Cities Are the Future Of India’s Higher Education

Professor Pushkar of BITS Pilani-Goa discusses the importance of building new universities in cities to raise the quality of higher education in India.

AsianScientist (Dec. 30, 2013) – Government officials in India recently announced that the country will build 278 new universities and 388 colleges under the flagship scheme RUSA (Rashtriya Uchchatar Shiksha Abhiyan or National Higher Education Campaign) during the 12th Five-Year Plan (2012-2017).

This is in addition to the 700 universities and 35,539 colleges that exist today.

If the recent past is any indication, a majority of the new institutions will be built in distant locations across the country with the objective, stated or not, of further improving access to education for the millions of Indians who will attain college-going age over the next decade and more.

Indian officials need to be more objective and judicious in making decisions about the location of new institutions. They must keep in mind that a majority of the country’s universities and colleges offer average-to-poor quality education; therefore, the imperative of improving access to education has to be balanced by the equally pressing need for improving the quality of education.

India’s best colleges are heavily concentrated in the largest cities. This is because, with some exceptions, institutions in remote locations are unable to compete with city-based institutions to attract the most-qualified faculty and the best students. For that reason, if government officials are serious about improving the quality of education, they must build a majority of the new institutions in or near larger and more livable cities. Otherwise, all that the new institutions will do, like most of the older ones, is hand out worthless degrees.

Unfortunately, however, government officials do not seem to be sufficiently attentive to the intimate links between the location of a college/university and the quality of education. Many are perhaps trapped in a mindset where they see improving access to education as above all other considerations.

Challenges in India’s higher education sector

India faces many daunting challenges in the higher education sector but none may be as immediate and difficult to address as the improving the quality of education.

There are two ways to understand the quality of higher education in India. First, the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) evaluates the quality of education provided at higher education institutions across the country. However, only 179 universities and 5,224 colleges currently have valid accreditation.

Of these, NAAC has identified 90 percent of colleges and 62 percent of universities as average or below average. It is quite likely that the real numbers are worse.

Second, the quality of higher education in India can also be compared with other countries. For a country that recently sent a mission to Mars, it is surprising that there are far too few institutions which compare favorably with the best in the world. India is the only country among the BRICS nations without a single university in the world’s top 200.

India’s universities do somewhat better in comparison to higher education institutions in other emerging economies. In the recently-released Times Higher Education BRICS & Emerging Economies Rankings 2014, 10 Indian institutions made it to the top 100 though only Panjab University finished in the top 20. In the QS University Rankings: BRICS, 17 Indian institutions are listed in the top 100, with five Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) in the top 20.

To put things in perspective, however, China has 23 universities in the Times top 100, with 4 in the top 10, and Peking University ranks first. In the QS list, China has 40 universities in the top 100, 22 in the top 50, four in the top five, with Tsinghua University ranked first.

Pushkar is a faculty member at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Birla Institute of Technology and Science (BITS) Pilani-Goa.

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