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Higher Education in India: The Status Quo and the Roadmap Ahead – IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute

Higher Education in India: The Status Quo and the Roadmap Ahead - IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute

Zubiya Moin


Tertiary education is now being considered an imperative subject to a country’s economy as it is rapidly being recognized as a significant driver of economic competitiveness in an increasingly knowledge-driven global economy (OECD, 2008). Therefore, learning from the experiences of developed countries, many developing countries are now striving towards improving their education systems. In the pursuit of the same, the Indian government introduced three National Education policies (1968,1986,1992) since independence.

However, many problems still persist in the Indian education system to this date. This article attempts to specify the issues in the Indian higher/tertiary education system and explain the reasons behind these problems. The arrival of NEP 2020 was hailed as a revolutionary event in the history of the Indian education system and was expected to transform the education sector completely.

The article also critically analyses the National Education Policy 2020 from the perspective of higher education. It is found that NEP 2020 envisages impractically high aims but carries the potential to transform the Indian Higher education system. Finally, the challenges for NEP 2020, which may impede its effective implementation, are focused upon.

Keywords– Indian Higher education system, Tertiary education, National Education Policy 2020, NEP 2020, Challenges


In these times of fascinating technological advancements, human capital is grabbing center stage as one of the major boosters of the global economy. The workforce of a country, if properly educated and skilled, can contribute more to the production process in the economy. The Taskforce on higher education and society in their report ‘Higher education in developing countries, peril and promise’ stated that “High-quality human capital is developed in high-quality education systems, with tertiary education providing the advanced skills that command a premium in today’s workplace.”

In other words, tertiary education increases the productivity of individuals, which in turn helps them more than double their earnings (Marta Ferreyra et al., 2017, pg. 117) and consequently their quality of life and hence helps resolve the problems of poverty and inequality at the macroeconomic level.

Considering the vital importance of education in a country’s economy, the traditional human capital theory has dealt with the necessity of investment in education. Investing in higher education contributes vitally to accelerating the rate and process of economic growth by enhancing human skills and productivity. The positive externalities associated with education and the high returns expected from investment in education necessitate the role of the State in financing higher education.

A piece of empirical evidence on the high returns of education is of the Republic of Korea, one of the poorest countries in the world till 1948 which grew to be the world’s 15th richest economy by investing in and strengthening education at all levels and by providing universal access to tertiary education.

Unfortunately, in the case of India, little emphasis was laid on higher education in public policy for quite a long time. The three National Education policies failed in delivering their expected results due to a shortage of public expenditure on education. The government has been reducing real public expenditure on education and the recruitment of teaching staff to downsize the public sector. This carefree attitude has led to the concerning condition of higher education in India. (Tilak, 2013) The figures below describe the present situation of higher education in India.

Table 1: Figures describing the situation of Higher Education in India

Statistical measure Value
Percentage of GDP spent on education 3.1% (6.2% in the U.S.)
College density (no. of colleges/lakh eligible population,  i.e., 18-23 yrs) 30
Privately managed colleges More than 78.6%
Privately managed colleges (unaided) 65.2%
Colleges running PG programs 35.04%
Colleges running Ph. D programs 2.7%
Gross Enrollment Ratio in higher education (GER) 27.1% (54.4% in China)
GER in UG courses 79.5%
GER in Ph.D. 0.5%
Pupil-Teacher Ratio (PTR) 26
Colleges having enrollment >3000 4%
Colleges having enrollment<100 16%
Source: AISHE 2019-20

This article evaluates the National Education Policy 2020 in the light of the problems persisting the system of higher education in India.

Issues of Higher Education system in India

The Indian higher education system is crippled by numerous challenges which are responsible for the poor quality and quantity of human capital in India and subsequently low economic growth. Some of these challenges are elucidated below.

1. Commodification of education

As seen from the above figures, there is a prevalence of privately managed colleges in India’s higher education sector, with most of these colleges being financially unaided by the government. When facing the lack of financial support by the government, these institutions act as profit-seekers and therefore try to charge maximum fees from students.

This rational nature of private educational institutions leaves economically weak students with public educational institutions as a last resort. However, the high level of competition among students to secure a seat in these public educational institutions leaves out many poor students who couldn’t get proper secondary education in the past.

Hence, good quality higher education ends up becoming a commodity unaffordable for the masses of India. This commodification of education is also held responsible for the low GER.

As said by Barack Obama, “Higher education cannot be a luxury reserved just for the privileged few. It is an economic necessity for every family. And every family should be able to afford it.”. Hence higher education in India should be made more affordable and consequently accessible.

Source: Expenditure Profile of Department of Higher Education 2020-21&2022-23  

2. Insufficient grants for Scholarships

The problem of unaffordability is aggravated further by the lack of government expenditure on providing financial aid to students in the form of scholarships. The government has been gradually cutting down her expenditure from the funds allocated for granting scholarships for the past few years. As evident from the chart below, even though the government’s planned expenditure. is increasing over the years, the actual real expenditure incurred is decreasing at alarming rates.

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Source: Expenditure Profile of Department of Higher Education 2020-21&2022-23

3. Faculty Shortages

The PTR in higher education is small, which casts a good impression at first sight. However, with a closer examination, it is found that this data is skewed. The PTR in public institutions is quite large (sometimes even larger than 60), while on the other hand, it is quite small in private institutions. This is because of faculty shortagesin higher education institutions.

Though reliable data relating to the quantum of faculty shortage are not available, on average, the shortage of faculty is deemed to be around 35 to 40 percent. There are many unfilled vacancies for faculty in both universities and colleges. (Sen, 2011) This happens as only a small fraction of NET-qualified students are recruited as permanent faculty due to shortages of funds faced by higher educational institutions.

4. Poor-quality of Curriculum

Another major problem in higher education in India is the poor quality of the curriculum,which in turn leads to the poor quality of human capital in India. As stated by C.N.R. Rao (the Head of the Scientific Advisory Council to the Prime Minister), 90 percent of the universities and higher educational institutions in the country have an outdated curriculum which is keeping them from making it into the top institutes of the world.

The curriculum in India has not been changing with changing industry needs. It still imparts knowledge that is obsolete and irrelevant in present times. In addition, the learning process is content-based rather than application-based, and training in essential skills is not provided by many institutions. This feature has further aggravated the problem of low employability of graduates.

5. Low Gross Enrollment Ratio (GER)

The problem of low GER can majorly be attributed to the poor quality of secondary and primary education. Of all the students enrolled at the primary level, 50.6% (National Statistical Office, India, 2018)  drop out before completing the senior secondary level, with girls being married off and boys engaged in petty jobs to support their families.

Due to poor quality of education being imparted at schools, especially government schools (obviously except for Delhi govt. schools), many students, even after completing their secondary education, are not able to qualify for the higher secondary examination to secure a seat in college. Another cause that can be attributed to the low GER is the high costs associated with higher education in India.

6. Inadequate focus on Research

Last but not least, there isinadequate focus on research in India. Some of the significant barriers to the development of research in India.

  • Lack of sufficient resources and facilities required to pursue research.
  • Lack of quality faculty to guide researchers
  • Higher education institutions are poorly connected with research centers
  • Inadequate allocation of funds for research

Matching the fate of funds allocated for scholarships to students, the funds earmarked for fellowships to Ph.D. scholars are also inadequate. Due to insufficient funds, a mere 6% of all the students appearing for UGC-NET are considered NET qualified. Consecutively, a merit list is prepared from this 6% of students, and only the top students are granted JRF (Junior Research Fellowship) (Chadha, 2020). While the NET JRF qualified scholars are granted 31,000 monthly, those who couldn’t qualify JRF get only 8,000 per month. All these factors result in poor quality research which isn’t cited by foreign scholars.

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Source: Expenditure Profile of Department of Higher Education 2020-21&2022-23

7. Fragmentation of Education

The Indian senior secondary education has long been fragmented in nature. As elucidated by Gerhard & Rocha Filho (2012, p.127), in most countries’ educational curricula, “knowledge is separated into relatively compartmented contents even in the context of a given discipline, and the contents are presented in a dissociated and disconnected fashion.” The secondary education system in India can be held responsible for this early fragmentation. With students being divided into streams of Science, Commerce, and Arts at an early stage and divided further at higher stages, more focus is laid on specialization in the specific subject rather than imparting holistic knowledge.

This problem is evident in the category-wise distribution of the higher education institutions in India. India currently has about 845 universities and approximately 40,000 higher education institutions (HIEs), reflecting the overall high fragmentation (Venkateshwarlu, 2021, 191) and a large number of small-sized HEIs in the country affiliated to these universities. It is found that over 32.6% (Department of Higher Education, 2020) of these small-sized institutions are running single programs against the expected reform to a multidisciplinary style of higher education which is an essential requirement for the educational reforms in the country for the 21st century. 

This peculiar focus on specialization also results in education being entirely theoretical in nature. In an attempt to make students learn, teachers give importance to the content itself and not to its relation with the situation from which it emerges, generating the classic dissociation between theory and practice: what is learned does not correspond to real-life situations. (Lück, 1995, p.21).

Despite all these issues and concerns regarding higher education in India, the future of higher education in India doesn’t seem too dark. India’s fourth National Education Policy was introduced on 29th July 2020 replacing the previous NEP of 1986 and laid out various plans for revolutionizing the education sector of India.

New Education Policy or NEP 2020: What’s in it for higher education?

The National Education Policy (NEP) has laid out a grand vision about what education in India should be like over the next 50 years. The policy

  • supports and promotes problem-solving, innovation, and creative thinking
  • recognizes students’ interests, inherited skills, and the need for well-resourced infrastructure, and a trained, passionate team of teachers
  • focuses on recognizing, identifying, and fostering the unique capabilities of each student through the development of conceptual understanding. (Sharma & Yarlagadda, 2021)

It is based on five pillars, “Access, Equity, Quality, Affordability and Accountability” and carries the potential of transforming India into a vibrant knowledge hub. Some of its features related to higher education are-

  1. In the pursuit of increasing access, affordability, and equity,
    The government and the HEIs will extend special support to Socially and Economically Disadvantaged Groups (SEDG) in the form of
  • Earmarking suitable funds for their education
  • Setting clear targets for higher GER for SEDGs
  • Providing more financial assistance and scholarships to SEDGs in both public and private HEIs

a. Increasing GER in higher education (including vocational education) by 50% by 2035. This will be done by

  •   i. improvising the structure of primary and secondary education
  •   ii. by establishing more high-quality HEIs in aspirational districts and  Special Education Zones containing larger numbers of SEDGs

b. To make education affordable to the masses of India, HEIs will be instructed by the government to reduce opportunity costs and fees for pursuing higher education in addition to providing more financial assistance and scholarships to SEDGs.

2. In the pursuit of achieving quality higher education in India,

  • The existing rigid curriculum will be revamped and will be transformed into a flexible, broad-based, and multi-disciplinary curriculum.
  • The pedagogy, method of assessment, and student support will also be revamped according to the needs of the present times. The student’s report card will be evaluated based on a 360-degree assessment, keeping in mind the mental abilities of his behavior, which the student’s classmate and teacher will evaluate. (Verma & Kumar, 2021, 293)
  • In order to ensure quality faculty in institutions, the integrity of faculty and institutional leadership positions will be reaffirmed through merit- appointments and career progression based on teaching, research, and service. In addition, a professional standard for teachers will be developed by the National Council for Teacher Education by the year 2022.
  • To help the students of India to get World-class education in India itself, the top 100 HE institutions in the world will be encouraged to set up their branches in India.
  •  To seed, promote and fund bright peer-reviewed quality research, a National Research Foundation (NRF) will be set up soon. It will also act as a liaison between researchers, government, and industries so that research scholars are constantly made aware of the most urgent and current national research issues and will also be responsible for recognizing outstanding research.

3. Special focus on Multidisciplinary education-
The NEP 2020 understands the huge significance of multidisciplinary education and hence describes it as the largest recommendation of the policy. As stated in the official document of NEP 2020, “The main thrust of this policy regarding higher education is to end the fragmentation of higher education by transforming higher education institutions into large multidisciplinary universities, colleges, and HEI clusters/Knowledge Hubs, each of which will aim to have 3,000 or more students”.

In pursuit of this aim, all single-stream HEIs will be phased over time either by transforming into multidisciplinary universities or by becoming parts of vibrant multidisciplinary HEI clusters. Finally, it aims to establish a multidisciplinary HEI in or near each district in India by the year 2030.                      

“This would help

  1. build vibrant communities of scholars and peers
  2. break down harmful silos,
  3. enable students to become well-rounded across disciplines including artistic, creative, and analytic subjects as well as sports,
  4. develop active research communities across disciplines including cross-disciplinary research,
  5. and increase resource efficiency, both material and human, across higher education.” (Ministry of Human Resource Development, 2020)         

“With the flexibility for the choice of the subject across streams, this move in the National Education Policy is aimed at building skills in the students’ subjects of interest.” (Ministry of Human Resource Development, 2020)

It is expected that it would help students to select the subject and career of their choice.

4. Classification of HEIs as proposed by the NEP-

image 14

HEIs will have the autonomy and freedom to move gradually from one category to another, based on their plans, actions, and effectiveness. All HEIs are expected to be converted into multidisciplinary autonomous degree-granting colleges or universities by 2040.

5. Common Entrance Test

It introduces the concept of a common entrance test for admission in UG courses of all universities similar to SAT. This will prevent the hassle of filling separate admission forms in multiple colleges and will also reduce the importance of senior secondary grades for securing admission in good colleges.

6. Resolving Language barriers
The policy also strives to resolve the language barrier issue by encouraging HE institutions to use local/Indian languages as the medium of instruction or offer bilingual programs.

7. Duration of UG and PG courses
All the undergraduate programs will be of four years with a provision to exit after one year with a diploma, after two years with an advanced diploma, after three years with a pass degree, and after four years with a project-based degree.   Similarly, postgraduate programs will be of the duration of one to two years with more specialization & research focus. (Aithal P. S. & Aithal S., 2020, 16)     

Table 2: Certifications of UG programs at various exit points and duration of PG programs according to the exit points  

Certification for UG programs Duration of attending the course Duration of Master’s degree (If applied by the student)
Diploma 1 year NA
Advanced diploma 2 years NA
Pass degree 3 years 2 years
Project-based degree 4 years 1 year

8. In pursuit of accountability,
a light but tight control policy of higher educational institutions by a single regulator will be adopted. Under this,

  • Every HE institution will have a Board of Governors (BoG), which will consist of highly qualified, competent, and dedicated individuals with proven capabilities and commitment to the institution. This BoG will be empowered to govern the institution free of any political or external interference.
  • The Higher Education Commission of India (HECI) will be set up as a single overarching umbrella body for the entire higher education system, excluding medical and legal education.
    i. National Higher Education Regulatory Council (NHERC) for regulation
    ii. General Education Council (GEC) for setting standards
    iii. Higher Education Grants Council (HEGC) for funding the HEIs
    iv. National Accreditation Council (NAC) for accreditation
  • The HECI will function through faceless intervention through technology & will have powers to penalize HEIs not conforming to norms and standards. (British Council, 2020)

Challenges of National Education Policy in the process of solving the problems of Higher Education

The ultimate success of a well-framed public policy depends on how well it is implemented and executed. The NEP 2020 lays a grand vision for the transformation of education in India, the implementation and accomplishment of which is a humongous task. There are many major challenges that will act as impediments to the achievement of the vision of NEP 2020. Some of them are:-

The NEP lays down various objectives like setting up multidisciplinary HEIs in or near every district by 2030, increasing GER to 50% by 2035, laying special focus on research by NRF, establishing Special education zones, providing financial support to SEDGs etc. In order to achieve all these objectives in the stipulated time, a huge amount of public expenditure is required, which may prove to be the largest impediment to the success of this policy.

However, the policy doesn’t set any target for public expenditure on the basis of which the government could have been held accountable in the future. The NEP in 1968 envisaged investing 6% of GDP in education. However, public expenditure for education in India was just around 2.7% in the year 2017-18, falling far short of expectations (Kazmi & Ali, 2021).

As evident from Fig. 1, while the planned expenditure on education has not been increasing by large extents, the actual expenditure always lags behind it by thousands of crores. Considering these figures, the goals of the NEP 2020 seem highly impractical. Hence, if this state of low public expenditure on a crucial sector like higher education persists, the high hopes set by NEP 2020 will meet the same fate as that of NEP 1968. 

Since education is a subject of the concurrent list, it is highly possible that some states will be unwilling to cooperate with the central government to implement the policy in their respective states. Also, the idea of bringing a National Higher Education Regulatory Campus as the top controlling organization can be opposed by the states. (Verma & Kumar, 2021, 296)

  • Vagaries of the political process:

The policymakers focus on the short-term outcome as they don’t want to be marked for failure and take recognition of the legislation that is approved rather than its implementation. (Devi & Cheluvaraju, 2020, 2) Therefore, the future governments face a dilemma, to be marked for the failure of the policy or to unwillingly lose the credit of success of the policy to the policymakers. Hence, the ultimate success of the policy depends on the present and future governments.

  • Unaffordable World-class education

The NEP 2020 encourages the top 100 HEIs in the world to set their branches in India but doesn’t provide any mechanism for any price regulation on education imparted by these foreign institutions. These institutions without being regulated by the government will continue to charge high fees from students, which will again leave the economically weak behind.


The Indian Higher education sector is still hamstrung even after three National education policies. The above-highlighted problems are serious in nature, and therefore focus must be laid on working out these problems. The NEP 2020 sets high hopes for the future of higher education in India by aiming to solve the most prevalent of issues in higher education. However, the policy doesn’t lay down a proper roadmap for its implementation and sets over-optimistic expectations. 

At the end of the day, although the NEP 2020 sets impractically high expectations, it does carry the potential to improve the situation of the Indian education sector to a great extent. The policy will prove fruitful only if the government cooperates with the concerned stakeholders, increases public expenditure for education, and puts maximum possible efforts in overcoming the challenges for its effective implementation.


About Author

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Zubiya Moin, Student Researcher at IMPRI, Student of Economics honours at Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi

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