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Higher Education in India - Concerns and Strategies

Friday, January 1st, 2010

Elementary education, being the foundation of the pyramid in the education system, has been accorded high priority since the post independence period in India. Two programs, which were implemented in the beginning of the 21st century through the Sarva Siksha Abhiyan (SSA) and the Midday Meal Program (MDM), played important roles in increasing the gross enrollment ratio in the 6-14 age group. While the SSA aims to achieve universal elementary education of satisfactory quality by 2010, the MDM supports it by way of enhancing the attendance of children mainly from the educationally backward minorities and simultaneously improving their nutritional status.

Owing to a substantial increase in the number of students completing the elementary stage, there is a surge in demand for both secondary and higher education in the country. The Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE), the highest advisory forum on education in the country with the union minister of Human Resource Development (MHRD) as chairman, and education ministers of all states and eminent educators as its members have laid down certain norms based on which each state has developed a perspective plan for universal secondary education. Major recommendations contained in the report of the CABE committee can be found from the annual report published by MHRD, Government of India. After the successful completion of elementary (class I-VIII), secondary (class IX-X) and higher secondary (class XI-XII) education a student enters the broad spectra of higher education of his or her choice often through competitive examinations.

India has the third largest higher education system in the world, next to only China and the United States. Before independence, access to higher education was very limited and elitist, with enrollment of less than a million students in 500 colleges and 20 universities. Since independence, the growth has been very impressive. India now possesses a highly developed higher education system that offers facility of education and training in almost all aspects of human creative and intellectual endeavors.

The institutional framework consists of Universities established by an Act of Parliament (Central Universities) or of a State Legislature (State Universities), Deemed Universities (institutions which have been accorded the status of a university with authority to award their own degrees through central government notification), Institutes of National Importance (prestigious institutions awarded the said status by Parliament), and Institutions established by State Legislative Act and colleges affiliated with the University (both government-aided and unaided).

Statistics at a glance: (period 2007-08)

  1. Total number of universities: 416

a)      State Universities- 251

b)      Central Universities- 24

c)      Deemed Universities- 103

d)     Institutions established under state legislation- 05

e)      Institutes of National Importance- 33

  1. Number of colleges: 20,677

a)      UGC accredited under 2f- 6,680

b)      UGC accredited under 2f and 12B- 5,797

c)      Under UGC purview- 14,000

  1. Number of students enrolled in colleges and universities: 11.6 million

a)      In Colleges- 10.1 million (87.06%) [7% of the total population in the relevant age group 17-23 yrs]

b)      In Universities- 1.5 million (12.94%)

c)      Women's enrollment in Higher Education: 4.71 million (40.6%)

  1. Faculty strength (Regular): 0.51 million

a)      In Colleges: 0.43 million (84.32%)

b)      In Universities: 0.08 million (15.68%)

Source: MHRD annual report 2007-08

The University Grants Commission (UGC) is a statutory organization established by an act of parliament in 1956 for the coordination, determination and maintenance of standards of higher education. The UGC provides financial assistance to eligible colleges and Universities which are included under Section 2(f) and declared fit to receive central assistance (UGC grant) under Section 12(B) of the UGC Act, 1956 as per approved pattern of assistance under various schemes. Apart from providing financial assistance, the commission advises the central and state governments on the measures that are necessary for the development of higher education. Grants from the UGC and state governments (through the Directorate of Public Instructor) facilitate the creation, augmentation and upgrading of infrastructure and improvement of facilities for the promotion of quality teaching and research.

Despite several initiatives, India's ranking in the higher education sector is far from satisfactory and a recently published list shows that only two Indian institutions have made it onto the list of the top 200 globally accredited institutes. Recent statistics show that East Asian countries like South Korea, Hong Kong and Japan have made tremendous progress in the field of science and technology during the last 7-8 years. The unplanned growth of higher education coupled with a lack of resources affected the quality of education in India in the past. The government has been largely blamed for this debacle and there are several factors that have compounded this miserable state. Lack of innovation and sticking to a redundant curriculum, a widening gap between the educational system and the ultimate professional performance, lack of funds in the system, lack of emphasis on research and social sciences, poor salary structures for teachers and researchers and no quality monitoring in the education system are prime reasons for such a dismal state of affairs.

The Plan Allocation for Higher Education, which went up to 28 percent in the 5th Plan period, has been slowly going down in subsequent plans and has reached only 6 percent of the total Plan expenditure during the 10th Plan period. The gross enrollment rate (GER) for higher education, which has risen from 0.7 percent in 1950-51, 1.4 percent in 1960-61, and 8 percent in early 2000, is still very low (about 10 percent) compared to the world average of 23.2 percent, and an average of 54.6 percent for developed countries, 36.3 percent for countries in transition and 11.3 percent for developing countries. According to the available official statistics, the expenditure on R&D in the field of Science & Technology as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) was 0.8 percent during the year 2005-06 in India. For perspective, countries spending the most on S&T as a percent of their GDP were Israel (5.11 percent), Sweden (4.27 percent), Japan (3.11 percent), South Korea (2.95 percent), the United States (2.77 percent), Germany (2.74 percent) and France (2.27 percent). Among other countries, China (1.54 percent), Russia (1.74 percent), U.K. (1.88 percent) and Brazil (1.04 percent) have spent more than India.

The central government is conscious of the need to raise both the enrollment rate and access to higher education to all who are deserving irrespective of class, caste, religion, gender or economic status. In the last plan period (10th five year plan, 2002-2007) the enrollment rate has gone up from some 6 percent to 10 percent and in the 11th Plan (2007-2012) it is proposed to raise it to 15 percent. Thirty new central universities, eight new IITs, 20 new IIITs and seven new IIMs, and several high grade medical institutes are proposed to be established during the 11th plan period, and one degree college would be established in each district of the country. The prime minister has invited private sector participation in this venture. The National Commission for Higher Education and Research (NCHER) has been introduced as the apex regulatory body in education.

There are proposals for improving access to quality higher education to disadvantaged groups in the population (Moily Committee and Sachar Committee reports). Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh in his Independence Day speech on August 15, 2007 said, "We will also ensure that adequate numbers of colleges are set up across the country, especially in districts where enrollment levels are low. We will help states set up colleges in 370 such districts. The University system, which has been relatively neglected in recent years, is now the focus of our reform and development agenda. We will set up 30 new central universities. Every state that does not have a central university will now have one. In order to promote science and professional education, we are setting up five new Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research, eight new Indian Institutes of Technology, seven new Indian Institutes of Management, and 20 new Indian Institutes of Information Technology. These will generate new educational opportunities for our youth. I am sure that, working together, we can ensure that at least a fifth of our children will go to college as compared to one-tenth now."

The success stories of the initiatives of the government in this field have already received both national and international recognition and are believed to be the foundation stones of the higher education system. A number of innovative schemes have also been in operation in the Higher Education sector, some promoted by the University Grants Commission, others by the Technical Education Division of the Ministry of Human Resource Development and the All India Council of Technical Education. The Indian Council of Agricultural research and several other Departments of the Central Government dealing with Science and Technology have come forward to play a proactive role in improving the sad state of affairs.


In recent years, the Indian Higher Education System has become fully aware of the need for quality. Organized and focused efforts are needed to achieve this goal. Careful distribution of resources is mandatory to achieve quality and excellence along with access and equality. The UGC has taken upon itself this onerous task and has succeeded in maintaining the quality of education. It has launched many schemes, which have made some impact in the system:

  1. Innovative Programs including Emerging Areas
  2. International Cooperation
  3. Identification of Universities and Colleges with Potential for Excellence
  4. Networking of Universities and Colleges
  5. Faculty Improvement Program
  6. Schemes for strengthening research
  7. Program for the development of Engineering and Technical Education
  8. Program for the Development of Management Education
  9. Program for the Development of Computer Education and the Upgrading / Augmentation of Computer Facilities
  10. Accreditation System

The Higher Education sector ensures the quality of the educational process with the help of accreditation agencies established for the purpose. The main agency which accredits universities and colleges in general education is the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) established by the UGC in 1994, whereas a similar function is done for technical education by the National Board of Accreditation (NBA) set up by AICTE in 1994, and for agricultural education by the Accreditation Board (AB) set up by ICAR in 1996. NAAC proposes to introduce the India Education Index (IEI) for ranking institutes based on academic, research performance and other parameters. The outcome will help in the international comparison of institutes. NAAC has entered into an MOU with higher learning institutes of the United States, Taiwan, Norway, Kuwait and with the Commonwealth of Learning (COL) to facilitate collaborative work on quality assurance in higher education institutions (HEIs). Not only the institutions, but also the college and university teachers will be evaluated by a performance-based appraisal system recently declared by the Ministry of Higher Education. The teachers during their career advancement scheme will draw enhanced salaries based on academic performance indicators. This would definitely boost the level of research and the number of publications in HEIs.

Another significant move by the Government of India to reform policy that hinders financing by private and foreign corporate bodies may soon enable huge investments into Indian higher education. Currently, it is not possible for non-profit companies under article 25 of the companies' registration act to set up an institution and get university status and recognition from the UGC. There is also renewed hope for a bill to be passed in the Indian Parliament allowing foreign universities to set up campuses in India. An open economy framework in the educational sector is likely to allocate resources efficiently and bridge the gap between demand and supply of skills. Taking into consideration the education minister Kapil Sibal's 100 day action plan, laws to regulate entry and operation by overseas entities and the willingness of big industry houses like Ambanis in HEIs in India will get the necessary thrust to compete globally.

Details regarding Indian degree colleges (figures as on June, 2009)


Total number of degree colleges (science, humanities, commerce, law, business, Medical, music, nursing etc)


Number of colleges under UGC purview


Number of colleges recognized under section 2(f) of UGC Act

6,680 (47.7%)

Number of colleges recognized under section 12(B) of UGC Act

5,797 (41.4%)

Number of colleges actually funded by the UGC

6000 (43%)

Number of colleges accredited by the NAAC

3934 (28%)

Number of colleges accredited by the NAAC and scoring above 70%

3,343 (24%)

Figures in parentheses are w.r.t to 14,000 colleges under UGC umbrella.

Current Quality Status of Universities in India (as of June 2009)

Total Number

Total number of university level institutions



Total number of universities under UGC Purview


Number of universities actually funded by the UGC


Number of universities accredited by the NAAC


Number of universities accredited by the NAAC and scoring above 60%



The writer is an assistant professor in the Dept. of Chemistry at Kyung Hee University, Seoul, South Korea.

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