India is a big, crazy, multi-faceted, barely-functioning-but-still-
The indigenous tradition of higher education stretches back to the 6th century AD. Back then, Nalanda University was a world-centre of (mostly) Buddhist learning, which attracted students from Nepal, China, Southeast Asia, and Tibet. Nalanda was also the first university with student dorms, and (allegedly) developed the first library cataloguing system. But since Nalanda was destroyed by the Mamluks in the 12th century, its influence on modern Indian higher education has been zero. Rather, the roots of the current education system can be traced to a very small number of institutions founded in the mid-nineteenth century by the British.
As in many colonial systems, these universities both bred nationalist revolutionaries, and gave those same revolutionaries an unshakeable belief that the English education system at the time of independence was the pinnacle of human achievement and should never be altered on any account whatsoever. Which was a bit of a problem since those institutions were almost entirely Humanities-based with little by the way of Social Sciences, let alone the hard Sciences and Engineering. That was (almost) OK if you thought of universities primarily as a place for civil service training; it wasn’t even vaguely OK if you wanted to build an advanced economy.
The basic institutional division in contemporary Indian higher education is between “universities”, which can grant degrees, and “colleges”, which cannot; the colleges are all affiliated to universities, meaning that college students take the exams of the affiliated university and receive their credential from there (remember BC’s university colleges in the late-80s/early 90s? Like that). Colleges don’t get to choose their affiliate university; rather, each university has a geographic “catchment area” in which it has an effective monopoly.
Today, there are roughly 550 universities and 33,000 colleges. (In case you’re wondering, that works out to an average enrolment per college of about 500, which from an efficiency point of view is madness.) Most universities are funded by state governments, but the central government directly funds about 40 universities (mainly prestigious ones like Delhi U.). It also funds another 110 or so “degree-awarding institutions”, which are not technically universities – the world-famous Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) and Management (IIM) come under this heading. There are also another 12,000 or so diploma institutions, which, if you squint hard enough, are analogous to our community colleges.
Though India is often thought of as quite statist, its higher education system has a very large private sector – in fact, pretty much the largest in the entire world. Of those 550 universities, roughly 200 are private, as are about 19,000 of the 33,000 colleges, and 55% of the student body is enrolled in private institutions. Complicating things still further is the fact that some private universities (mainly ones that were founded before the 1970s) receive quite substantial grants, while others receive nothing; on the flip side, cash-strapped public universities now run a large number of full-cost-recovery programs, and therefore are themselves substantially privately funded.
Managing a system like this is pretty chaotic – all the more so when you have an insane regulatory system, plus conflicting and insistent demands both to focus on access and to improve quality. But more about that next time.