Facilitating foreign capital to enter the tertiary education space is imperative for India as it looks to nearly double the higher education gross enrolment ratio, from 27% now to 50%, by 2030. Higher education infrastructure is painfully inadequate in the country with just 6% of the districts accounting for close to a third of the colleges, as per data from the All India Survey of Higher Education (AISHE). What’s worse, there are sharp inter-state disparities—Karnataka, for instance, has 59 colleges per 100,000 population, while Bihar has seven, against the all-India average of 30. Foreign capital will likely not flow into setting up colleges in Bihar, but by adding brownfield infrastructure (partnering top higher education institutions, or HEIs) or setting up India campuses of foreign universities, it could allow existing infrastructure to reach beyond its current uptake, with domino effects down the chain. To that end, education minister Dharmendra Pradhan’s recent comments that guidelines for foreign capital will be released soon holds out promise of the tertiary education landscape seeing significant improvement.
That said, liberalisation of the space needs to be done at a much faster pace. One of the important asks has been the replacement of the higher education regulator, the University Grants Commission, with a body that is much more nimble in its operations. The Higher Education Commission of India (HECI), proposed in a draft legislation in 2018, was expected to achieve that. Unfortunately, the Bill has been hanging fire. According to the draft Bill, the HECI would comprise four independent and empowered bodies—the National Higher Education Regulatory Council, the National Accreditation Council, the Higher Education Grants Council, and the General Education Council—entrusted, respectively, with regulatory, accreditation, funding, and standard setting functions. This was envisioned to address the problems under the UGC regime. That the Bill is still to get enacted doesn’t speak well for a government keen on higher education reforms. The government must renew efforts and draw from the National Education Policy (NEP) that says that the regulatory system is in need of a complete overhaul in order to re-energise the higher education sector and enable it to thrive.
Also, India needs to focus on getting its skilling ecosystem right. Without doubt, collaboration with skilling institutions from, say, a Germany or a Korea—for both capital and expertise—is something that India needs to pursue vigorously. At present, less than 15% of the youth in the country have received any form of formal skills training vis-a-vis the NEP goal of at least 50% students in schools and HEIs receiving skills training by 2025. The government has initiated quite a few measures to ensure skilling of the youth, but the skilling gap in the country is quite large to begin with, and efforts haven’t as successful as desired. The Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana dashboard shows that the number of youths placed in jobs is just 22% of those certified after three iterations of the flagship skilling scheme. India’s universities also need to be encouraged to play an important role in preparing an entrepreneurial society and creating job-creators. It is true that skill development and higher education are under different ministries, but India can’t afford to look at them in isolation.