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Federations Magazine Article
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How to Expand Student Places for Millions

How to Expand Student Places for Millions BY Sudeep Banerjee

India, with 28 states, six union territories and the
National Capital Territory of Delhi, has the largest federal
government in the world. It is a democracy by
constitutional design and has a population of 1.1 billion.
Unlike the “coming together federalism” in the United
States and Canada, India’s is a “holding together federalism”
where the federal government not only enjoys residual
authority and considerable sovereign discretion over the states,
but also has many obligations through mandated fiscal transfer
payments to the states.
The system of higher education in India is the largest in the
world in terms of the number of institutions, but not in student
enrolments, despite its massive population.
In India there are some 18,000 institutions of post-secondary
education: 17,625 public and private colleges, 217 state universities,
20 central universities, 102 “Deemed to be Universities”
– mostly agricultural, veterinary and fisheries colleges, and special
institutes – 10 private universities, five institutions established
under the State Legislature Act, and 13 “Institutions of National
Importance,” mostly medical, statistical and technological institutes.
Slightly more than half of post-secondary students enrol
in private institutions.
Centralization, Then Decentralization
While national institutions are created and governed by federal
legislation, their state counterparts are founded and regulated
by state legislation. The governance of higher education in India
is highly decentralized so that individual institutions enjoy a fair
degree of autonomy. Historically, development of higher education
has remained the collective responsibility of both the
federal and state governments.
Education debates during the initial two-and-a-half decades
of planned development – from 1948 to 1975 – led to the realization
that the limited role of the federal government (known as
the Union, centre, or central government), coupled with the
states’ lack of resources and technical abilities, was widening
inter-state disparities. Central intervention on the grounds of
equity led to adoption of the 42nd Constitutional Amendment in
1976, which shifted education to the concurrent (joint function)
list with the aim of building meaningful centre-state partnerships.
Notwithstanding that education is now a joint function, the
states continue to have the major responsibility of funding and
administering 95 per cent of India’s institutions of higher learning.
The centre provides very little assistance to the state-established
institutions and that only in the form of general development
grants through the University Grants Commission (ugc), a
statutory body established by the central government in 1956
for promoting higher education and maintaining its standards.
The total number of students enrolled grew from just under 5
million in 1990-91 to more than 10 million in 2004-05. Yet even
after this expansion, in India the Gross Enrolment Ratio (ger) –
the percentage of post-secondary age individuals who are
students – remains quite low at only 12 per cent compared to the
average for the world which is 27 per cent, developing countries
at 13 per cent and industrialized nations at 58 per cent. The ger
also varies widely across states, from less than five per cent in
Jammu and Kashmir to more than 12 per cent in several provinces,
mostly smaller ones (Himchal Pradesh, Maharashtra and
Uttaranchal). Although the share of female participation in
higher education has increased to 42 per cent in 2005-2006 from
24 per cent in 1970-1971, wide variations exist across the states.
And the participation rates of socially disadvantaged groups are
still far lower than their share of
the total population.
States Fund 80 Per Cent of
Both the centre and the states
provide public financing for
higher education through budgetary
allocations, with the states contributing about 80 per
cent of the total funding. Even with its superior command over
resources, the centre’s relative share of financing higher education
has hardly improved since 1990. And the proportion of gnp
allocated to higher education has declined from 0.46 per cent
in 1990-1991 to 0.33 per cent in 2005-2006. As a result, per student
expenditure in general higher education in 2003-2004 was
30 per cent lower than what it was in 1990-1991 in real terms. It is
also evident from the low per student expenditure on higher
education across states in India (see Figure 1) that the states are
bearing the brunt of the fiscal crisis. In fact, most state universities have had to resort to alternative
methods of resource mobilization, mostly through private
recoveries such as charging higher fees to students.
Enforcing Standards
Quality assurance assumes a heightened importance in India
because of the increasing visibility of the private post-secondary
sector, which is apt to take advantage of institutional
ambiguities and concurrent jurisdictions.
In addition, two independent national agencies have been
established for accreditation of institutions and programs: the
National Assessment and Accreditation Council (naac) and the
National Board of Accreditation (nba) – which led to problems
of coordination and overlapping jurisdiction.
Proliferation of foreign and private institutions of higher learning,
coupled with the limitations of existing regulatory
mechanisms, has not only contributed to the unbalanced growth
of higher education, but has also adversely affected access, equity,
and quality. This critical concern warrants establishment of a
National Council for Higher Education that would revamp existing
regulatory agencies and remove overlapping jurisdiction.
India may be unique among the countries examined in this
publication as the responsibility for higher education has continually
changed between the central government and the
states. While the centre was responsible for the maintenance of
standards, the states were responsible for the establishment
and running of institutions of general higher education. This
was changed through a constitutional amendment in 1976 and
the entire education system, including higher education, was
placed under the joint responsibility of the central government
and the states. Despite this, the role of the centre in higher education,
especially with respect to financing, remained marginal,
though several agencies were established to carry out the functions
of co-ordination, maintenance of standards, and so on.
Yet to meet the needs of higher education, the federal government
needs to provide enhanced resources to both the central
and the state universities. But funding alone will not guarantee
quality. Therefore, because of chronic financial and other disparities
among the 28 states, it is up to the central government
to promote quality by coordinating quality-assurance activities
with the necessary backup of finances.