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Universalisation of Higher Education

As per AISHE (All India Survey of Higher Education) 2019-20, GER in Higher or Tertiary Education increased from 26.3% the year before to 27.1%, while in absolute terms, enrolment increased from 37.4m to 38.5m, registering annual growth of 1.1m or 2.94%. The GER of 27.1% indicates that the remaining 72.9 % population in 18-23 age group is not enrolled in HEI.
|| Prof Vijoy Kant Das

The status of enrolment in tertiary education in Bharat needs to be judged in comparison with that in other regions with similar ground realities. Between 1996 and 2001 Bharat and China had similar GER. But in the next five years, China more than doubled it to 20% (2006) while Bharat’s GER registered a meagre growth to reach 11.5%. In the next decade, in 2016, China’s enrolment shot up to 48.4% and came close to universalisation of higher education system. In 2020, China’s GER is 54.4% while Bharat’s only 27.1%. Bharat’s enrolment rate in 2016, on the  other hand, was stuck at 25.50%. However, the silver lining in the otherwise gloomy scenario is that in terms of enrolment in higher education, Bharat, with 38.53 million students, is next only to China’s 41.83 million. The Comparison of the two large countries brings very important issue before us as to how China could register such a steep rise in the growth of GER. The phenomenal 458% growth of GER of China from 9.75% in 2001 to 54% in 2020, over a span of twenty years, has some pertinent lessons for Bharat to heed.

NEP 2020 sets the target of 50% GER by 2035. Presently, the higher education system is at ‘mass’ level, which will upgrade to ‘universal’ level when GER crosses 50%. The GER of 27.1% for 2019-20 has been calculated against the 18-23 age group of population of 142.31 million (AISHE-2019-20). The NEP 2020 does not quote any projection of population for 2035. As per the projection of the Technical Group on Population Projection (GOI) the population of  18-23 age group in 2035 is expected to be 138.99 million. To register GER of 50%, the enrolment in tertiary sector is required to be 69.49 million. To achieve this target, GER is required to grow at the compounded annual rate of 3.53% per annum. The target appears quite achievable in view of the fact that the compounded growth rate of GER between 2011-12 and 2019-20 has been 3.58%. Nevertheless, tertiary system demands meaningful and pragmatic changes to make it robust to attract to its fold about 73% relevant population out of college now. If Bharat is to achieve the lofty target of universalisation of higher education, it should address the issues unfolding hereinafter.

Enrolment in higher education cannot grow independent of that in its preceding stage, ie, higher secondary. In 2018-19, net enrolment ratio at higher secondary level was only 30.8%, meaning thereby that 69.2% population of the particular age group was out of school. Transition rate from secondary to higher secondary has also been far from satisfactory. The focus, along with ensuring substantial enrolment in school, should be on improving inter-stage transition ratio from secondary to higher secondary, and finally to graduation level. Only those in 18-23 age group are eligible for enrolment in graduation who have passed higher secondary examination. Therefore, some scholars have proposed that instead of total population in 18-23 age group, only those who cleared higher secondary should be taken into account for calculating Effective or Eligible Enrolment Ratio (EER). They opine that index of enrolment should be EER instead of GER. However, this logic is not convincing or pragmatic for the simple reason that the two parameters have their own value and they are indices of two separate trends useful for devising strategies.

Access to HEI is the next relevant issue. Availability of HEI in Bharat eludes geographical equity. College density, i.e., the number of college per lakh population of the age-group 18-13, is 30 (AISHE-2019-20). Policy intervention is pertinent to expand HEIs to the hinterland. While expanding HEIs geographically, the enrolment capacity therein also needs to be augmented. This will necessitate policy change. Bharat has been following the norms of limited enrolment in HEIs. The Radhakrishnan University Education commission (1949) sought to limit the number of students in universities to 3000, and colleges to 1500. The Kothari Commission (1964-66) endorsed a similar notion. The idea of small, high quality HEIs, in Bharat has been in sharp contrast to the policy of large enrolment in the HEIs of China, the US and European countries. In 2016, 35.7 million students were enrolled in Bharat’s 51649 HEIs, whereas 41.8 million students were enrolled in China’s 2596 institutions only. Experiences from China and developed countries suggest that larger HEIs with high enrolment are both easier to manage and more resource friendly. This experiment, among other interventions, helped China to achieve universalized higher education within 15-16 years of entering the ‘mass’ stage. The twin actions of setting up new HEIs in hinterland with large student capacity, and increasing enrolment capacity in existing ones, will address the concern of access to a great extent. The gap that still persists can be plugged by augmenting enrolment in Distance and Open learning Programmes. However, the share of distance and open learning in total enrolment is almost stagnant at around 11% for the last many years . Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) through SWAYAM also provides an avenue of access. For this to be effective, facilities for virtual class needs to be enhanced in view of the fact that only 10.7% households have access to computer and only 23.8% to internet (NSSO:2017-18).

Apart from ensuring physical access to learners, we need to assure them about quality of teaching in the HEIs. Teachers are the fulcrum round which quality of the institution revolves. HEIs should have qualified teachers in adequate number. In order to attract best minds to teaching profession, teachers’ career growth should be made attractive. Establishing National Education Service to generate educational leaders will be a welcome step. Lateral entry into NES should be open to existing faculty on consideration of teaching experience, performance and professional accomplishments. We should learn from countries like Finland and South Korea where teaching is the most coveted profession. Shortage of teachers in HEIs is another major issue facing the tertiary system. This too impacts quality of teaching. In 2019, the number of vacant posts of teachers in IITs was 2800 and in NITs 3211. All colleges and universities are short of faculty. If we have to realise the objective of 50% GER, we need 3.3 million more teachers in HEIs to improve teacher-student ratio from 1:28 (AISHE 2019-20) to an ideal level of 1:15. Attracting and retaining qualified teachers in adequate number is key to strengthening HEIs for enhanced enrolment in the system. Meanwhile, NAAC assessment of HEIs and NBA (National Board of Accreditation) assessment of programmes and courses should be accelerated to infuse quality.

In order to attract larger number of eligible youth to Higher education, graduate courses need to convince them of their employability potential. An analysis by Brooking India affirms that three year degree programmes, which account for half of the graduates, offer poor employability. In 2013, out of 8 million graduates of Arts, Science, Commerce and Education streams registered in employment exchanges, only 3,49,000 (4.36%) got job in 2014. In case of engineering graduates, placement was just 33% in 2018 (AICTE). Employability surveys have found in graduates lack of both technical skill and communication skill. However, a recent (2020) study by Times Higher Education (THE) and Emerging (a French Consultancy) reveals that Bharat is at 15th rank in employability of graduates ,which is an improvement from the rank 23 in 2010.This may be deemed a prognosis of Bharat’s potential to improve employability of higher education. Universities can further perk up the employability of their degree by introducing new vocational courses and strengthening the existing ones. Brooking India’s recommendation that ‘vocational courses should be designed in partnership with employers in the region’, is worth consideration. Mandating internship in industry and business firm will further equip the students with necessary skills for employment. Vocational courses at graduate level, apart from preparing students for employment in the organised sector, will create alternate professional pathways for graduates. Opening Community Colleges on every college and university campus leading to B.Voc. degree will  bolster up  the employability of graduate courses. NEP 2020 commitment to build ‘an integrated higher education system, including professional and vocational education’ needs to be translated at ground level.

Universalisation of higher education requires, to a great extent, increased government funding. Such funding will undoubtedly enhance the physical access and quality of HEIs. The funding of higher education increased nine fold during the 11th Five year Plan (2007-12). Government funding has a direct impact on enrolment, which is evident from the fact that between 2001 and 2011, the government expenditure on higher education increased at a rate of 10.9% per year, while the corresponding increase in enrolment was 21.5% per year. Since 2008-2009, government expenditure in higher education has varied between 1.1% and 1.3% of GDP, which is the highest in South Asia and also appears impressive in terms of some developed countries. However, a vital issue that needs to be effectively addressed is the affordability of students from weaker financial section. Total expenditure on scholarships in 2014-15 was only 80.66 crore which is a meagre 0.11% of government’s total expenditure on higher education. In 2016-17 the National Scholarship Scheme had an annual target of 82,000 students, which was a paltry 0.2% of enrolment in that year. What is required is direct, easily accessible funding of low-income households through institutional credit system.Presently, funds by way of financial support to tackle the issue of affordability are inadequate. Instead of planning a sudden increase in support through scholarships, it would be pragmatic to make credit available at convenient terms to students from economically weak sections. China and South Korea, Brooking India opines, achieved transition from mass to universal system amply aided by increased financial support to the needy.

While concluding the discourse on ways and means to achieve universalisation of higher education by 2035, it will be worthwhile to focus on some social sub-groups for concerted campaign at social level. A close analysis of the growth of GER between 2015-16 and 2019-20 reveals an encouraging trend. Growth of overall GER during the period was 10.60% while that of the female sub-group was 16%. Split into ethnic sub-groups, female of the SC category registered a growth of 26.8% against overall SC growth of 19.9%. Similarly, female of the ST category recorded a growth of 37.2% against overall ST growth of 26.7%. Overall growth of enrolment of SC and ST has also been high in comparison to overall growth of Bharat. This analysis leads us to a safe, undisputed inference that Bharat’s GER has steadily increased over the last few years led by a substantial increase in the GER of  Female, SC and ST. In this backdrop, the future pathway should be to especially cocentrate on these sub-groups, which will aid acceleration of GER growth while strengthening the policy of greater social inclusion proposed by NEP-2020.

Prof Vijoy Kant Das, Member, Bihar State University Service Commission, Patna 800001. Email :

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