The Growth of Higher Education in India
India’s higher education system, already one of the largest in the world, is experiencing a season of dynamic change and conscious reform. Recognizing that the world’s knowledge landscape is changing, with dramatic shifts in science and technology and a growing need for multidisciplinary learning and problem-solving, education leaders in India are emphasizing the role of higher education growth in securing the developmental goals of the country.
As a leader in international higher education and partnerships, and as operations director of RTI’s University Collaboration Office, I recently had an opportunity to observe what’s happening in India and meet some of my counterparts in their colleges, universities, and government. In March, I participated in a two-week Fulbright-Nehru International Educator Seminar in India. As part of a group of 14 leaders with extensive experience in higher education, we represented 14 states and brought a shared interest in better understanding the higher education landscape in India and identifying potential paths for collaboration.
Here are 8 takeaways from my experience at the Fulbright-Nehru International Educator Seminar in India:
- In 2020, India launched an ambitious 20-year plan—the New Education Policy—its first comprehensive education policy since 1986. The plan centers around five pillars (access, equity, quality, affordability, and accountability) and sets out a critical need for “massification,” as the growth was frequently called during our meetings. The plan calls for an increase of more than 70 million students enrolled in higher education by 2035, shifting a 27% gross enrollment rate (GER) of people aged 18-23 to 50% GER. Put another way, the percentage of students enrolled in higher education, relative to the general population of young people aged 18-23, needs to nearly double in the next 12 years.
As our cohort met with heads of colleges and universities, we witnessed shared values around the principles of the policy, but varied impressions about how its goals can be achieved, its impact on students and institutions, and the role the NEP will play in advancing India in the knowledge economy.
- Among many paths to meet the massification goals, the policy allows for some international universities to establish branch campuses in the country. Initially, permission was extended to the world’s Top 100 universities, then expanded to the Top 500. I anticipate that the metrics for ranking/position will continue taking shape, though I am skeptical about the international campus approach and remain an advocate for partnering with local institutions and providing technical assistance and capacity building collaboration rather than competing with local institutions. I plan to watch closely and see which global universities pursue this offer.
- Comparing India’s need for massification with the enrollment cliff that’s unsettling small liberal arts colleges (and other institutions) in the U.S., we had interesting discussions about enrollment needs and capacity. We talked about the role that U.S. institutions facing shrinking enrollment could play in the education of Indian students. Is there a way to help meet needs in both countries while also serving students and advancing research and innovation? Creative minds could bring forward creative solutions.
- The NEP, and the Indian constitution, call for broad access to education. Across multiple institutions, our cohort spoke with university leaders about access for students from scheduled castes/scheduled tribes and other underrepresented backgrounds, as well as academic and social support for these students once enrolled. While the NEP and current policies around affirmative action call for access, there are still significant barriers for students from these backgrounds to gain entry. To cite just a couple challenges, language and testing: In a country with 22 official languages and more than 120 spoken languages, the lingua franca of higher education is English, but earlier language of instruction is more varied. Additionally, students compete for acceptance to higher education through a dizzying array of testing, in some cases with a need to travel to the intended institution to complete pre-entry requirements. I met one student taking six tests for potential post-graduate education. Testing comes at a price, including for the extracurricular test preparations some students begin pursuing years before they sit for the tests.
In one of our panel discussions with higher education leaders, we talked about barriers to higher education for students from underrepresented backgrounds. One bold panelist said that “the hat of responsibility gets passed around,” implying that other systems—such as basic or primary/secondary education—are sometimes named as the system to fix. Rather, she noted, there isn’t a single system that can, alone, solve the challenges of access to higher education. Rather, there’s intersection of societal circumstances that influence access to education and academic performance, plus a need to address these issues from many directions within and outside of education. Her comment felt like she was holding up a mirror, prompting reflection about the myriad of issues that influence an individual’s lifelong learning path, success, and opportunity for social mobility in the U.S. as well.
- There are more than 55,000 higher education institutions in India. The ones we visited ranged in size and type: discipline-focused colleges; state and national public institutions; private and religious-minority colleges. A college for women. Indian Institutes of Technology. Young universities modeled after the comprehensive U.S. research university, interested in competing for students and research globally. By seeing many types of institutions, we observed different strategies for managing and responding to the NEP, and gained insight into circumstances in which some are already performing beyond NEP requirements. Under the NEP, there are expectation of consolidation. But at colleges and universities, some wonder: to what effect?
One candid university leader said that what he has seen of the NEP is a series of anniversaries since its launch; another leader was concerned that implementing the NEP could cause a backslide in significant achievements his college had made in inclusion of students from underrepresented backgrounds. In addition to raising questions, though, there was broad consensus that the NEP’s aspirations are important and that advancements need to be made in higher education across India.
- Creative, socially conscious students, faculty, and innovators are developing and incubating solutions to meet local challenges, with potential global applicability. This was apparent across many institutions that we visited. To cite just two examples, at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras Research Park in Chennai, one colleague in our group demoed Yali Mobility’s EV that provides a potential solution for people with locomotor disabilities. With two-wheelers the most popular vehicle in India, this three-wheeler vehicle is designed to be driven by a person sitting in their wheelchair. It was presented in an environment focused on solving local challenges. And at Indraprastha College for Women (IP), students in the Ananta Science Society presented models for inventions ranging from solar-powered charging stations to a solar-powered boat that collects river debris.
- Our group of Fulbrighters brought diverse perspectives and interests. Colleagues whose research and administrative responsibilities include race, justice, inclusion, and retention brought insight into matters related to access and success for students from underrepresented backgrounds, including scheduled caste/scheduled tribe. One colleague with extensive experience in agriculture and ag tech helped us see not only what was being grown in fields around us, but also to consider ways the institutions manage ag research. Others brought expertise in the history of environmental writing; technical and vocational training; and community and economic engagement, including consideration for real estate holdings of institutions we visited. I regularly inquired about research and innovation. Each Fulbrighter brought a lens that helped us see the higher education landscape more clearly.
- In addition to learning from one another in the Fulbright-Nehru cohort, we benefitted from having a faculty advisor with deep knowledge of both Indian and U.S. higher education. Reshmi Mitra helped us see and re-see our institutional visits, read the text and the subtext, interpret our experiences, and understand the pressure and opportunity in Indian higher education today. She told us from the outset, in a premonitory voice: “The quality of a program is dependent on the observations you make.”
One observation that helped me see internal administrative structures that often support research at Indian universities. At Dr. B. R. Ambedkar University in Delhi, I became alert to organizational differences in the management of research operations. During a presentation that included an organogram, or org chart, I probed to differentiate the varied organizational units responsible for financial oversight, compliance, and pre- and post-award activities typically aggregated into an office of sponsored research in the U.S.
As I consider next steps based on these experiences, I’m grateful to have the partnership of Shalabh Srivastava, country director for RTI International India, and Arpita Sinha, head of strategy, growth, and alliances for RTI International India. We have been working together to develop connections with universities around energy, climate, water, and health. Throughout my visits, I remained alert to researchers and projects that are connected to RTI International India priorities, as well as aligned with other interests across the institute.