India’s higher education is opening up. But is it ready?

Indian higher education has suddenly become ‘hot’ – with delegations of global university leaders and politicians flocking to the country, the latest group from Australia. Governments and universities from around the world are signing memoranda of understanding with Indian counterparts and making big plans for research collaboration, joint degrees and other initiatives.

Recent regulations for setting up international branch campuses in Gujarat and the interest expressed by some foreign universities in doing this is the latest trend.

This is not surprising. India is now the world’s second largest higher education system, with around 38 million students in 50,000 academic institutions (including 1,057 universities) and a goal of doubling gross enrolment rates from the current 26.3% to 50% by 2035. Further, India is the second largest source of international students (after China) globally.

Interest is also stimulated by the new National Education Policy (NEP) released in 2020 that promises major investment in post-secondary education and significant improvement in India’s top universities with an emphasis, for the first time, on internationalisation.

Importantly, the NEP promises to open up a highly regulated and a largely closed academic system to the world. The traditional Indian ‘swadeshi’ (encouraging local products) ideology will, it is proposed, be replaced by an open door.

Scepticism about China, especially in Western countries, its ‘zero-COVID’ policy, and a modest decline in internationally mobile Chinese students have also stimulated interest in India.

While there is enthusiasm, little is known about the realities of Indian higher education and data are limited. It is worth looking at some of the challenges that international partners will face in India.

This brief discussion on the challenges is intended as a contribution to a realistic approach to future collaboration and partnerships. Of course, there are tremendous opportunities for those who engage realistically with understanding of the context.

Populism and politics

Indian higher education today exists in a highly toxic political and societal environment – as is the case in many countries – and this has fundamental implications for how academic institutions from other countries should consider possible collaboration and involvement.

A few examples illustrate the point. The ruling BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) government’s Hindutva ideology, and especially its anti-Muslim rhetoric and activism, is without question a hindrance to global higher collaboration.

Numerous examples of visa denials exist, such as a University of Sussex professor who is an expert on Kerala who was refused entry at the Thiruvananthapuram Airport and deported on his way to a conference with no explanation provided.

Academic freedom issues reported in the international media are all problematical. Indeed, reports of academic freedom threats are common. There were reports that government interference led to the resignation of eminent professor, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, from Ashoka University, a private institution.

The recent proposal by Home Affairs Minister Amit Shah to emphasise Hindi in the central universities and in the Hindi-speaking states will similarly be seen as a turn towards nationalism. Promoting pseudo-science in the name of promoting Indian knowledge systems in prominent institutions, promoting Hindi for medical degrees in the state of Madhya Pradesh, etc, can be harmful for the country’s higher education system in its efforts to compete globally.

Complexity and bureaucracy

Without question, India has one of the most complicated higher education systems in the world. Most undergraduate students study in private colleges of diverse quality. Of the 1,057 universities that mostly offer graduate programmes, around 450 are private. Most higher education institutions are under the jurisdiction of India’s 28 states and eight union territories.

The best quality public universities and research institutes – about 7% of the total – are central government institutions. There is also a small, recently established high prestige private university sector.

There is a complex arrangement for quality assurance – both external – through the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) for colleges and universities, and the National Board of Accreditation for assessing the quality of engineering and technology, management, pharmacy, architecture and several other fields. But only a minority of institutions (around 14% of colleges and 35% of universities) have undergone accreditation by NAAC.

India is known for its bureaucracy, inherited from British colonialism and ingrained in independent India. Rules and regulations, often inconsistently or slowly applied, cover many aspects of higher education. Internal bureaucracy combines with cumbersome governmental regulation.

The Constitution of India allows both the central government and the state governments to enact laws related to the higher education sector. Often, this division of powers has led to confrontation between central and state governments.

The recent confrontations between the central-appointed governors and state governments of West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Punjab on matters related to vice-chancellor appointments – including the mass firings of nine vice-chancellors in Kerala – are examples.


Indian higher education, at both state and central levels, has been dramatically underfunded for decades. Much of the significant expansion of recent years has been in colleges that receive no direct government funding, although a small proportion of students in select institutions are eligible for need-based support or scholarships based on caste or other status.

The private university sector has been witnessing significant growth in recent years. But most of the private universities are only ‘big colleges’ in terms of student enrolments and physical infrastructure.

The 2020 NEP promises a major infusion of funds for higher education and research, but significant allocations have not yet been distributed. And the NEP mainly covers standards and procedures governed by the central government and does not affect the states much – where the bulk of higher education resides.

Without question, neither significant quality improvement nor the massive enrolment expansion planned can be achieved without much-enhanced funding from both the central and state governments.

Good (in part) but not great

While India wants to partner with world-class universities in other countries, it cannot claim to have any world-class universities of its own, at least as measured by the 2023 Times Higher Education World University Rankings.

India’s highest ranking is the Indian Institute of Science, which is in the 251-300 range. India does have 75 universities included in the rankings, but rather far down on the lists. India does have a number of outstanding specialised institutions, including the Indian Institutes of Technology (especially the original five IITs located in Delhi, Mumbai, Kanpur, Kharagpur and Chennai), the Indian Institutes of Management and several research institutions.

India also has some excellent public universities with globally recognised postgraduate programmes in selected fields. Further, an Institutions of Eminence (IoE) scheme was launched in 2017, with the goal of identifying 20 universities to achieve “world-class standards”.

Although each public institution selected under the scheme is eligible for around US$122 million over a period of five years, only less than half of the originally sanctioned amount has been released for the eight public institutions under this programme.

Poor project implementation and poor absorption capacity of beneficiary institutions are the main reasons for the underutilisation of funds. By August 2022, only eight public and three private institutions were approved by the government under the scheme – including the Jio Institute, a not-yet-established new university in the ‘greenfield’ category.

Only public institutions are eligible for receiving funds from the government under this programme. The IoE scheme is, therefore, very much a work in progress.

Approximately 20 of India’s 54 central universities and 20 of India’s 126 ‘deemed universities’ meet reasonably good standards and some, such as the Indian Institute of Science Bangalore, Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai and Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, are excellent.

Most of India’s 28 states have at least one comprehensive university with some research focus that is of reasonable quality. Some of the oldest universities, such as the University of Mumbai, the University of Calcutta and the University of Madras, are sponsored by the state governments. A large and growing private sector exists in India.

Around 78% of India’s colleges are in the private sector (government-aided and unaided together) and they constitute around 66% of total student enrolments in the country. There are around 450 private universities, most of which are of poor quality and have marginal reputations.

However, there is a small but growing number – perhaps a dozen – of high-quality non-profit well-resourced private universities. These new institutions, which have earned high status in a short time, largely serve undergraduate students.

India has more than 100 research laboratories in diverse areas sponsored by the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and other central government agencies. Some are outstanding in terms of their research contributions.

From the perspective of overseas universities seeking partners in India, a rough estimate of appropriate partner Indian universities may be around 50. It is important to plan both an institution-specific and department-specific strategy for identifying potential partners in India. As elsewhere in the world, some second-tier universities have a few departments that are on a par with peer departments of the top-rated 50 universities.

A perennially troubled academic profession

At the heart of university quality and culture is the professoriate. The Indian academic profession is perennially troubled. Subject to strict bureaucratic rules, with many staff subject to extensive teaching responsibilities at the undergraduate level and often lacking adequate facilities to teach STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and other fields, the profession now faces significant shortages.

In much of the system, up to 38% of posts are lying vacant. Around 33% of the 18,905 academic positions in central universities were vacant last year – and the situation is worse in state institutions.

Staffing at the IITs is particularly problematical, as top talent can earn much more in the booming tech sector, both in India and abroad. The result is that 2,231 academic posts at the IITs of Delhi, Mumbai, Madras, Kharagpur and Kanpur were recently vacant.

While there have been efforts to increase the proportion of total faculty with doctorates, many academics do not hold a terminal degree. And more concerning still, many of India’s top researchers work overseas.


The NEP has placed emphasis on internationalisation, and particularly on increasing the small number of international students in India, as well as building links and programmes with top-ranking foreign universities, setting up international student offices in institutions and attracting foreign branch campuses.

But the fact is that India has never had an international academic strategy and has been a largely closed system for a half century. The infrastructure and policies necessary for effective internationalisation are lacking. Few universities have professional staff prepared to deal with foreign collaboration or significant numbers of international students.

Government regulations on everything from financial regulations to visa policy will need to be significantly changed – and this is not easy in the Indian context. The NEP recommendation that only universities in the top 100 of the global rankings will be welcome is entirely unrealistic and bad policy as well, although this recommendation is being rethought.

The NEP will no doubt give a boost to higher education internationalisation, but without major reforms and significant investment, by both universities and government, success will be impossible.

These developments are both encouraging and discouraging. The recent Central Regulations “International Financial Services Centres Authority, (Setting up and Operation of International Branch Campuses and Offshore Education Centres) 2022” allow both “top 500” universities and “other foreign institutions” to establish campuses and offer programmes in financial management, fintech, science, technology, engineering and mathematics in “GIFT City” in Gujarat.

These regulations allow only foreign campuses to be established on that specific site. How this will affect other parts of the country is unclear. The clauses of these regulations also allow “Foreign Educational Institutions” other than universities to establish campuses. This might allow the entry of fly-by-night operators.

In sum, the global academic community will need to examine the realities of India’s higher education before pursuing any level of involvement in the world’s second largest academic system.

Philip G Altbach is research professor and distinguished fellow, Center for International Higher Education, Boston College, United States.