With 51,649 institutions and 37.6 million students, India has one of the largest higher education systems in the world. Here's how we can fix the problems in India's higher education system.

India wants to get to 50% GER by 2030 from the current 26.3% in 2019.

Before that, we need to fix crucial issues such as quality of our institutions, employability of the graduates, and financing of higher education. Here's how we can fix the major higher education problems in India:

Thomas Edison’s quip - ‘A vision without execution is just hallucination’ resonates with India’s wish of getting to the 50% GER by 2030 from the current 26.3% in 2019 without a proper strategy and an execution plan.

The rapid expansion of India’s higher education since 2001 resulted in a dramatic rise in the number of HEIs and a corresponding increase in the enrolments at 51,649 institutions and 37.6 million students, it is one of the largest higher education systems of the world.

While the country is focused on massification of higher education, without finding creative solutions to a few important vectors' quality of our institutions, employability of the graduates and financing of higher education, achieving the GER targets of 50% by 2030 seems to be a distant dream.

Challenges for learners

There is growing anxiety across the world about higher education students are uncertain about the return on investment due to rising tuition fees on one hand and uncertainty about career prospects on the other.

Higher education is imagined as a pathway, launching students into the wider world in the expectation that the currents will guide them into a job. However, many students get stuck in the doldrums because employers demand evidence of specific skills and experience even from fresh candidates.

We can keep debating if this should be counted as a skill-gap, nonetheless, there is a need for pathways that lead individuals into jobs.

What universities need to do

Excellence plus equity is a powerful win-win. The universities will need to collaborate and work closely with the industry to align their course curriculum and the pedagogy to the demands of the market; introduction of vocational courses, co-designed with local employers, in the 3-year degree programmes can help bridge the skill-gap substantially.

The recent guidelines published by the UGC for embedding apprenticeships in graduate degree programs is a welcome step in the direction. Creation of alternate pathways to employment through mandatory internships and apprenticeships can help familiarise students with the skills necessary to gain employment.

The students will get to practise and hone their skills through the on-job training; by the time they graduate, they would already carry substantial work experience.

An alternative for students

Apprenticeship embedded degree programs create a viable financing model for higher education through its ‘earning while learning’ model.

Students get to earn their monthly stipends from their employers — this helps them subsidise their tuition fees and, at times, creates an income source (a better proxy than the midday meal in schools), enough for their families not to force them from dropping off college.

Clubbed with other benefits earning the work experience while they are still graduating, the building of soft skills, creating an employer financing model for higher education and the income subsidy through the stipend earned these innovative programmes have the right ingredients to create a demand-pull for higher education enrolments without overtly depending on government subsidies and financing.

Barack Obama, during his address to the NAACP said, “Justice is not only the absence of oppression; it is the presence of opportunity.” The current guidelines from UGC for universities to launch these apprenticeship-degrees and focus on employability seem to be well-meant.

Boosting student success through the creation of multiple life-forms of education with shared responsibility and accountability seems to be the only way forward. We will need to promote innovation in education through collaboration, transparency and evidence of what works.

The underlying intent -- every aspiring student in this country must have a real opportunity to achieve an affordable, purposeful and employable degree. India’s prosperity, our democracy, and our identity as the world’s fastest-growing economy, depends on it.

(This is a slightly modified version of an article originally published in India Today. The original article can be found at https://www.indiatoday.in/education-today/featurephilia/story/how-to-fix-problems-in-india-s-higher-education-system-1787781-2021-04-06)