank projecting that global GDP will contract by 5.2% for 2020, nearly three times more than the 2009 global recession. While the projected loss of economic impetus for India will be a little less, with a contraction of 3.2% in 2021, it will still limit public expenditures as tax revenues fall.

The strain on public funds can already be seen, with the central government directing the Ministry of Human Resource Development to aggressively restrict outlays for the April-June quarter of 2020 to 15% of the budgeted quarterly expenditure.

Second, this recession is also a health crisis that is shaping behaviour. Institutions, colleges and universities closed to dampen the spread of the virus. Faculty, staff and students stayed at home. Families have started to re-evaluate how much they would invest in higher education when the waves of infection subside.

Overall, the health crisis combined with a recession increases the probability of families deciding to forego higher education entirely or defer enrolment until next year or later. Along with restricted public funding in higher education, the likelihood of achieving either of the GER targets through current policy measures seems low.

Change in demand for higher education

Reduced capacity to pay will reduce demand for higher education. The Center for Monitoring Indian Economy estimates that more than 80% of households have lost some portion of their incomes due to lockdown, and about 140 million workers have become unemployed.

The most severely hit segment of the population are the second and third quintile income households, with more than 90% of these households losing income. It is young people from these families who have been taking up increased opportunities for higher education and who were expected to continue to flow into colleges and universities.

The loss of income in these families will constrain growth in participation. The impact of income loss is already being felt, with many parents writing to the University Grants Commission (UGC), the apex body in India managing higher education, about their inability to pay college fees.

Responding to the concerns, the UGC requested institutions to be sympathetic with families and allow them flexibility in payment of fees but did not provide any financial support. The drop in families’ capacity to pay is likely to suppress enrolments for some years to come.

The impact on GER from financial constraints will be amplified by reduced student mobility, which constrains the range and diversity of opportunities for young people. To avoid travel costs and reduce risks of infection, potential students will look for places closer to home. But with uneven geographic distribution of places, some young people will be unable to find a seat, while in other well served locations like Pune there may be unfilled places.

Off-setting financial factors that suppress demand, the pandemic may increase two sources of enrolments: young people who were expecting to study outside India may opt to stay in India and the number of international students coming to India might increase.

In 2019 there were over one million Indian students studying abroad, with about 125,000 starting their studies per year. With travel and visa issuing disrupted by the pandemic and increased concern about the risks of being far from home in a pandemic, many aspiring students may decide to stay in India for at least a year.

While the numbers of students who do stay in India will not appreciably impact the GER, they could have a positive effect on Indian higher education by being a voice for improvement.

Students from other nations who were hoping to study abroad in the United States and the United Kingdom may be deterred by visa and health restrictions. And some may feel it less risky to study closer to home. Both factors will increase international student interest in higher education in India.

Again, the numbers are unlikely to be large, but the presence of a more diverse student population could make Indian higher education more attractive to domestic students.

Overall, it is likely that enrolments will drop in 2020-21, only starting to recover when economic growth returns.

With demand for, and take up of, face-to-face learning opportunities constrained by the pandemic, an alternative and complementary path to attaining the national GER target may be open and distance learning. The Draft National Education Policy assumes that both traditional distance learning and online degree programmes will play significant roles in attaining a 50% GER target.

Open and distance learning and online learning

About one in 10 students in higher education in India enrol in distance learning programmes, a proportion that has been constant for the past nine years. Most of these students have no other means of accessing higher education because of location or inability to pay for regular college and university places. For many it is a last resort.

There is also some scepticism about the value of open and distance learning credentials and employers tend to devalue degrees earned through distance mode. This has slowed enrolment growth in distance programmes.

In 2018, hoping to increase and diversify the range of institutions offering programmes through distance learning, the UGC for the first time allowed design and delivery of fully online degree programmes by select institutions. But in the past two years, just seven institutions have launched online programmes.

It is hard to say whether the institutions have been reluctant to take up this opportunity for reputational reasons or if there is a perceived lack of student demand for online programmes.

COVID-19 may stimulate student interest in online programmes as they offer learning opportunities for families reluctant to send their children to colleges for face-to-face instruction because of the risk of infection.

Anticipating pressure for more distance (online) education opportunities, the UGC has simplified regulatory procedures for the top 100 nationally ranked domestic institutions so that they can now directly offer fully online degree programmes.

Deregulating the top-ranked institutions and encouraging them to deliver distance and online education may lift the quality of distance education and enhance the employment prospects of graduates from these programmes.

But even if quality improves, making the online route more attractive, there are tangible barriers to accessing online programmes. Connectivity is patchy – only 23.8% of households had internet access in 2017 and only 10.7% of households had a computer. These constraints will persist for some time, especially for students from lower- and middle-income backgrounds and for students in rural and remote areas, even as the government is working towards improving internet connectivity.

While making it easier for elite colleges and universities to design and deliver online courses is a good policy initiative, it will not significantly increase enrolments and does not directly address issues of affordability and accessibility.

Connectivity and personal computers are still costly and beyond the reach of many families in the lower- and middle-income groups. The provision of more online degree programme places by the most prestigious Indian institutions is unlikely to yield the enrolment growth required to achieve the GER target. At best, there will be a slight improvement in the national GER.

Achieving the GER target post-pandemic

To grow enrolments in online programmes they have to be more accessible and more affordable. While connectivity in rural areas is slowly improving, affordability needs more attention.

One option is long-term, low-interest ‘learning loans’, with repayment tied to future earnings. A second option is to introduce modular learning, allowing students to pursue courses at their own pace and build a degree over time.

Modularity can obviate upfront tuition fee payments and fixed semester fee payments, allowing students from lower- and middle-income families to pursue course modules as and when their financial capacity allows.

These financing strategies have been used in several countries with some degrees of success in broadening and deepening participation.

A third option that might be particularly suited to the Indian context is the creation of ‘guided online learning’ centres; digital learning spaces where students can access a learning device on a pay per use basis and be supported by learning or student counsellors.

Priority could be given to serving students from lower- and middle-income families, guiding them through courses to successful degree competition. Services from these centres would be more affordable as students avoid upfront expenses, such as electricity bills, internet charges and maintenance of learning devices, which can be a significant cost and act as a deterrent for lower- and lower-middle-income families.

Funding these centres could be an alternative to giving free learning devices to students, for which the Ministry of Human Resource Development has requested a budget of US$8 billion.

In establishing such learning support centres, the government should invite private companies and enterprises to partner with the centres in their areas of operation and provide internships and work placements for students in appropriate programmes of study. This is likely to reshape employer perceptions of online credentials and make participation more attractive.

Looking ahead

The economic imperatives and the desire for greater social equality that have driven successive governments to set and pursue GER targets will persist during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.

To achieve these economic and social goals and to maximise the demographic dividend of a large youth population, participation in higher education has to grow rapidly. Face-to face-provision will grow but will need to be complemented by substantial growth in flexible and cost-effective online programmes.

The three options laid out here recognise the impact of COVID-19 on family incomes and seek to build on the recent experience of Indian higher education institutions which pivoted to emergency online teaching because of the pandemic. All three will accelerate progress to achieve the GER target of 50% by 2035.

Eklovya Jain is a Fulbright masters fellow from India at the Graduate School of Education, University of Pennsylvania, United States. Alan Ruby is a senior fellow at the Graduate School of Education, University of Pennsylvania.