Reforms to revive higher education in India

    By N.V.Varghese,Director, CPRHE/ NUEPA, New Delhi 


More and more students are attending higher education institutions – the challenge now is how to promote equity and quality in a country rife with social and regional disparities.

This century has witnessed a revival of higher education reforms worldwide. India is no exception. Several reform measures recently introduced have contributed to the expansion of the system, quality improvement and enhanced relevance.

Reforms to expand the system 

India’s higher education sector has moved from a period of slow growth and low gross enrolment ratios (GERs) to an era of unprecedented expansion. Over the past 15 years, student enrolment has quadrupled to reach 34 million with a GER of 24 percent in 2015-2016. The size of India’s education system has now surpassed the United States, becoming the world’s second largest after China.  

Massification of the education system has heavily relied on non-state funding. Market friendly reforms introduced by the state include cost recovery measures in public institutions and the promotion of the private sector to own and operate universities. While privatization started slow, private universities are proliferating, and now account for more than 60 per cent of the enrolment share both in terms of institutions and enrolment. Massification in India is also accompanied by persisting social inequalities and widening regional inequalities in enrolment in higher education. 

Reforms to improve quality

India established external quality assurance agencies and internal quality assurance mechanisms to enhance higher education quality. Although accreditation is mandatory to obtain public funding, a majority of private higher education institutions still remain non-accredited. 

Ranking has been another effort to enhance quality. Indian institutions do not fare well in the world ranking of universities. In response, India initiated a national ranking process with the National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF) in 2015. The first results published in April 2016 and 2017 clearly indicated that the top ranking institutions are mostly public funded central universities.

It is currently believed that creating world class universities will boost India’s position in the global rankings. This prompted India to plan to support the creation of 20 world class universities in the immediate future. It appears that India, like many other developing countries, is on a fast track towards the reorientation of existing institutions into world class universities. 

Reforms to enhance relevance

Despite the sector’s growth, many employers in India have lost confidence in the quality of the qualifications awarded by the country’s universities. It is questioned whether these universities offer the skills and competencies to its graduates as expected in the labour market. In order to regain the credibility and enhance the relevance of university qualifications, India is now in the process of developing a National Higher Education Qualification Framework (NHEQF), which is focusing on learning outcomes, employability skills and competencies. This follows the 2013 development of a national skills qualification framework (NSQF).

Looking to the future

The massification of higher education is accompanied by a widening of regional disparities, persisting social inequalities and commercialization of the sector. The challenge now is to address the issues of equity and diversity to provide affordable, quality higher education in a period of market-led reforms. It is expected that the national policy on education currently in development will hopefully address some of these concerns.