The Challenge Of Reforming India’s Higher Education Sector

There is a lack of societal pressure on Indian political parties to address higher education issues, writes Prof. Pushkar of BITS Pilani Goa Campus.

AsianScientist (Feb. 25, 2014) – In an earlier op-ed, I drew attention to an opinion poll carried out among India’s 18-30 year olds in mid-2013 in which education trumped corruption, employment and inflation as their biggest concern.

While this age group constitutes a fairly large section of the population, the numbers of Indians who are deeply worried about the state of higher education is actually much larger than those who currently attend college or have recently graduated. The list of “worried” folks includes parents as well. As is probably true for much of Asia, Indian parents are very much involved in the lives of their children. This is also because most young people are financially dependent on their parents until they complete college and secure employment.

One of the main reasons why young people and their parents are a worried lot is that good quality higher education institutions are in short supply. Getting admitted into a good college is extremely hard and earning a degree or two from a regular college does not amount to much these days. A majority of the country’s higher education institutions are categorized as average or below-average. Therefore, it is not surprising that a large percentage of college graduates are found to be unemployable.

Political parties and higher education

The college-age cohort and their parents constitute a sizable chunk of the country’s population. They are also voters. Therefore, it is curious that even though parliamentary elections are due soon, neither the ruling Congress nor the main opposition Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) has taken up the cause of higher education on the campaign trail. While routine expressions of dismay about the poor quality of education and calls for action by the president, the prime minister and other government officials continue, the government has in fact abandoned its basket of planned higher education reforms.

The closest that any other leading political figure has come to talking about higher education is the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi who is on record as stating that, if elected to power, he would build more campuses of the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) and the All Indian Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in every state of the country. However, even if more IITs and IIMs are built, the nation’s higher education woes will not go away. Among other things, the new institutions will be hard-pressed to find qualified faculty.

A weak demand for higher education

The lack of interest among competing political parties to address India’s higher education challenges is puzzling enough; however, equally curious is the weak demand among young Indians and their parents for improving higher education. Expressing concern about higher education in opinion polls is merely a signal by citizens to political parties and their leaders that they care about the issue.

Citizens need to do more than that to persuade the government to act decisively. They need to come together and be vocal in expressing their concerns. They need to participate in protests and demonstrations to send a clear message to political parties that they must act or risk losing the next election. There are no reports that this is happening anywhere in India.

Why are those affected by the poor state of higher education in the country—whether/both students or/and parents—so quiet despite the fact that there is an election coming? As I explain below, one of the main reasons for the absence of widespread protests and demonstrations calling for improvements in higher education, and perhaps the single-most important factor, is that Indians have two kinds of easily-available exit options – geographical and sectoral.

Exit option 1 – Geographical exit

Indians have the option to migrate from their home state to other states in search of good quality higher education. Over the last 10 years, 37 lac (3.7 million) Indians are estimated to have moved from one state to another to get access to better quality education.

Bihar and Uttar Pradesh (UP), both populous states where higher education is in a complete mess, are among the leaders in sending out students. Despite the fact that young Biharis and their parents are very concerned about higher education, since the geographical exit option is available, higher education has never become a “hot” issue in the state.

More affluent people (as well as those able to secure scholarships), of course, also have the option head West or East for higher education. Many more Indians have become prosperous over the past two to three decades and it is therefore not surprising that record numbers have been going abroad for higher studies.

Other than popular older destinations such as the UK and the US in the west and Australia to the east, Indians are now heading to newer destinations—such as France, Germany, Hong Kong and Singapore—as well. The newer destinations include China, which is becoming increasingly popular for medical education.

Exit option 2 – Sectoral exit

A second exit option is provided by the easy availability of private institutions. A growing number of India’s college-age women and men take the path of sectoral exit from the public to the private sector due to intense competition for a small number of positions at a handful of good colleges, and the broader decline in the quality of education at a majority of other public institutions.

The private sector, much of it dominated by institutions offering courses in “professional” areas such as engineering and management, already accounts for nearly 60 percent of students enrolled in higher education institutions.

While India plans to build many more colleges and universities in the coming years, it is quite certain that the growth of public sector institutions will not be enough to meet the requirements of the growing number of students. The private sector is therefore assured of continued growth and will continue to remain a better or worse option.

There is, of course, some overlap between the geographical and sectoral exit options I have discussed above. Sectoral exit, for example, often involves moving from one part of the country to the other. Most of the private colleges that offer degrees in engineering—an immensely popular choice of study for young people in India —are located in the southern states of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh and draw students from all over the country.


The availability and growing use of geographical and sectoral exit options has the effect of reducing the societal pressure on political parties to address higher education issues. However, it is important to add that some exit options have become less attractive over time. For example, students and parents have realized that while public institutions are subpar, private colleges are hardly better. There are reports that several private colleges, especially in engineering and other “professional” disciplines, are unable to attract students as easily as they did in the past. Many are, in fact, closing down or contemplating becoming arts and science colleges.

To that extent, not all the easily available exit options are now considered good enough by prospective students and their parents.

Overall, there are other factors as well which explain the weak societal pressure for higher education. India and Indians face a wide variety of political, economic and social challenges—employment, food prices, personal and/or national security, law and order, health and others—of which higher education is but one. Both the government and common people are distracted by competing issues and concerns. Be as it may, the lack of societal pressure is partly the reason why India’s overall performance in the areas of both primary and higher education is unimpressive and it must continually catch up with high-performing Asian counterparts.


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine.
Photo: NIOSe Group of Distance Education India/Flickr/CC.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

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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