Education is one of the crucial determinants instrumental to the development of a country. It is essential to introduce transformation in accordance with the demands of the time and changing global scenario. In particular, to cope with the challenges of time and bringing in greater development, the higher education and its mode of delivery needs to be tuned time and again. In this backdrop, given the current scenario of higher education in India, a paradigm shift is required for administration of the Higher Educational Institutions in India.
Higher Educational Institutions in India: An Overview
Higher education in India was first introduced by Thomas Macaulay in mid 1800s. It worked well during the early decades but a phenomenal expansion was observed in Indian higher education since Independence. It has now become the third largest higher education system in the world in respect of number of students, standing next only to China and US. Over the years, India has produced numerous doctors, engineers, scientist, technologists, managers and teachers who are globally in great demand. According to statistics and future predictions, by the end of next decade, India will become the second largest producer of young human resources by providing one graduate out of every four in the world.
However, India’s pride over these quantitative attainments turns into a fiasco when qualitative accomplishment is perused. There is a dearth of world class educational institutions in India. This is apparent from the international standings of top universities of India. In the World University Rankings 2021 published by the UK-based Times Higher Education (THE), not even a single university of India made it to the top 300 list, while names of only two Indian universities were found in the top 400. Although the number of institutions qualified for Rankings increased to 63 with an additional 14 universities since last year, only 15 more universities were able make their appearance in the 600-800 bracket, thus there is very little to cheer about the outcome. Across the world, more than 1500 universities from 93 countries were ranked. The Oxford University had topped the list of THE ranking followed by Stanford University and Harvard University.
Although this year’s THE ranking was boycotted by the top seven IITs of India voicing concerns about its transparency, the poor performance of the Indian Universities was once again evidenced from the very recently published World University Ranking 2021 by Quacquarelli Symonds, commonly known as QS World University Ranking, where none of the Indian Universities were able to feature among the top 100. IIT Bombay topped among the Indian Universities with global rank of 172 followed by seven more institutes in the top 500 and three more in the top 700. In QS rankings, universities from across 80 countries are ranked across six parameters – academic reputation, faculty-student ratio, international student ratio, international faculty ratio, citations per faculty and employer reputation. Here, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) had topped the list followed by Stanford University and Harvard University while University of Oxford was ranked fifth in the list.
In terms research journals submitted by Indian scholars, the number of papers published have significantly increased over the past decade. According to US National Science Foundation, in respect of scientific papers published, as of 2018, India is the third largest publisher of science and engineering articles. There had been an annual growth of 10.73% in the number of science and engineering articles published by India since 2008 and thereby the country contributed 5.31% of the total world publication in the field of science and engineering, next only to China and the US with 20.67% and 16.54% global publications in science articles respectively. However, even though the number of Indian research journals has spiralled in the last decade, they are sadly not making global impact. It is the quantity of research that has substantially increased but not the quality of research and this is evidenced in different World University Rankings. The rankings manifest the inadequate focus on research works in the institutes of higher education. Some reason for inadequate focus on research works and poor quality of research are limited resources and facilities, inadequate faculty-student ratio and budgetary constraints.
In the year FY 2020-21, the Ministry of Human Resource and Development was allocated ₹99,312 crore. The Ministry consists of two departments – (a) school education & literacy and (b) higher education. Thus, the allocation which has been made to the Ministry for education constitutes approximately 3% of the central government’s estimated expenditure for the current fiscal year. Out of the total amount allocated, the Department of Higher Education was allocated ₹39,467. Thus, if we compare the expenditure on higher education by the centre as a proportion of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), then it is roughly 1% that is spent on higher education in India. As per different surveys, India’s public expenditure on higher education per student is one of the lowest in the world. According to a 2019 report by IMD, India ranked 62nd in total public expenditure on education per student. In global context, OECD countries are known for making largest expenditures on education as a percentage of GDP. In 2016, Norway had made the highest educational expenditure of 6.5% of GDP, followed by New Zealand, Colombia and United Kingdom. In 2017, Chile had made the highest expenditure of 2.7% of its GDP in higher education. Chile was followed by the United States with 2.6%, Canada (2.3%) and Australia (2%).
According to AISHE report 2018-19, in India there are 3.74 crore students in the higher education sector across 39,931 colleges, 993 universities and 10,725 stand alone institutions. In terms of Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER), the percentage of students enrolled in the 18-23 age group in higher education in India is 26.3%. Out of the 3.74 crore students enrolled in India’s higher education, only 47,427 students are from foreign countries. The highest share of foreign students come from Nepal (26.88%), followed by Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Sudan, Bhutan and Nigeria. India’s GER for higher education is comparatively very low when compared to countries such as USA and UK. Taking reference year 2017-18, the US had the highest GER of 88.2%, followed by Germany (70.3%), France (65.6%) and UK (60.6%). A reason for India having low GER compared to developed nations is huge student population in the country with the relevant age group do not satisfy the eligibility criteria to enrol in colleges because of not successfully completing the 12th grade higher secondary education. In this context, the National Educational Policy 2020 aims at increasing the GER to 50% by the 2035.
Also See: Higher Education in India
Simultaneously, India also faces the shortage of faculties and the challenge of retaining well-qualified faculties for higher education. As per AISHE report 2018-19, the total count of teachers stands at 14,16,299. Thus, the Pupil Teacher Ratio (PTR) in Universities and Colleges is only 29. As per UGC, 35% (6141posts) teaching posts out of 17,425 in various UGC funded Central Universities are lying vacant. Furthermore, 253 posts in IIMs and 153 in IISc and IISERs are lying vacant out of a total combined sanctioned teaching posts of 2121.
All the above data and comparisons depicts the grim picture of India’s higher education sector and concludes that those IITs which were able to make their appearance among the top universities of the world are better known sending international students rather than receiving them. Concurrently, the Indian higher education system also suffers from campus-corporate gap – a reason behind graduates remaining unemployed. Many experts thus opine that in the eagerness of making education affordable, equitable and accessible to all, the education system of India has been compromising on quality.
These opinions cannot be totally neglected as the regulatory and statutory bodies in higher education are mostly seen taking a rule-based and control-oriented approach rather than having a process view of things which international accreditation agencies implements in developed nations. Unlike the regulatory view of Indian intuitions, this approach by international accreditation agencies helps in assisting the institutions in achieving further excellence. Eventually this helps in evoking the spirit of experimentation, research and innovation and co-thinking of the student and the teacher.
Higher Educational Institutions in India: Need for Autonomy
As quality is the paramount in higher education, the need of the hour is to implement the concept autonomy that will provide academic freedom to higher education institutions. In higher education, the need for autonomy arises on the grounds of academic excellence, expansion and innovation. The Indian system of higher education is plagued by multiplicity of controls and government interventions which leads to quantitative expansion without innovation and excellence. Thus, it becomes crucial to free academics from the fetters of such control and provide autonomy for doing what actually they are supposed to do – teaching & researching. The essential factors for high quality education are commitment and competence of teachers towards educational process, attitudes and calibre of students towards learning, social credibility of the educational outcome and foresightedness and flexibility of the governance system. The autonomy in higher education is expected to bring in better experimentation & innovation, quality enhancement and quality sustenance in higher education, expansion and maximization of potentials, societal relevance, transparency in teaching and evaluation, speedy implementation of programmes etc.
In India, the concept of autonomous colleges and universities has been debated for several decades. The idea of granting autonomous status to some selected outstanding colleges in a few universities was first recommended by the Kothari Commission in 1966. Subsequently in 1971, the Gajendragadkar Committee in its report on ‘Governance of Universities and Colleges’ stated that “The concept of University autonomy is often misunderstood. It is neither a ‘legal concept’, nor a ‘constitutional concept’. It is an ethical concept and an academic concept. This concept does not question how in a democratic society like ours legislatures are ultimately sovereign, and have a right to discuss and determine the question of policy relating to education, including higher education. The concept of university autonomy, however, means that it would be appropriate on the part of democratic legislatures not to interfere with the administration of university life, both academic and non-academic.” 
Autonomy is equated with freedom and dynamism that is required by an institution to change or alter the course structure and curriculum in order to fit the demands of market forces. In this context let us understand the exigency and aspects of institutional autonomy in India under three heads: Academic matters, Administrative matters, Financial matters.
The Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE) in its report on the subject of “Autonomy of Higher Education Institutions” had said that individual institutions must be granted autonomy so that (a) they can design academic curricula and programmes; (b) decide the procedure of selecting research fellows; (c) adopt choice-based credit courses; (d) establish internal quality assurance cell; (e) establish linkages for academic as well as research collaboration in India and abroad; (f) objectivity and transparency in faculty selection on all India basis. These will concurrently encourage faculties in experimenting and bringing new innovative approaches to transform teaching and learning of students into a rewarding and fascinating experience. Additionally, it will provide an open and conducive environment for higher educational researches wherein researchers will get full support from administration to enable them to implement their innovative and constructive ideas.
Granting administrative autonomy to an individual institution involves: (a) principal of the institution to determine the number of positions and ranks of the professors, assistant professors and associates; (b) encourage management system to adopt best and superior practices of governance which will encourage swift decision making, team effort, networking and collective responsibility to confront challenges of the new millennium; (c) enable institutions to outsource non-academic activities for effectiveness and efficiency; (d) developing databased, participative and open accountability norms; (e) Appointing Vice-Chancellors of universities will be accomplished utmost solicitude through more efficient search-cum-selection procedure; (f) establishing grievance redressal mechanism for ensuring student’s grievances are expeditiously addressed; (g) institutions will be allowed to fill up vacant posts expeditiously in a time bound manner.
In each and every spheres of life and especially in education sector, tremendous impacts have been made by economic reforms. Hence, no other autonomy is possible without having financial autonomy. Problems associated with Financial Autonomy of higher education extends from the understanding of its conceptual framework to the modalities of its operationalization. Soneri Committee and Gnanam Committee had earlier recommended to provide financial autonomy to higher educational institutes as it would ensure better academic excellence and development. Through financial autonomy, (a) institutions will be able to make provision of funds which will ensure a greater degree of freedom; (b) institutions will be allowed to make mechanisms to determine the fee structure; (c) institutions will be able to provide scholarships to deserving and meritorious students belonging from lower economic strata; (d) institutions can undertake sponsored research projects and consultancy assignments.
While several new initiatives and existing schemes are laudable in its intentions, many concerns still arise out of complexity of Indian education system. There are two opposite and malign aspects in the linkage between Government and Higher education in India. They are- (i) an overly bureaucratic supervision and accreditation system that is very strong on imposing rules but fatally flawed in quality; (ii) government neglect of internal governance but onerous annual reporting requirements continued.
Additionally, there are a few reasons behind slow progress in the scheme of autonomous institutions. Firstly, state governments prefer retaining their control and dominance over institutions run by the government; Secondly, managements of private institutions feels apprehensive about losing their powers; Thirdly, there are several instances where faculties to do wants to take up the responsibility of autonomy and fears on having increased workload; Fourthly, stakeholder are concerned on the value of the institution’s degree against that issued from the university. All the above stated reasons are collective and interlinked. In this context, Draft National Education Policy of India (MHRD, 2018) observed – “Colleges are unable to chart their own courses, controlled as they are in many significant ways by the affiliating university. Higher Education Departments of the State and other such bodies often tend to treat universities and colleges as an extension of their hierarchy. All this deeply undermines institutional autonomy”.
The higher education system of India is shaped by its diverse demography, its unique historical value, long democratic history and its tensions with modernity. If any proactive measures need to be taken in the realm of higher education of India, two things are of urgent need: First, autonomy should be made synonymous with transparency and stakeholders involvement. Second, in systematically doing away with regulatory bodies and regulations, many of whom seen as breeding grounds of nepotism and corruption; should solicit the involvement of quality institutions in private sector to enhance education quality and in the process augment knowledge and economic development in the country.
Additionally, India must also look forward towards implementing the recommendations made by the CABE in its report on ‘Autonomy of Higher Education Institutions’. A few of the important recommendations are listed below:
- UGC rules and regulations needs to be simplified for better coordination and maintenance of standards. Additionally, effective mechanisms also needs to be developed for their implementation and functioning of UGC must be completely transparent and reviewed considering the changing realities.
- It is essential to develop institutional linkages between industry, research organization and higher education institutions. This will help in development of higher, technical and professional education like other countries.
- Efforts needs to made towards increasing the level of funding. It will help in deployment of modern technologies that will consequently ensure better quality of education, promote advanced research and involve e-learning.
- There is need to develop a central legislation by the MHRD in consultation with AICTE, UGC and other Professional Councils for streamlining establishment and administration of Self-Financing Institutions, Deemed to be Universities, Private Universities and establishment of Foreign Universities in India.
- Initiatives need to be taken up the MHRD for enhancement of financial allocation to higher education sector to the level of 2% of GDP. In this initiative, UGC also needs to support MHRD.
- A catalytic role needs be played by the UGC to revamp curriculum beside promoting job-oriented courses.
In overall context, it would be the academia responsible for knowing the nitty-gritty of the use of autonomy. The leaders of various institutions needs to apprehend that autonomy is not something that can be given, instead it has to be taken. The post-Covid-19 period is ripe to act and seize the opportunity to set things right.
 University Grants Commission (UGC) (1971): Report of the Committee on Governance of Universities and Colleges, Part I, Governance of Universities. New Delhi: UGC.