Expert Speak India Matters
Published on Sep 26, 2019
Increasing enrolment in higher education: A quantitative and qualitative challenge

One of the key objectives of India’s draft National Education Policy is to increase the gross enrolment ratio (GER) in higher education to at least 50 percent by 2035. Since the current GER stands at just 26.3 percent, doubling it in the next 15 years will entail significant planning, reform and sustained implementation. In this light, the recently released All India Survey for Higher Education (AISHE) report 2018 assumes importance. It not only gives an overview of the current higher education landscape but is also indicative of areas that need urgent attention if the 2035 goal is to be achieved.

Gender parity

Overall, as of 2018-19, 37.4 million students are part of the higher education system of which 18.2 million are female. This accounts for more than 48 percent of the total enrolment, an increase of a percentage point from the previous year. In retrospect, this number was just 1.2 million in 2010-11. While this improvement is noteworthy, it is not consistent across different streams. Since almost 80 percent of the total enrolment in higher education is at the undergraduate level, a gender split across five major streams including arts, science, commerce, engineering & technology, medical science and law presents a more nuanced picture.

While female students comprise more than half of the total enrolment in arts and science courses, the corresponding share for engineering students remains low at just 29 percent. This is important since engineering includes electronics, computers, mechanical and information technology—sectors that are relatively more job-lucrative. Similarly, women constitute less than 40 percent of total enrolment in management as well as law streams. Conversely, women make up more than 60 percent of total enrolment in the medical sciences. These preferences contribute to gendered effects on labour markets as well as wage structures.

While female students comprise more than half of the total enrolment in arts and science courses, the corresponding share for engineering students remains low at just 29 percent.

To ensure diversified and equitable gender participation in engineering and other technical courses, a number of factors have to be tackled. In 2018, the IIT-JEE (India’s flagship engineering entrance exam) had less than 30 percent female applicants. Even among them, only 12 percent made it to the top 25,000. For these numbers to improve, it is essential to address implicit biases that exist throughout the education system. It includes addressing the problem of stereotypes associated with engineering related domains right from the school level. In addition, structural issues like equal access to quality coaching for exams, inclusive university/college environments, geography, changing employer attitudes towards hiring women across technical job roles etc., have a bearing on enrolment rates. As a first step, it is imperative to understand the scope and extent of these issues before addressing them.

Concentration of HEIs

Six Indian states—Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Karnataka—account for more than 54 percent of the total student enrollment in higher education. Of the 39,931 colleges across the country, 50 districts (out of 731) account for more than 32 percent. As a result, although the college density (per lakh eligible population) is 28 nationally, it varies from seven in Bihar to 53 in Karnataka. Such spatial disparity is an impediment towards increasing the GER at a brisk pace. For disadvantaged sections of society, the opportunity cost of higher education (commute, hostel fees etc.), is often too high and hinders the education process. It can even be the determining factor for choosing a higher education institution or opting to forgo the same. Since market forces have played a major role in the higher education landscape, geographical equity has been elusive. While urban centres in India have performed reasonably well in terms of access to higher education, policy interventions for access to HEIs in hinterlands will be essential to match increasing social aspirations and increasing the GER.

Low number of international students

The number of international students is generally a reliable indicator of the quality and robustness of a higher education system. As of 2018-19, only 47,427 foreign students were enrolled in the Indian higher education system, which is not enough for a country with more than 950 universities. This number stands at more than 4,00,000 international students in China, more than 3,00,000 in Germany and 75,000 in Singapore. Globally, India caters to less than one percent of all international students.

Prospective international students tend to select HEIs based on international rankings as well as the ease and cost of living in host countries. Indian institutes have failed to feature in the top 100 of world university rankings published by reputed ranking frameworks. The outflow of Indian students for education abroad is itself more than 15 times the inflow of international students to India. It clearly states the need for more quality HEIs in India across disciplines. While the Ministry of Human Resource Development has rolled out the ‘Study in India’ initiative in 2018 that attempts to increase the number of international students to 2,00,000 by 2024, scholarships and bursaries cannot be a substitute for institutes that can provide quality education.

The outflow of Indian students for education abroad is itself more than 15 times the inflow of international students to India.

Currently, in addition to India’s neighbouring countries, African countries like Sudan and Nigeria account for almost eight percent of the international student received by the nation. While improving the quality of HEIs is a long term measure, ensuring seamless transition and acclimatisation of students from African countries will yield relatively quicker results. This includes easing visa approval processes, ensuring accommodation of students in culturally sensitive environments and effective grievance redressal mechanisms.

The PhD conundrum

Only 0.5 percent of the total student enrolment in higher education are currently pursuing PhDs. A major reason for this abysmally low number is the saturated job market for PhDs. Apart from academia, PhDs in non-engineering sectors have very limited opportunities. However, more than the quantity, the quality of PhDs in India is a greater concern. Depending on the HEI, a successful PhD candidate does not necessarily possess research rigour. Indian academia has been plagued with issues such as fake journals, plagiarism etc. for a while now. Academicians holding positions of repute have been questioned on their research integrity. These are some of the main aversions that the corporate sector harbours when it comes to hiring PhDs, which ultimately aggravates the problem of limited jobs. In May 2019, the University Grants Commission announced its plan to conduct an investigation on ‘The Quality of PhD thesis in Indian Universities’ over the last decade. If executed well, this will help identify departments and institutions that are producing quality research and also weed out the sub-standard and bogus ones.

PhD candidates are the forbearers of the research identity of a higher education system. Going forward, while there must be focus on improving the PhD ecosystem in general, there is a need to reorient the skill set to problem solving in the entrepreneurial sector.

In addition to the above mentioned issues, it is essential that the next AISHE report delves into the quality of higher education. ‘Unemployable graduates’ is a frequent lament from a number of Indian employers. A number of industries expend considerable time and resources to skill new employees who are not ‘job-ready’ despite their degrees. Thus, subsequent reports must also look at linkages between HEIs and skill development institutes (public and private). In school education, India has achieved a GER close to 100, yet major issues of quality remain. The higher education ecosystem must not fall into the same trap. Ensuring quality higher education must be as much of a priority as doubling the enrolment rate in the next decade.

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