India is facing a staggering crisis of education. There is no shortage of indicators pointing to glaring failures in the sector. It has, for instance, lately emerged that the number of foreign students coming to India for higher education from seven key countries — the United States, Germany, France, South Korea, Australia, China and Singapore — declined from 13,961 in 2013 to 3,737 in 2014, amounting to a 73% drop. The number of students from the neighbourhood, including Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, has also declined.
Given the polarised discussion on policy issues we are likely to see arguments that attribute this to the failings of the previous UPA government. That is certainly true — and a part of the reason may have to do with perceptions of insecurity, owing to the attacks on women that inhibit parents from sending their children to the subcontinent. But there is no escaping that the quality of India’s higher education is in decline, owing to woeful shortages of capable faculty, a patchy research ecosystem, and various deficits of governance.
Not only is the credibility of our educational institutions taking a beating abroad, large segments of the Indian elite have already lost belief in their ability to secure their children’s prospects. Currently, some 132,888 Indian students study in the US, contributing $3.6 billion to the latter’s economy. India is now producing vastly more graduating high school students than it has reasonable colleges and universities to accommodate them in, which is a situation that an emerging power should not find itself in.
The first thing policymakers need to do is to acknowledge the gravity of the problem, rather than contest accepted metrics that point to it. That there is no single Indian institution in the top 200 of leading university rankings like Times Higher Education should worry those anticipating great strides for the nation. Urgent measures that improve governance of higher education are required. These must include restoring the autonomy of institutions, without which attracting academic talent is not possible. Hopefully, the new education policy, which is in the works, will accord due space to these concerns.