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Higher education access rising but challenges lie ahead

The proportion of young people in higher education in India has risen to 25.2%, up from under 20% in 2010-11, with the country setting an ambitious goal of attaining a gross enrolment ratio, or GER, of 30% by 2020. 

There was a marginal increase of 0.7% in higher education participation in the past year, up from a GER of 24.5% in 2015-16, according to the latest All India Survey on Higher Education, or AISHE, for the year 2016-17 released by the government on 5 January.

The GER is the ratio of enrolment in higher education compared to the population of the eligible age group (18-23 years).

Total enrolment in 2016-17 is 35.7 million compared to 32.3 million in 2014-15 – an increase of 3.4 million students, making India’s higher education system among the largest in the world.

The rise in participation this year is slightly less than the average increase of 0.75% in GER in the past four years and may not be enough to achieve the 2020 goal. But Minister of Human Resource Development Prakash Javadekar is optimistic. “We have seen growth of about 2.25% GER in the past three years. This is not a mean achievement. I am sure we will achieve 30% GER,” he said at the launch of the annual report in New Delhi.

However, higher education participation growth is slow in comparison with other countries, including China, considering the size of the college-age cohort in India, where the population is predominantly young, according to Francisco Marmolejo, the World Bank’s lead tertiary education specialist, based in New Delhi. China has achieved a current GER of 42%, up from 25% in 2011.

Drop-out rates

Marmolejo pointed to lower transfer rates from secondary school to higher education, especially among low-income and rural students, and high drop-out rates as factors contributing to the country’s relatively low higher education participation rate. 

Tariq Zafar, an educationist and former vice-chancellor of Bhoj Open University, Bhopal, said: “The GER will not rise significantly until we reduce drop-out rates.” 

The primary school enrolment rate is high due to compulsory education, but ensuring retention of all students until they complete secondary education is a big challenge, he said. 

Even so, the rise in higher education participation raises other challenges. “Failure to get suitable employment after graduation and lack of flexibility of the education sector are big issues,” Zafar said, referring to a mismatch between higher education and employers’ demands.


Marmolejo said there is “significant room for improvement not only in terms of greater equitable access to higher education, but also in terms of more adequate diversification of the entire tertiary education system and, more important, in terms of the relevance of its academic programmes.” 

He said: “The [Indian] government and society are making significant efforts in this matter, but the magnitude of the challenge is significant, and also the economy at large has limited capacity to absorb a larger number of higher education graduates, especially if their skills are misaligned with the current and future needs.” 

Women and disadvantaged groups

India’s GER increase is attributed partly to more women in higher education as the Gender Parity Index improved from 0.86 to 0.94 in one year – with 94 female students for every hundred male students.

The improvement in the enrolment of historically-disadvantaged Scheduled Castes and Tribes also increased. Last year’s AISHE report showed the GER for Scheduled Castes at only 19.9%, and for Tribes at just 14.2%. These have increased to 21.1% and 15.4% respectively this year.

The country’s Muslims, who form 14% of country’s total population, were found to have the lowest rate of enrolment in higher education in 2016-17, at just under 5%, trailing the national figure by a wide margin. There has been only marginal improvement in the past four years, since it was 4.15% in 2012-13. 

Javadekar said the government was making an effort to bring Muslims and other marginalised groups on par with the rest. “The government is planning to introduce more programmes in this direction, which will be launched from the next academic session,” he said.

The number of universities on the AISHE portal has increased to 864, up from 621 in 2010-11. During the same period the number of colleges increased to 40,026 from 32,974.

In recent years private institutions have played a key role in the growth of the higher education sector, particularly in specialised fields such as management and engineering. The role of private providers in increasing GER is expected to grow, with the majority of colleges – around 73% – and more than a quarter of universities in the country already privately managed.

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Written by Shuriah Niazi,
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