Indian higher education budget at Rs 30,000 cr; Indian students spend Rs 44,000 cr in just US; why we must fix our colleges

Indian students spending $6.54 billion in 2016-17 in the US should do a lot to assuage president Donald Trump who is worried about the $20 billion trade deficit his country has with India.

education budget, higher education, higher education budget, Indian higher education, higher education in India, Indian students
Indian students spent Rs 44,000 cr in just the US in FY17 vs India’s higher education budget of Rs 30,000 cr. (Image: Reuters)

Indian students spending $6.54 billion in 2016-17 in the US should do a lot to assuage president Donald Trump who is worried about the $20 billion trade deficit his country has with India. More so when you consider that, in 2016, Indian tourists spent another $13 billion in the US—over the last decade, a US government fact sheet points out, Indian students contributed $31 billion to the US economy. This is only the US, when you add up what Indian students spend overseas each year, it adds up to more than $10 billion. That number should, however, set off alarm bells in the Indian establishment since such spending is not just a huge drain on the country’s forex reserves, it is several times greater than the central government’s budget for higher education for all universities and colleges. In 2016-17, the period in which 1.9 lakh Indian students went to the US, the central government’s budget for higher education across all universities across the country was a mere Rs 29,703 crore! Just imagine what the money Indian students spend abroad would do for Indian colleges and universities if it was spent here, apart from the obvious impact on the economy. That children should choose the best option is hardly surprising given the impact of education on salaries. In 2013-14, for instance, PRICE’s all-India survey had shown that while a family headed by an illiterate person earned Rs 80,759, this rose to Rs 181,123 if the head of the family was a matriculate and to Rs 335,174 in the case of a graduate—a similar order of magnitude was found across most caste groups as well.

While there is no doubt there is a lot to be gained by studying overseas, especially in top-rung colleges, the real issue is that Indian students are badly starved for choice when it comes to good universities in the country. For one, the number of globally recognized colleges/universities is quite low. If you go by the Shanghai Rankings, India had three colleges/universities in the Top 500 in 2003, and one of them was in the Top 300. By 2017, this was down to just one institution in the Top 400. And if a limited number of quality colleges is not bad enough, there is the reservation in both the admissions of students as well as in the faculty. With a 49% reservation, and several states are trying to exceed even this, the number of seats left for the general category of students is limited. And the fact that students getting admitted under quotas then need quotas to be able to get jobs is testimony to the fact that the quality of teaching is quite poor.

Of course, blaming everything on reservations is unfair, but as many committees have pointed out over the years, the AICTE-UGC regulatory system is stifling education since all curriculum have to be approved by them, among a host of other constraints. Despite talking of freeing up education from stifling regulation, the government—and not just the present one—hasn’t done much on this front. While education minister Prakash Javadekar has talked of a graded autonomy framework—institutes that are graded higher will get greater autonomy first—the government went a step further and promised a different governance architecture to 20 world class universities, equally divided between the public and the private sector, in the budget last year. The fact that the policy on “world class institutions” said they would “have complete flexibility in fixing of curriculum and syllabus, with no UGC mandated curriculum structure” means the government acknowledges the havoc UGC has created.

Even this policy, however, has not yet come into force. For one, it continued with the reservations policy for the 10 government-owned universities. So, one of the problems being grappled with is that, if there is a 49% reservation for SC/ST/OBC and these universities can take a maximum of 30% foreign students, what’s left for the general category will be really limited. And while these institutions are supposedly free to hire whoever they want, in the case of the 10 government institutions, the policy of faculty reservations still holds. How you can have world-class institutions along with reservations is something that makes sense to only India’s political class.

There are to be no reservations for the private sector world-class institutions, but even here, the stipulation that at least one member of sponsoring organisation must have a net worth of at least Rs 2,000 crore unnecessarily tilts the balance in favour of industrialists as compared to professionals of the sort that, say, set up Ashoka University. And it shows just how much power the UGC bureaucracy has that these 20 institutions that are supposed to represent the best that India has by way of education “shall not use the word ‘University’ suffixed to (their) name but may mention the words ‘World Class Institution Deemed to be University’ within parenthesis suffixed thereto”—if you find that hard to believe, read the regulations at The amount Indian students spent rose 30% in 2016-17 from $5.01 billion in 2015-16—with the government unwilling to fix India’s education system, expect that to keep jumping every year.

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