The All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE) 2016-17 showing improvement in the gross enrolment ratio (GER) at tertiary level—the ratio of students enrolled for higher education to the total population in the 18-23-years age bracket—is, no doubt, reason for cheer. But, AISHE data shows, there are many areas of concern while progress has been made in others. Total annual enrolment rose from 30.2 million students in 2012-13 to 35.7 million in 2016-17. That’s a GER of 25.2%, compared with 21.5% in 2012-13. But that pales in front of a China (43% in 2015); to improve this, of the first steps would be to bring down the school drop-out levels, especially at the secondary level, where 27% of the students dropped out in 2013-14. At the same time, the rate of increase in number of universities has shows a healthier trend—after slowing in 2014-15 and 2015-16, it regained pace in 2016-17.
The gains for women in higher education has been a spot of cheer, too—between 2011-12 and 2016-17, women’s enrolment grew by 22.15% while that for men grew by 17.3%. The gains are also significant for SC, ST and OBC enrolment—of the total enrolment in 2016-2017, 14.3% were SC students, 5.2% were ST students and 34.4% were OBC students, a meaningful rise over the corresponding 2012-13 figures.A worry-area that the latest AISHE throws up is that the higher education space is severely understaffed when it comes to teachers. While the pupil-to-teachers ratio in universities and colleges has eased from 24:1 to 22:1 between 2012-13 and 2016-17, in a developed country like the US it was 12.5:1 in 2014, and in economies like China and Brazil, it was 19.5:1 in 2011 and 19:1 in 2014, respectively.
College density in India has improved—28 per 100,000 students—but many states, including Bihar (7) and Bengal (11), lag in this area. The present government has talked of near-complete freedom, both academic and administrative, for top-notch institutions and universities, graded regulation for the rest, etc, but the actual progress has been slow. Moreover, it has been pussyfooting on revamping the grossly malfunctioning AICTE-UGC system. The government spend on higher education is also abysmal—as this paper has pointed out before, while, in 2016-17, the government allocated just Rs 30,000 crore to colleges and universities in the country, just 1.9 lakh Indian students spent Rs 44,000 crore studying in the US that year.
While increased public funding of higher education is a must to address this, the need is to also liberalise the space for private providers to fill some of the gaps, at all three levels of education. Which is why the Annual Status of Education Report (Rural) 2016 shows just 19.3% of Class III students could read Class II-level text versus 38% in private schools; that just one Indian higher educational institution managed to break into the top-300 in Times Higher Education global ranking of universities shows how long the road ahead is.