If you look at India’s higher education system, there are essentially two problems.
1) Access. This is a big country. And so while 13 million or so students sounds like a lot, it’s only about half what China has – and sure, China’s a little bigger than India (1.36 billion vs. 1.25 billion), but thanks to its one-child policy, it’s youth population is actually smaller, meaning that the gap in participation rates is even bigger. And, as in any rapidly modernizing country, it has an increasing number of young people who have their sights set on going to higher education. Accommodating them is clearly a big job.
(Speaking of access, it’s worth noting that this term doesn’t mean quite what it does over here. Here, we think mainly about access in terms of income or, if you’re a little more Marxist in your thinking, class. In India, “equity” usually means evening out disparities by state [which is indirectly about income, but that’s not how the question is framed], or by Scheduled Castes [SC], Scheduled Tribes [ST] and Other Backward Classes [OBC – and yes, really that’s what they call it]. Collectively, these three groups make up between 40 and 50% of the Indian population, and so one popular measure to increase equity is what Americans would [but Indians don’t] call affirmative action – 45% of spots at central universities are reserved for these groups. State governments have forced reservation policies on private universities of a similar nature, though usually the ones not receiving government aid are required to take fewer ST/SC/OBCs.)
2) Quality. It is a never-ending source of dismay to Indians themselves that they have only a single institute in the Shanghai Academic Ranking of World Universities (Indian Institute of Science), while China has 28. The reason for this isn’t hard to work out. Indian universities traditionally focused very heavily on arts and humanities; the institutions that did focus on Science and Engineering tended to be small and narrowly-focused. Neither of those profiles wins you points in international rankings. But more broadly, infrastructure at most Indian universities is substandard, and professorial pay is more or less designed to keep bright scientific talent in the private sector.
You’d think there’d be a simple solution to both these problems: spend more money. But India already spends about 2% of GDP on education, with half coming from the public sector and half from fees; proportionately, that’s well above the OECD average. And since 2007, annual real increases in funding have averaged about 7%. But money alone doesn’t make a difference – you have to spend it the right way. And the central government’s priority seems to be neither improving access nor improving the existing IITs; instead, a significant amount of the new money is going to create new IITs and IIMs, and distributing them further around the country. That’s great for the upper-middle class, which frets about getting their kids into these schools the way the American upper-middle class frets about getting their kids into the Ivy League. But it’s not clear that it does very much either for access or quality in a broad sense.
Is there a solution here? Sure. But it lies in some painful changes to regulation, funding and management. More next week.