Given India’s gross enrolment ratio of just around 25% compared to China’s 43%—this was a low 25% in 2011—and the US’s 86%, the government has done well to free up universities to offer online courses at will. Contrast this with the situation a few years ago when institutes offering online courses were forced, by a court order, to offer these only in the states their registered offices were in. According to Mint, based on the criterion that universities must have at least an A+ NAAC ranking to offer the courses—others offering courses will be given up to two years to achieve this—around 15% of India’s universities will be able to offer this immediately. Apart from giving students greater flexibility in choosing courses across universities—ideally, some amount of choice should be provided to get extra credits across universities—this will bridge a critical infrastructure gap since India does not have the funds to meet the requirements.
States that offer more flexibility and have more dual-mode universities, like Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, have a higher GER, of 47% and 32%, respectively, already. The government has already made good progress in freeing up the IIMs and the IITs from its yoke. While progress is slow for mainline universities, some part of the blame has to lie with the universities also as they are slow to move on this as more autonomy means raising more funds on their own as well.
Getting a higher GER, of course, cannot simply be achieved by freeing up universities—it requires a considerable step up in the levels of school education. Though there is no similar comprehensive data for urban schools, according to the latest Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) for rural students, just 43% of students in the 14-18 age group could do a simple division. While 47% of 14-year-olds couldn’t read a simple sentence of English, 40% of 18-year-olds couldn’t do it either. If the quality of learning means a large productivity loss for the economy, school dropout ratios are a major problem—more than a quarter of the students at the secondary drop out of formal education.
While the government is looking at using Aadhaar to track kids who have dropped out, this is hardly the solution since the trick is to get them back to school and to learn. One solution, hardly tried, is to give cash vouchers to parents that can be used for private schools that deliver better education, or to force government schools to shape up. Indeed, once the quality of education picks up, dropout levels will also fall on their own.