Education is a critical tool for developing a modern economy, a just society and a vibrant polity. It provides the skills and competencies for economic well-being and social mobility. Education strengthens democracy by imparting  its citizens the tools needed to fully participate in the governance process. It also acts as an integrative force in society, imparting values that foster social cohesion and national identity. A well educated population, equipped with the relevant knowledge, attitudes and skills is essential for the economic and social development of a country. Education is the foremost sector that shoulders the biggest responsibility of shaping the future of a nation. India, though renowned since the ancient times for higher educational institutions like Nalanda and Takshashila, is presently facing multiple challenges in education.

Imparting quality education to our youth is one of the highest forms of service, an individual or institution can render to the nation. Its importance was best described by the Greek philosopher, Diogenes, who said, “The foundation of every state is the education of its youth”. India has the third largest higher education system in the world with around 819 universities and university level institutes that impart higher and technical education. They also provide affiliation to more than 37,000 colleges and institutes. Enrolment rates in our higher education institutions have gone up to around 25.2% but are still well below the world average of 36.7%. 

However, our higher education system continues to be afflicted with the three problems of access, equity and quality. Wide disparities exist in enrolment percentages among the States and between urban and rural areas. Disadvantaged sections of society and women have significantly lower enrolments than the national average. The higher education sector is plagued by a shortage of  well-trained faculty, poor infrastructure and outdated and irrelevant curriculum. The use of technology remains limited and standards of research and teaching at Indian universities are far below than that of international standards. Curricular reforms leading to regular revision and upgrading of curricula, introduction of semester system, choice-based credit system, and examination reforms are yet to take place in higher educational institutions across the country. Exceptions apart, majority of our higher education institutions perform poorly in the area of quality on a relative global scale.  Our system turns out nearly seven lakh science and engineering graduates every year. However, industry surveys show that only 25% of these are employable, without further training. The picture is more dismal in other disciplines if a recent, non-official, employability report is to be believed.  In recent years, the massive expansion in enrolment in higher education in the country has resulted in unbearable burden being put on the physical and pedagogic infrastructure of colleges and universities. This is reflected in overcrowded classrooms and distortion of desirable student-teacher ratio, overall shortage of teaching and tutorial space, overloading of laboratory and library facilities, and often a lowering of the quality of teaching.

Curricular and academic reforms are required to improve student choices, with a fine balance between the market-oriented professional and liberal higher education. Higher education must be aligned with the country’s economy and also  with the needs of the global market. Innovative and relevant curricula should be designed to serve different segments of the job market or provide avenues for self-employment. Emphasis must be given to the expansion of skill-based programmes in order to make our youth employable in the job market. The fact remains that today, around 60% of total enrolments in higher education are in private institutions. Some of them excel in their chosen areas. There also exist legitimate concerns about many of these institutions being substandard, exploitative and suffering from the general shortcomings mentioned earlier. Governance reforms are required to enable these institutions to have their autonomy to develop distinctive strengths, while being held accountable for ensuring quality and fulfilling their responsibility towards the society. 

India has a younger population not only in comparison to advanced economies but also in relation to the large developing countries.  In 2011, around 50% of our population was less than 24 years of age. By 2020, around two thirds of our population will be in the working age group (15-64 years). Over the next 20 years, labour force in India is expected to increase, while it will decline in industrialised countries and  China. This demographic structure presents us with an opportunity of a potential ‘demographic dividend’, which tapped, could add to our growth potential, provided the two conditions are fulfilled—First, higher levels of health, education and skill development are achieved; Second, an environment is created in which the economy not only grows rapidly, but also enhances good quality employment/livelihood opportunities to meet the needs and aspirations of the youth. It is thus evident that education is a vital ingredient for actualising the ‘demographic dividend’ and for achieving higher, sustainable and more inclusive economic growth. India has the potential to capture a higher share of global knowledge-based work, for example by increasing its exports of knowledge-intensive goods and services, if there is a focus on higher education and its quality is improved as a global benchmark. 

Recently, the Higher Education Commission of India (Repeal of University Grants Commission Act) Bill, 2018 (HECI) was drafted by the Central Government. The Bill   provides major reforms in higher education. It provides for establishing the Higher Education Commission of India repealing the University Grants Commission Act, 1956. The revised Act is applicable for all higher educational institutions established, under any Act of Parliament excluding Institutions of National Importance so notified by the Government, Act of State Legislature and to all Institutions and Deemed to be Universities so notified by the Government. HECI will be in charge of ensuring the academic quality in universities and colleges. The Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) will be responsible for funding of universities and colleges; maintenance of academic standards in the higher education system; and specifying learning outcomes for courses of study in higher education. It will also lay down the standards of teaching/assessment/research or any aspect that has a bearing on the outcomes of learning in higher educational institutions including curriculum development, training of teachers and skill development. It will evaluate the yearly academic performance of higher educational institutions, by monitoring the performance on criteria laid down. It will promote research in higher education institutes and coordinate with the Government for provision of adequate funding for research. It will put in place a robust accreditation system for evaluation of academic outcomes by various higher education institutes and provide for mentoring of institutions found to be failing in maintaining the required academic standards. It can also order closure of institutions which fail to adhere to the minimum standards without affecting the student’s interest or fail to get accreditation within the specified period.

Thus a complete revamp is needed to meet the present demand and address the future challenges that India is about to face. To reap the diverse culture demographic dividend and to maintain peace and social harmony among them, quality education with values are the necessary areas to focus upon. The higher education is facing many challenges as pointed above. Most of the challenges are difficult but are not impossible to resolve. To accomplish our goal  of becoming a world power, the resolving and restructuring of higher education is a must, then only we will be able to harness the human potential and resources of our country to the fullest and channellise it for the growth of the nation. In the Union Budget for the financial year 2018-19, education sector has witnessed an increase of almost 4% in terms of funds allocation. The Union Cabinet has taken a decision recently to give due importance to the Rashtriya Uchchatar Shiksha Abhiyan (RUSA), a centrally sponsored scheme launched in 2013 to provide strategic funding to eligible State higher educational institutions.

Education is the basis of human establishment and hence should be treated with profound seriousness. Maintaining the education standards will satiate the concerns of youth  who is looking for opportunities within the nation. Not only economic fronts but education fronts should be dealt prudently in order to be established as a powerful nation in the years to come. Today there is much more data and evidence about the contours of the learning crisis in India than ever before. The time is ripe for timely and effective decentralised action to improve the quality of youth learning outcomes. So, unless we ensure that our young people reach adulthood with the knowledge, skills, and opportunities they need to help themselves, their families, and their communities move forward, India’s much awaited ‘demographic dividend’ will not materialise. If India really wants the best of the global players to come, it needs to lay out more attractive terms. Contrast that to places such as Singapore, Dubai and Qatar, which aren’t just enabling quick permissions, but are providing top universities, free infrastructure and facilities to entice them to set up campuses. Youth is the most important asset for a country and their future is the future of the nation. So, the Government must be very serious to provide basic education and skills.    

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