The state of higher education in India can be easily described by the recently–released Quacquarelli Symonds and Times Higher Education rankings of global universities, only three IITs could feature in the top 200 of these lists, and none in the top 100. What is higher education in India?

  • The term “Higher Education”, in India, refers to post-secondary (post-plus two) or tertiary level education. 

Structure of higher education in India

  • In the Indian system, higher education includes the education imparted after the 10+2 stage – ten years of primary and secondary education followed by two years of higher secondary education. 
  • The first degree, the Bachelor’s degree is obtained after three years study in the case of liberal arts, and four years in the case of most professional degrees (four and half in case of two years duration.) 
  • The research degrees (M. Phil. and Ph.D.) take variable time depending upon the individual student. 
  • The post graduate degree programme involves two years of study after the first degree. 

The Universities

  • The university-level institutions in the Indian higher education system are basically of three types: Conventional University is tertiary-level institutions that are established through an Act of Parliament or State Legislatures. They are almost entirely funded by Governments. 
  • Deemed Universities are institutions that are deemed–to–be-universities for the purposes of the University Grants Commission Act, 1956. 
  • Institutions of National Importance are institutions established, or so designated, by Acts of Parliament that undertake teaching and research in areas that are critical to national development. Examples are the Seven Indian Institutes of Technology etc.


  • The bulk of undergraduate teaching is done in colleges. These are of two types – the constituent colleges and the affiliated colleges. 
  • Constituent Colleges, also known as Conducted Colleges, are those that are established and managed by the University. 
  • Affiliated Colleges are those that are set-up and managed, outside the university campus, either by the government or by educational trusts. 

Ministries and Agencies in Higher Education  Ministry of Human Resource Development

  • The Department of Secondary and Higher Education of the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) is the major agency concerned with higher education. 
  • The Ministry operates normally through The University Grants Commission (UGC). 
  • UGC is a quasi-independent body set up to discharge the responsibility of coordinating and maintaining standards in the fields of higher education. 
Functions of the Commission 
  • The union government attempts to fulfil its constitutional obligation for higher education mainly through the UGC. 
  • The UGC takes care of the general higher education in Arts, Science, Commerce and professional education provided in the faculties of the universities. 
  • Its functions in general, are confined to promotion, coordination, determination and maintenance of the standards of higher education. 

Ministry of Agriculture:  The Ministry of Agriculture has assumed responsibility for agricultural education in India. All the Agricultural Universities function under this ministry.  Ministry of Health

  • The Ministry of Health looks after medical education

Ministry of Law

  • The legal education is under the Ministry of Law. The Bar Council of India (BCI) is concerned with legal studies in India. 
  • Generally, BCI is concerned with the first degree in law, while the post-graduate and research studies are under universities, and hence these come under the purview of the UGC. 

Specialised agencies for promotion of research

  • The Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), under the Department of Science and Technology, is a planning and coordinating body operating through a chain of national laboratories and institutions. 
  • Similar functions are performed by Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR), Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) in the area of space research, etc. 

Quality Assurance

  • The responsibility of quality assurance in higher education lies with the University Grants Commission and Statutory Councils like the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE). 
  • The UGC established in 1994 the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) that undertakes the institutional evaluation of universities and colleges. 
  • The Distance Education Council, Indira Gandhi National Open University (DEC-IGNOU) has the responsibility of monitoring quality in distance education programme.

The current survey of Higher Education in India:

  • Union HRD Ministry has released the All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE) 2018-19.

Highlights of the survey Fall in professional education pursuance

  • The government defines professional education as higher education programmes that are meant for students to acquire knowledge, skills, and competencies for a specific profession or a class of occupations.
  • Since the academic year 2015-16, the number of students pursuing professional courses at the undergraduate level has decreased by 7,21,506 (roughly 9%).
  • Enrolment in PG professional programmes dropped by almost 32%, from 18,07,646 in 2015-16 to 12,36,404 in 2018-19.

Fall in enrolment

  • According to the survey, total enrolment in higher education has been estimated to be 3.74 crores, as opposed to 3.66 crores the year before.
  • The waning popularity of professional degrees seems to have renewed interest in academics.

Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER)

  • GER is a statistical measure for determining the number of students enrolled in UG, PG and research-level studies within the country and expressed as a percentage of the population in the 18-23 years age group.
  • The present GER in higher education is 26.3%, up from 25.8% in 2017-18.

Gender Parity on the rise

  • Gender Parity Index (GPI), the female: male ratio in higher education measures progress towards gender equity.
  • The GPI has increased over the last five years, from 0.92 in 2014-15 to 1 in 2018-19.

Humanities is more popular

  • The highest number of students are enrolled in Arts courses.
  • Science is the second major stream with 47.13 lakh students, of which 49% are male and 51% are female.
  • Commerce is the third major stream with 40.3 lakh students enrolled. 

Pupil Teacher Ratio (PTR) 

    • In Universities and Colleges, PTR is 29 if regular mode enrolment is considered whereas PTR for Universities and its Constituent Units is 18 for regular mode.
    • 40,813 students were awarded PhD level degree during 2018 with 23,765 males and 17,048 females.
  • Scheduled Caste students constitute 14.9% and Scheduled Tribes students 5.5% of the total enrolment. 36.3% of students belong to Other Backward Classes. 5.2% of students belong to Muslim Minority and 2.3% from other Minority Communities.
  • There are more than 78.0% colleges running in Private sector; aided and unaided taken together, but it caters to only 66.4% of the total enrolment.

NIRF India Ranking 2019:  The National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF) has been launched by MHRD. Top 3 institutes are:

  1. Indian Institute of Technology Madras
  2. Indian Institute of Science Bangalore
  3. Indian Institute of Technology Delhi

Issues and challenges before the higher education sector in India The Standing Committee on Human Resource Development submitted its report on 'Issues and challenges before the higher education sector in India' in 2017. The key observations and recommendations of the Committee are as follows: Shortage of resources:  

  • The bulk of the enrolment in higher education is handled by state universities and their affiliated colleges.  
  • Nearly 65% of the University Grants Commission (UGC) budget is utilised by the central universities and their colleges while state universities and their affiliated colleges get only the remaining 35%.   
  • The Committee recommends that the mobilisation of funds in state universities should be explored through other means such as endowments, contributions from industry, alumni, etc.

Teacher vacancies:  

  • According to UGC, out of the total sanctioned teaching posts, 5,925 (35%) professor posts, 2,183 (46%) associate professor posts and 2,459 (26%) assistant professor posts are vacant.
  • This could be due to two reasons:
    • young students don’t find the teaching profession attractive, or the recruitment process is long and involves too many procedural formalities.

Recommendations: The recruitment process should start well before a post is vacated.  In addition, to make the profession of teaching more lucrative, faculty should be encouraged to undertake consultancy projects and be provided financial support for start-ups. Accountability and performance of teachers:  

  • At present, there is no mechanism for ensuring the accountability and performance of professors in universities and colleges.  
  • This is unlike foreign universities where the performance of college faculty is evaluated by their peers and students.  
  • Recommendations: In this context, a system of a performance audit of professors based on the feedback given by their students and colleagues should be set up.  Other inputs like research papers, publications by teachers should be added in the performance audit in due course of time.

Lack of employable skills:  

  • Lack of employable skills in students of technical education has been observed.  
  • Identification of skill gaps in different sectors and offering courses for enhancing employability in them has been recommended.  
  • Recommendations: Some strategies in this regard can include: (i) Industry Institute Student Training Support, (ii) Industrial Challenge Open Forum, (iii) Long Term Student Industry Placement Scheme, and (iv) Industrial Finishing Schools.

Accreditation of institutions:  

  • The National Board of Accreditation should act as a catalyst towards quality enhancement and quality assurance of higher technical education.
  • Credit rating agencies, reputed industry associations, media houses and professional bodies should be encouraged to carry forward the process of the rating of Indian universities and institutions.  

Nonperformance of UGC:

  • UGC is overregulation in areas where it needed to back off such as admissions and funding but was under regulating where its interventions were most needed such as ensuring if the quality standards were being met. 
  • Over time the UGC became incredibly adept at mismanaging funds even as it resisted the push for greater autonomy coming from institutions. 
  • The Draft Higher Education Commission of India comes with its own set of challenges but it certainly disrupts the existing status quo which was most needed.
Highlights of the Draft Higher Education Commission of India Bill
  • The Bill repeals the University Grants Commission Act, 1956 and establishes the Higher Education Commission of India (HECI). 
  • The HECI will maintain academic standards in higher education by specifying learning outcomes for courses, specifying eligibility criteria for Vice Chancellors, and ordering the closure of higher educational institutions which fail to adhere to minimum standards.
  • Every higher educational institution empowered to award degrees or diplomas will have to apply to the HECI to commence its first academic operations.  The HECI also has the power to revoke permission on specified grounds.
  • The Bill sets up an Advisory Council chaired by the Union Minister of Human Resource Development. The Council will advise on coordination and determination of standards in higher education between the centre and states.
Key Issues and Analysis
  • The Bill aims to promote the autonomy of higher educational institutions.  However, certain provisions of the Bill do not meet this stated objective.  It may be argued that instead of granting higher educational institutions increased autonomy, the Bill provides HECI with extensive regulatory control.
  • Currently, institutions offering professional courses are regulated by 14 professional councils.  Of these, the Bill seeks to bring legal and architecture education within the purview of HECI. It is unclear why only these two areas are included within the regulatory ambit of the HECI and not the other fields of professional education.
  • At present, the UGC has the power to allocate and disburse grants to universities and colleges.  While the Bill replaces the UGC, it does not include any provisions regarding disbursal of grants.  This raises the question of whether HECI will have any role in the disbursal of grants to higher educational institutions.
  • Presently, the Central Advisory Board of Higher Education (CABE) co-ordinates and advises the centre and states on education related matters.  The Bill creates an Advisory Council and requires HECI to implement its recommendations.  This may restrict HECI from functioning as an independent regulator.

Issues related to the poor performance of IITs : 

  • Imbalance of UG to PG courses in IITs
      • The IITs focused on undergraduate education initially. When the Indian industry is looking at innovation-led growth, Indian institutions need to produce large numbers of PhDs in science and engineering.”
  • Issue: Less or no international exposure for faculty
    • Issue: students migrating, not staying on for research: 
      • IITs have been trying hard to persuade their best undergraduate students to stay on for PhDs but without too much success. These days, students prefer to work in India rather than going for PhDs.
  • Issue: Low ranking internationally:
  • Reasons for low rankings: Poor showing in academic peer review, poor research output, poor faculty-student ratio

Kakodkar committee recommendations:

  • Increase strength in each IIT to 1,200, against a maximum of 500 in 2011(when the report was written).
  • Graduate one PhD student per faculty every year, bringing the total number to 10,000 per year by 2020, against 1,000 in 2011.
  • Identify, for each IIT, three to four areas of strength and fund research in them massively.
  • Work on large projects with many groups in areas of national interest.
  • Create parks within IITs for private companies to collaborate and do research.

Best practices:

  • Israel has 21 universities in the global top 500 and three Nobel Laureates in the last 10 years. These universities attract the best academic staff not by giving high salaries but by providing generous sabbatical leaves and allowing academic staff to have joint appointments in other universities in the US or Europe. 
  • China has proactively recruited high rated American-Chinese researchers and teachers to set up research laboratories and academic programmes in China.

Government Initiatives

  • The IIT Council recently introduced the tenure track system for hiring and confirming assistant professors. The MHRD is planning to extend this system to Central universities and the draft National Education Policy has recommended its introduction in all institutions by 2030.
What is the tenure track system?
  • Under this system, an assistant professor may be hired without the mandatory post-PhD experience requirement and her performance reviewed internally after three years. 
  • Based on an evaluation by an external committee at the end of 5.5 years, he or she may either be granted tenure (made permanent) and promoted to the next higher level of associate professor or asked to leave.
  • The Rashtriya Uchchatar Shiksha Abhiyan or the National Higher Education Mission to strategically fund higher education institutes in the country. 
  • The National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF) was launched to rank universities and institutes in various parameters, including research. 
  • The ‘Institutes of Eminence (IoE)’ scheme, where GoI initially pledged to support 20 institutes to become world-class universities – of which six have already been announced and more than a dozen are awaiting the status upgrade. 
  •  ‘Prime Ministers Research Fellowship’: undergraduate and postgraduate students with a Cumulative Grade Point Average (CGPA) of at least 8.0 from elite Indian institutes will be eligible for direct admission in PhD programmes of IITs and IISc. They will also be fairly compensated under the scheme.
  • New PPP Scheme, National Educational Alliance for Technology (NEAT) for using technology for better learning outcomes in Higher Education. The objective is to use Artificial Intelligence to make learning more personalized and customised as per the requirements of the learner.
  •  “Life skills” (Jeevan Kaushal) programme in the curriculum for under-graduate courses across the country. The new programme, which for 8 credit points, can be accommodated in any semester and is aimed at inculcating emotional and intellectual competencies in students develop verbal and non-verbal communication skills.
  • Paramarsh’ – a University Grants Commission (UGC) scheme for Mentoring National Accreditation and Assessment Council (NAAC) Accreditation Aspirant Institutions to promote Quality Assurance in Higher Education. 
  • ‘Scheme for Trans-disciplinary Research for India’s Developing Economy’ (STRIDE): STRIDE will provide support to research projects that are socially relevant, locally need-based, nationally important and globally significant. 
  • Five-year vision plan named Education Quality Upgradation and Inclusion Programme (EQUIP): This has been done in accordance with the decision of the PM for finalizing a five-year vision plan for each Ministry.

Way forward: Promoting Trans-disciplinary research:  

  • It is a team effort of investigators from different disciplines to create new conceptual, theoretical, methodological innovations to address a common problem.
  • It shall support research capacity building as well as basic, applied and transformational action research that can contribute to national prioritiers with focus on inclusive human development.
  • The girls will need particular attention to encourage them to pursue fields in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).

Introducing Artificial intelligence:

  • AI-based learning systems would be able to give professors useful information about their students’ learning styles, abilities, and progress, and provide suggestions for how to customize their teaching methods to students’ individual needs.
  • This could directly increase students’ motivation and reduce their likelihood of dropping out.

Equip students with employable skills: It can be done by promoting linkages between institutions and industry Role of institutions

  • In India, initially,  autonomous colleges under the University Grants Commission (UGC) can begin the process of initiating research-integrated programmes in their three-year undergraduate courses. 
  • The Indian education system must explore ways by which it can upgrade its current, textbook-heavy learning system.

Optimal use of resources and external collaboration: “Doing more with less”, and by involving professionals from research institutes as instructors of UG research, the higher education system will be able to deal with the shortage of faculty and reduce their workload.  Preserving multidisciplinary nature: To maintain the multidisciplinary nature of this programme, UGC’s choice-based credit system needs to be intertwined with the UG research programme, so as to allow mobility of students within disciplines, campuses and external organisations. Integration of basic research skills

  • Students should be inducted in the first year in ‘professional skills workshops’ that train them in basic skills such as writing research papers and reports, etc.

Inter-institute network of conferences

  • Bodies like UGC should initiate conferences where UG researchers can present their papers before their peers so that it becomes a trial ground for them for larger, national or international conferences.
  • Mentors should also assist students in getting published in existing UG research journals and/or offer them co-authorships.

Also read: HECI (Higher Education Commission of India) Bill,2019 All India Survey On Higher Education (AISHE) 2018-19