India has the third highest number of higher education students in the world. In recent years, India’s higher education sector witnessed a tremendous rise in the number of universities and institutions. Changes have also been seen in curriculums with the focus shifting from rigid and silos-based learning to skill-based activities (Sheikh, 2017).
Despite this, the National Knowledge Commission calls the existing quality of higher education ‘a quiet problem’. Issues like poor or outdated curriculums, unavailability of faculty, and financial constraints impair the sector’s ability to produce industry-ready talent.
Since independence, India has made efforts to boost its education quality but there remains a huge imbalance in its accessibility. Less than 40% of rural India has internet, as compared to nearly 70% in urban areas. This has caused an inequitable distribution of opportunities for not only learning online but also for earning a livelihood.
India’s lack of emphasis on research and development (R&D) is also a highly debated topic. Even though the number of scientific publications has risen to 21000 in the last 10 years, India fails to gain recognition at the global level. The cascading effect of such challenges is that there is more unemployment, increased income inequality, a high dropout rate, and fewer qualified people (Koc & Celik, 2015).
A systematic review of key studies reveals problems in India’s higher education sector
Over the years, numerous studies have been carried out to identify critical problems that have hindered the progress of India’s higher education. We conducted a systematic review of 20 such studies published after 2012. They were procured from academic databases like Google Scholar, Semantic, and Springer, as well as industry reports like publications of Deloitte and Ernest & Young. Our study found commonalities as well as unique elements concerning higher education.
Curriculums in most institutions are unfit for the industrial use
Curriculum-related challenges include teaching methods and the syllabus designed for educating students. Our analysis revealed recurring keywords in curriculum-related problems such as ‘outdated’, ‘quality’, ‘flexibility’, ‘theoretical’ and ‘multidisciplinary’. The traditional education system designed in India does not favour learning through practice or stimulated environments where students are exposed to real-world situations. Rather, most concepts and theories are learnt through books and lectures. For instance, although Delhi University upgraded its curriculum recently by introducing CBCS (Choice Based Credit System) for its regular students, those enrolled in their School of Open Learning program are still subject to the annual mode of practice (A. Singh, 2017). The syllabus of SOL has not been revised resulting in keeping lakhs of students devoid of opportunities and upgrading knowledge as per the latest curriculum.
Curriculum-related problems have resulted in widening the industry and academic gap over time, limiting the availability of trained and skilled employees. Moreover, assessments are poorly designed; the opportunity to recognize, foster, and identify the unique capabilities of each student is limited (UGC, 2020). A report by Deloitte supported this problem of the Indian higher education system and determined that about 63.8% of the surveyed people believe that the absence of a fresh curriculum that could benchmark global standards is a major problem for Indian higher education (Gupta et al., 2019).
Financial and infrastructural problems impede innovation efforts in the higher education sector
The ‘financial’ problem of the Indian higher education system represents the limited availability of funding and facilities for supporting students. This could be in the form of fewer college campuses, the absence of world-class laboratories and research and development setups, or less usage of innovative teaching technologies.
Financial and infrastructural problems in India’s higher education sector cause a loss in the gross enrolment ratio, limiting the country’s literacy rate (Deloitte, 2021). Furthermore, the absence of advanced technologies to teach further limits their learning and development. This reduces the employment opportunities available to students. India can take inspiration from Germany which, in order to counter this need for technological advancement and make the curriculum relevant in the real world, created 50 ‘learning factories’ in recent years. Learning factories are stimulated environments within universities for promoting collaborative problem-solving, experiential learning, and practical projects. They are owned by technical colleges, groups of companies, individual companies, centres of innovation, and universities with online and physical facilities. They aim to train educators, managers and technicians too (Edwards, 2020).
Regulatory problems interfere with day-to-day operations
The regulatory framework is another impediment to India’s higher education ambitions. The University Grants Commission (UGC), which oversees the country’s higher education standards, forbids franchise models and distance learning courses for international universities seeking expansion opportunities in India. In India, accreditation bodies like the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC), UGC and National Board of Accreditation (NBA) regulate higher education. However, the regulatory system is plagued with issues such as the existence of an inefficient legal structure, an ambiguous system, more intrusion of political leaders, and the presence of non-approved institutes. They are degrading the quality of education.
Moreover, there is no national regulation authority present to verify the status of educational institutes (Deloitte, 2012). This breeds non-organized learning environments, which prohibits the effective delivery of education. As recently as August 2022, the UGC announced their identification of 24 ‘fake’ universities functioning in India. However, most of them such as All India Institute of Public and Physical Health Sciences are still operational with admissions still open. Therefore the onus lies upon the student to decide whether a university is worthy or not.
Political interference is another challenge the sector has been battling. It is present in most managerial functions such as the appointment of Deans and Vice Chancellors, deciding which course is beneficial, approval for affiliations, grant recognition, and in some cases, manipulation of exam results. This affects the moral values of students and distracts them from their learning goals, eventually denting the wheel of economic growth.
Finding faculty is a never-ending quest in the higher education sector
Resources refer to the technologies, learning databases, and faculties instituted by universities for teaching students. A study by Deloitte identified that about 79.7% of stakeholders of India’s higher education believe that lack of quality faculty is the main problem in higher education institutes (Gupta et al., 2019). This results in reduced innovation. It also creates a non-effective learning environment, thus hampering the quality of education.
Moreover, as universities in India are mandated to adopt a not-for-profit approach, they find it harder to invest in the latest technologies for enhancing students’ skills. This not only makes students less compatible with the existing market needs but also reduces their chances of employment and promotes brain drain. One of the most prominent cases of the resource problem is Delhi University. It has 51 colleges and has increased its seats in 2020 to 70000 with the addition of an economically weaker section. However, the university is still facing the issue of adding more seats. As many colleges at Delhi University has ad-hoc faculties with about 4-month contract i.e. about 4500 ad-hoc teachers, but the lack of permanent faculties is restricting their ability to increase their student intake (K. Sharma, 2020).
Investing in faculty can yield better student outcomes
Out of the four categories of problems we identified, two relate to faculty. The role of faculty in the education system is undisputable- they disseminate knowledge, drive student success, enable innovation, and maintain governance. However, their efficiency depends largely on institutional support. India’s higher education sector is yet to take cognizance of faculty-related problems like an administrative burden, lack of time for research activities, and the pressure to develop content. A systemic intervention is warranted to help them collaborate with experts for quicker and better outcomes. Leveraging these problems will take precedence in the coming years.
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