India moving forward with education reforms

“There is not a single Indian university amongst the top 200 universities in the world. This calls for drastic action to reform the way education is imparted in our universities and academic institutes.”

— The President of India, Pranab Mukherjee, at the 10th Convocation of the National Institute of Technology, Kurukshetra

A troubled education system

India is on a mission to redress the discrepancy between its economic potential and its education system. The latter has been plagued, among other things, by:

Just a couple of months ago, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said:

“Too many of our higher education institutions are simply not up to the mark. Too many of them have simply not kept abreast with changes that have taken place in the world around us … [and are] still producing graduates in subjects that the job market no longer requires.”

Concern about India’s education system is clearly registering at the highest levels of government, as are calls for immediate action. President Mukherjee went on in his address at the National Institute of Technology to say that the three goals India must focus on in terms of educational reform are:

  • accessibility;
  • affordability;
  • quality.

The Indian government’s 12th Plan Strategy’s educational focus areas are technical education and distance learning, plus better quality in research, infrastructure, faculty, and curriculum content.

Streamlining system may produce real gains

There are thousands and thousands of small Indian colleges, many of which are accused of being of sub-par quality and a sizeable number of which are closing down due to reports that graduates are not emerging with market-ready skills.

A University World News article argues that a key problem in India’s struggles to upgrade its higher education system has been undue focus on spending without thinking strategically about what the spending should be doing.

One example of this is the profusion of Indian colleges and universities, too few of which are said to be of high quality and most of which are troubled by lack of harmonisation (i.e., inter-institutional cooperation to create clear study pathways and credentials for students).

The article considers that a possible remedy is the decentralisation of the Indian university and college system, “whereby core courses could be retained by a university, while responsibility for the rest of the curriculum could be devolved to colleges …. [creating] a desired innovation culture in colleges.”

Well-implemented strategy will certainly be needed to address quality concerns and worries that Indian students aren’t getting the education they need, especially in light of India’s new budget cutbacks for education. As ICEF Monitor reported in January of this year, the Indian central government cut education spending by 13% this fiscal year.

But encouragingly, just this month, India’s Central Advisory Board on Education (CABE) agreed to create a committee to formulate a National Higher Education Qualification Framework (NHEQF). This committee is expected to provide recommendations for the monitoring and regulation of higher education institutions’ quality and compatibility with each other within six months. The ultimate hope for the NHEQF is that it will result in “a single system of levels for all qualifications offered by higher educational institutions across all disciplines thereby making higher education qualification comparable nationally and internationally.”

More focus on technology

In line with the 12th Plan Strategy, a bill has recently been introduced into India’s Parliament that would see the creation of “20 more Indian Institutes of Information Technology (IIITs) in various parts of the country”; the bill also declares the four existing IIITs as “institutions of national importance.”

Technology investments will also likely be aimed at distance learning modules, to redress the concerning fact that many Indians in remote areas cannot access a college or university education.

Domestic improvement needed to fight brain drain

India, like China and the rest of the BRIC nations, has been sending ever-more students abroad to gain the skills needed to power the growing Indian economy. But some worry that the trend may be draining as much as giving to the nation’s economic power. In fact, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that a new study by Wan-Ying Chang and Lynn M. Milan of the National Science Foundation shows that:

“Only 5.2% of Indians who study outside their home country to earn doctorates in science, engineering, and health return home.”

The article also quotes Rajika Bhandari, a deputy vice president for research and evaluation at the Institute for International Education, who said:

“China and South Korea have done a much better job of deliberately creating well-structured incentives and opportunities for students to return back home, than, say, India.”

Furthermore, a 2012 study conducted by Indian Institute of Management- Bangalore (IIM-B) found that the students going for higher studies abroad increased by 256% between 2000 and 2009.

Internal strengthening more a focus than attracting foreign branch campuses, students

Because of the brain drain problem and senior government officials’ embarrassment at India’s poor showing on university rankings, the current focus in higher education in the country seems to be on strengthening the domestic system – aligning the competencies of universities and colleges and making sure Indian students are emerging with respected, job-ready skills – rather than on courting outside partners or students.

ICEF Monitor reported in August 2012 about the Indian government’s decision to shelve pending legislation that would allow foreign universities to establish campuses and award degrees in India. There has, however, been some progress on this front of late. After a two-and-a-half-year delay, the foreign education providers bill was recently cleared by a parliamentary committee and is now going to parliament.

The Indian Human Resources Development Ministry aims to see the bill passed between now and September, and, if it is, this new legislation will clear the way for expanded foreign participation in India’s education system. Commenting on these recent developments, University World News notes :

“In its report, the parliamentary committee said that scrutiny of all the proposed legislation had been completed. Enactment would bring about major transformation in the higher education sector ‘and thus restructure and reorient our higher education system’ in a globalised world.

‘The committee is of the firm view that passing of these legislative proposals need not be delayed any further,’ the report said.”

Meanwhile, as we reported in February, the Indian government is also putting its efforts into its vocational sector, estimated to reach US $20 billion by 2020, through the adoption of its National Policy for Skill Development, which aims to create a skilled workforce of 500 million people by 2022.

These reforms, along with the government’s targeted investments and increasing focus on quality education, represent important steps towards allowing India to achieve the promise inherent in its “demographic dividend” – its huge population of working-aged people – and in further opening India’s economy and education system to the world.



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