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Plan or Pipe Dream?

India's new draft national education policy lays out an ambitious agenda for transformation, but experts are skeptical about whether the proposed massive increases in expenditures will be forthcoming.

June 21, 2019
 

A draft national education policy released by India's government this month calls for fundamentally restructuring the country's higher education system and boosting its research capacity, doubling the gross enrollment rate from 25 to 50 percent by 2035, and substantially increasing expenditures on public education, which currently account for 10 percent of all government spending. The draft policy from recently re-elected prime minister Narendra Modi's government envisions increasing that proportion to 20 percent over a 10-year period.

While the report focuses mostly on building up India's own higher education capacity, it also revives a long-stalled idea of inviting top-ranked foreign universities to operate in India and suggests legislation will be introduced to this effect. American universities have long watched with interest to see whether there will be a liberalization of rules regarding foreign universities' entry into the country.

Experts on Indian education welcomed the 484-page policy plan in principle, while emphasizing the immense difficulties the government would face in implementing it.

Mousumi Mukherjee, an associate professor and deputy director of the International Institute for Higher Education Research & Capacity Building at O. P. Jindal Global University, described the draft national education plan as “a welcome document. It has done a good job in thinking out of the box to reform Indian higher education by progressively seeking to dismantle the ‘two-boxed’ system of separate research institutes and universities … There has been little creation or circulation of new knowledge within universities. Over the years, the universities became increasingly distanced from societal needs and have been reproducing graduates without necessary skills required in the workplace, including academics with Ph.Ds. without necessary research skills.”

At the same time, Mukherjee said she agreed with an assessment from Oxfam India’s education specialist, Anjela Taneja, who wrote in an op-ed, “The sheer scale of changes expected, the rapid timeline, the absence of a strong mechanism for hand-holding states on this journey and the probable inadequate budget raises questions on the full implementation of this policy. India’s history is littered with ambitious education policies that have not been fully implemented. The National Education Policy risks following this tradition, unless the government addresses the reasons behind the past policy-practice implementation gap and makes conscious efforts to carry all of India on the same road towards improvement in education.”

The draft policy -- which addresses education at all levels, from early childhood to higher education -- calls for significant restructuring of India’s higher education landscape, which according to the document is currently made up of more than 800 universities and about 40,000 colleges. Forty percent of those colleges offer just a single program of study, and 20 percent have enrollments below 100 students.

“The main thrust of this policy regarding higher education is the ending of the fragmentation of higher education by moving higher education into large multidisciplinary universities and colleges, each of which will aim to have upwards of 5,000 or more students,” the draft policy states.

The policy calls for all higher education institutions to “evolve” into one of three types of multidisciplinary institutions: research universities, teaching universities and colleges. It also calls for building research capacities at all institutions and the establishment of a National Research Foundation.

“The separation in higher education between teaching institutions and research institutions post-independence has caused much harm, as most universities and colleges in the country today conduct very little research,” states the report. The report notes that the proportion of GDP devoted to research and innovation in India has dropped over the past decade, from 0.84 percent of GDP in 2008 to 0.69 percent in 2014 -- which is substantially lower than the percentages for Israel (4.3 percent), South Korea (4.2 percent), the U.S. (2.8 percent) and China (2.1 percent).

The draft policy includes a wide range of other proposals, including adopting a more liberal arts-oriented form of undergraduate education; moving away from rote learning in curriculum and pedagogy; improving faculty autonomy and developing a “robust and merit-based tenure track, promotion and salary structure”; increasing institutional autonomy, with institutions to be governed by independent boards; and revamping the regulatory system to only have one regulator for all of higher education.

In the international education arena, the draft policy re-ups a never-realized plan from almost a decade ago of inviting elite universities -- such as those ranked among the top 200 in the world -- into India. A bill that would have enabled this previously failed to clear India's Parliament, but the draft policy suggests that legislation to this effect will be reintroduced: "Select universities (i.e. those from among the top 200 universities in the world) will be permitted to operate in India," it says. "A legislative framework facilitating such entry will be put in place, and such universities will have to follow all the regulatory, governance and content norms applicable to Indian universities."

Also in the international arena, the report discusses encouraging twinning programs, in which students complete part of a degree at an Indian university and another part at a foreign institution; simplifying visa processes for visiting foreign students and scholars; and encouraging Indian students and faculty to go overseas for short-term programs and exchanges.

Over all, international higher education experts were skeptical in evaluating the draft policy. Alex Usher, the president of the Toronto-based Higher Education Strategy Associates, described the proposals on his blog as “massive undertakings, both in terms of changing institutional and professional cultures within higher education and changing government priorities.”

Usher wrote, “There have certainly been cases where we have seen doublings of expenditure [within] five years before -- including in India -- but these tend to occur during periods of rapid economic growth when all facets of public expenditure are expanding. Doubling expenditures on education as a proportion of total government expenditures is almost unimaginable (and, I am fairly certain, unprecedented) because it likely requires actual cuts in other areas of government expenditure, which makes it very hard to contemplate.”

Usher continued, “But there’s another, more fundamental reason to think this is never going to happen: most education spending isn’t under the control of the all-India government. In total, 85 percent of all education expenditures occur at the state level, and though it is closer to 50-50 in higher education, there is simply no way that an all-India government can credibly make this kind of spending commitment.”

Philip Altbach, the former and founding director of Boston College’s Center for International Higher Education and an expert on the Indian system, described the draft policy as “one of probably a dozen reports since Indian independence in 1947. All of them say variations of the same thing, and almost all of the recommendations over the years are, in a general way, good ideas.”

“There seems to be a lot of attention being paid to education at the moment and a heightened understanding in India that if India is going to take advantage of what they call the demographic dividend of having a big number of young people in the population, they have to be skilled up and educated,” Altbach said. “Everybody agrees in India that a) gross enrollment rates are insufficient and b) the quality of what’s being given out, I’m talking about higher education, but it’s true throughout the system, is by and large inadequate.”

“It’s good that they’re thinking these thoughts and hopefully it reflects increased emphasis on what’s happening in education at all levels in the country and that’s important, so one cheer for that,” Altbach said. “And two non-cheers for, it’s just very difficult to do.”

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