What India must do to expand higher education enrolment
According to the All India Survey of Higher Education (AISHE) 2019-20, the gross enrolment ratio (GER) in higher or tertiary education increased to 27.1% (38.5 million), from 26.3% (37.4 million) in the preceding year.
This indicates that the remaining 72.9% of the population in the 18-23 age group is not enrolled in higher education institutions (HEIs). The National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 sets the target of 50% GER by 2035.
To achieve this target, GER is required to grow at 3.53% per annum. The target is attainable given that the compounded growth rate of GER between 2011-12 and 2019-20 was 3.58%. However, it requires a multipronged, multi-tiered strategy.
In 2018-19, the net enrolment ratio at higher secondary level was only 30.8%, with 69.2% of the population in that age group being kept out of school. This limits the possibility of an increase in HEI. The key is, therefore, to focus on improving the inter-stage transition ratio from secondary to higher secondary, and then, to HEI.
Geography is also critical to HEI. For instance, college density remains highly concentrated in urban areas. Policy intervention to expand HEIs to the hinterland along with increasing the enrolment capacity is urgent.
Earlier, the Radhakrishnan University Education Commission (1949) and Kothari Commission (1964-66) favoured small, high-quality HEIs. This is in sharp contrast with the policy of large enrolments in the HEIs of China, the United States and Europe. In 2016, India’s 51,649 HEIs had 35.7 million students, when China’s 2,596 institutions had 41.8 million students. Experiences from these countries suggest that larger HEIs with high enrolment are easier to manage and more resource-friendly.
Further, the share of distance and open learning in India has remained stagnant at around 11% for many years. Massive online open courses (MOOCs) through SWAYAM provide an avenue but only 10.7% of Indian households have access to a computer, with only 23.8% to the internet (National Sample Survey Organisation: 2017-18).
To attract learners to HEIs, quality teaching is imperative. Currently, colleges and universities across the country are short on faculty. India needs 3.3 million more teachers in HEIs to improve the teacher-student ratio, from 1:28 to an ideal 1:15. This requires efforts to help get the best minds to choose teaching as a profession by ensuring a steady and significant career trajectory. India can learn from the education systems in countries such as Finland and South Korea, where teaching is a coveted profession. Along with this, accelerating the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) assessment of HEIs can incentivise an improvement in the quality of programmes and courses.
Employability can be a key driver to bring more learners into the HEIs. However, various employability surveys have found that graduates lack both the technical and communication skills required for skilled work. Vocational courses — organised by HEIs and designed in partnership with employers in the region — can help improve these levels. Mandating internships will further equip the students with the necessary skills to enter the formal work environment. NEP’s commitment to building “an integrated higher education system, including professional and vocational education” must be translated on the ground.
Finally, the universalisation of higher education requires funding for those who cannot afford it. The financial support given through scholarships is currently inadequate. The transition from “mass education” to “universal education” is through financial support to the most vulnerable.
Additionally, it would be pragmatic to make credit available to students from economically weaker sections. To reach our goals by 2035, it is important to categorise learners into subgroups to ensure that a concerted campaign is designed methodically and implemented thoroughly, leaving no stone unturned, or no learner left behind.
India’s GER has steadily increased over the last few years. This growth has also seen a substantial increase in the GER of women along with the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities. This growth must continue to soar. The future, therefore, lies in empowering subgroups, which will thereby accelerate GER. This must go hand in glove with India’s efforts to strengthen the policy of greater social inclusion proposed by NEP 2020.
Vijoy Kant Das is member, Bihar State University Service Commission, Patna
The views expressed are personal
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