India’s Higher Education Landscape

India’s tertiary education sector faces a period of tremendous expansion as reform efforts aim to overcome challenges.
Reform efforts to address challenges of capacity, equity, access to resources, quality, and bureaucratic obstacles are taking root as India’s tertiary sector experiences a period of tremendous expansion. Photo: Unsplash

Though India’s role in the international education landscape has historically been as a top sending country, its star is rising as a destination for international students. Toward that end, India’s overlapping goals of expanding access to higher education among all students in the country, keeping talented Indian students at Indian institutions, and attracting students from abroad all begin with prioritizing its higher education system.

In the last 2 years, the pandemic has compounded existing challenges in India, including those related to capacity, equity, access to resources, quality, and bureaucratic obstacles. But reform efforts to address these issues and others are taking root as India’s tertiary sector experiences a period of tremendous expansion.

One hope for meaningful reform is the National Education Policy 2020 (NEP 2020), approved by India’s central government in July 2020. But it’s too early to tell if the implementation of the NEP will succeed in moving the sector forward.

To appreciate the country’s growing role in international education, it’s important to understand the scope of India’s higher education system, as well as its various models, strengths and weaknesses, and largest obstacles.

An Overview: Large but Challenged

India’s higher education landscape is a mix of progress and challenges. Its scope is vast: 1,043 universities, 42,343 colleges, and 11,779 stand-alone institutions make it one of the largest higher education sectors in the world, according to the latest (2019–20) All India Survey of Higher Education Report (AISHE 2019–20).

The number of institutions has expanded by more than 400 percent since 2001, with much of the growth taking place in the private education sector, according to a major 2019 report from the Brookings Institution, Reviving Higher Education in India. This growth continued through 2019–20, according to the 2019–20 AISHE report.

Capacity is growing rapidly to serve India’s large youth population and burgeoning college-aged cohort. One metric of note is gross enrollment ratio (GER), which measures total enrollment in education as a percentage of the eligible school-aged population. India’s GER of 27.1 percent in 2019–20 seems poised to fall below the Ministry of Education’s target of achieving 32 percent by 2022. It is also significantly behind China’s 51 percent and much of Europe and North America, where 80 percent or more of young people enroll in higher education, according to Philip Altbach, a research professor at Boston College and founding director of the Center for International Higher Education.

The number of institutions has expanded by more than 400 percent since 2001. ...Capacity is growing rapidly to serve India’s large youth population and burgeoning college-aged cohort.

India has produced many noteworthy higher education institutions, including those specializing in sciences and business, though none of them take the top spots in global rankings. Its highest-ranked institution, the Indian Institute of Science, was in the 301–350 range among institutions worldwide in 2022, according to the Times Higher Education 2022 World University Rankings. China, by contrast, has 16 institutions in the top 350, including six ranked in the top 100 and two in the top 20. However, much is different about India—its central government is less efficient and empowered, there’s enormous variation between India’s 36 states and territories, there’s less affluence, and the country has a democratic political system.

Across India, there is an enormous variation in quality institutions between states. For instance, according to the National Institutional Ranking Framework of India 2021, the best colleges in the country are concentrated in 9 of India’s 28 states: Delhi, Gujarat, Haryana, Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, and West Bengal. The colleges in these states are all in the ranking’s top 100 institutions, notes Eldho Mathews, deputy advisor at the National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration. In states with fewer resources, offering quality education is more of a challenge.

Other difficulties that hobble the sector include lack of sufficient funding at both the national and state levels; inefficient structure; massive bureaucracy; and corruption. An additional, formidable hurdle is to bridge the gap between graduates and jobs, as many employers have doubts about the quality of Indian graduates’ skills. In a recent survey by Wheelbox, Taggd, and the Confederation of Indian Industry, respondents rated graduates of higher education institutions below a 50 percent employability level, according to the resulting Indian Skills Report.

The NEP: Introducing New Reforms

To address the challenges and steer the overall Indian tertiary sector, the Indian government released the NEP 2020 and the Education Quality Upgradation and Inclusion Programme (EQUIP), a five-year education plan announced in 2019. In addition to its teacher-education initiatives and the introduction of 4-year degrees and more flexible pathways, the NEP’s major reform components include the following:

  • Raising the percentage of young people enrolled in postsecondary education significantly—up to 50 percent from the current 26.3 percent. The draft national policy aims to increase the gross enrollment ratio (GER) to at least 50 percent by 2035, while EQUIP has a goal of doubling the GER to 52 percent by 2024.
  • Increasing expenditures on all levels of public education from 10 percent of all government spending to 20 percent over a 10-year period.
  • Imposing a differentiated system of research universities, teaching universities, and colleges that seeks to do away with the affiliation model, merge institutions to create larger multidisciplinary education and research institutions, and give greater autonomy to the best universities.
  • Establishing a Global Initiative of Academic Networks to engage with the international talent pool of scientists and entrepreneurs to augment the country’s existing academic resources, accelerate the pace of quality reform, and elevate India’s scientific and technological capacity to a standard of global excellence.
  • Establishing a Scheme for Promotion of Academic and Research Collaboration that taps foreign academics to improve the competitiveness of the Indian system.
  • Continuing and expanding the existing Institutions of Eminence (IoE) program, which focused on creating world-class teaching and research institutions. Ten public and 10 private institutions are to be identified as world-class, with the goal that these institutions are eventually ranked among the top 100 in the world over time. The IoE designation is intended to allow these institutions greater freedom to determine fee and course structures and the discretion to establish their governing bodies.
  • Continuing the Leadership for Academicians Programme, launched in 2019, which provides training for those in academic and administrative leadership positions in partnership with selected foreign universities.
  • Restructuring and consolidating the system so that institutions have a minimum 3,000-student enrollment.

Several Indian states have still not implemented the NEP 2020, in some cases because of disputes over language issues and allegations that state powers are neglected in the plan. While some states are close to achieving target GERs, others lag far behind, according to Changing Higher Education in India, a 2022 higher education treatise that includes an analysis of implementation of NEP 2020 reforms.

Some say that more funding is a core need, and there is no indication that expenditures of that magnitude will occur. India’s Economic Survey 2021–22 reported that spending on education as a percentage of GDP grew slightly—an estimated .3 percent—since 2014–15, but all sources interviewed were skeptical that a substantial increase in the tertiary education sector spending will occur.

“It is not enough to announce these things; [they] take money and follow-through, and there are a lot of powerful negative forces that continue to the present,” says Altbach. “There are good proposals coming forth from the government and semigovernment private commissions that roughly say the same thing and sound more serious than the past, but the jury is out.”

“Emphasis on quality entails limitations on quantity and…inclusiveness. Diversity of gender, ethnicity, country, and region all contribute to excellence. Values are paramount.” —Ramaswamy Sudarshan

Lakhotia is also skeptical: “NEP 2020 has now been formally in place for nearly 2 years, but its implementation is visible only in fragments,” he says.

The rush to increase capacity with limited resources is highlighting trade-offs and forcing hard choices, says Ramaswamy Sudarshan, dean of the Jindal School of Government and Public Policy at the private O.P. Jindal Global University (JGU) in Haryana. “Not all good things go together,” he says. “Emphasis on quality entails limitations on quantity and…inclusiveness. Diversity of gender, ethnicity, country, and region all contribute to excellence. Values are paramount.”

Others express more positive reactions to the prospects of the NEP 2020. Raghu Radhakrishnan, director of international relations at the Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE), praises the NEP 2020.

“The new NEP is on the anvil to meet the changing dynamics of the population’s requirement with regards to quality education, innovation, and research, aiming to make India a knowledge superpower by equipping its students with the necessary skills and knowledge and to eliminate the shortage of manpower in science, technology, academics, and industry,” Radhakrishnan says.

Working It Out: Public and Private Universities

With the government’s focus on primary and secondary education in the past several decades, higher education in India as “a huge unmet need,” says Sudarshan. This has left private institutions to fill the tertiary education space.

“The rate of expansion of public universities in the country is poor relative to the emphasis given to primary and secondary education,” he says. “Instead, [the government] encouraged the private sector to produce [university expansion]. The number of private universities presently exceeds that of publicly funded ones, and the gap between the two will continue to increase.”

Indeed, unlike the United States and China, India has tended to promote the creation of a larger number of these smaller institutions. The Brookings Reviving Higher Education report notes that Indian institutions, on average, have about 690 students, whereas China averages 16,000 students per institution, allowing the country to scale up more rapidly.

A total of 78.6 percent of India’s colleges are private, accounting for about a third of total college enrollment, according to the AISHE 2019–20 report. However, while most of the enrollment capacity growth in Indian higher education has happened through the expansion of these private institutions, quality is uneven. The All India Council for Technical Education has imposed a moratorium on approval of new engineering colleges given attendance shortfalls in the country, notes the Times of India. This ties into another item on the NEP’s to-do list: Ensure a minimum enrollment of 3,000 students and phase out small colleges with lower enrollments.

“I think we need a mix of [large and small institutions] to effectively cater to the differing needs of learning desires and logistics of the rural and urban populations on one hand and the significantly varying local needs on the other.” —S. C. Lakhotia

Some smaller, private, upstart universities, however, have better resources and have broken free from the model, making dramatic progress in providing a small number of students more resource-rich educations—but these institutions remain a small part of the picture.

S. C. Lakhotia, a distinguished professor at Banaras Hindu University (BHU) questions whether having larger institutions would necessarily improve the situation. “I am not sure if fewer but larger institutions would be an answer to the mammoth task of providing reasonable quality of higher education to the huge population,” he says “With all cities in the country already bursting at their seams, having larger institutions would aggravate the conditions due to further migration to such centers. I think we need a mix of both to effectively cater to the differing needs of learning desires and logistics of the rural and urban populations on one hand and the significantly varying local needs on the other.”

Structural Difficulties

The structure of India’s higher education system creates its own challenges that the NEP aims to address. At the hub of the system are the public universities. Most of them have affiliations with numerous smaller, often private, colleges—generally of lesser prestige and quality.

“Of 40,000 colleges, most are dependent on a mother university for their frameworks and other things, even though many Indian colleges are older than the universities to which they are affiliated,” says Mathews. “That is a big hurdle.”

“The public universities are overstretched,” says William Brustein, interim director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Global Studies Center and formerly the vice provost for global strategies and international affairs at The Ohio State University (OSU) from 2009 to 2016, where he established U.S.-India mobility programs. “Their faculty are not paid well, and they have to hold two or three jobs. They can’t devote time to research, and they lack the technology in their classrooms that you would find in China.”

One example of an overstretched public institution is BHU, located in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. The university, recognized as an Institution of Eminence in 2020, started in 1916 with strong national backing, an ambitious vision, and deep resources. Its 1,300-acre campus is home to a residential university, as well as to three other affiliate colleges: a women’s college, the Institute of Medical Sciences, and the Institute of Technology, which was recently separated as an independent institution. But BHU has faced challenges in recent years. 

“The diversity of subjects, the huge campus, and the large number of students and faculty have indeed presented a variety of administrative and academic challenges,” says Lakhotia.

The NEP’s goal in addressing these difficulties is to move away from the affiliation model and create a new system of research universities, teaching universities, and colleges. Merging institutions will create larger multidisciplinary education and research institutions and give greater autonomy to the best universities.

Bridging the Funding Gap

One of the NEP’s major objectives is to double the amount spent on public education, which should ameliorate a major challenge that plagues higher education in India: inadequate funding for both central- and state-funded public universities. Central universities receive funding from the national government, through the University Grants Commission (UGC), while state universities are funded by state governments, in addition to some grants from the UGC.

“Although there is a general perception that central universities are better funded than state universities, the facts, at least for BHU, are different,” says Lakhotia. “Some of the central universities … have better funding than the earlier established central universities like BHU. The more recently established central universities perhaps also have better budgets. Many of the state universities are in worse conditions with respect to the funds provided by the given state governments.”

“More recently, there has been a shift to understanding that you cannot just focus on the early part of the pathway and neglect youths coming into and out of higher education.” —Rajika Bhandari

And much funding has been concentrated on the primary and secondary levels. “For many years, there was heavy focus on primary and secondary education,” says Rajika Bhandari, author and former president and CEO of the IC3 Institute, which promotes career and college counseling at schools around the world in partnership with universities, and with a large presence in India. “More recently, there has been a shift to understanding that you cannot just focus on the early part of the pathway and neglect youths coming into and out of higher education.”

The NEP specifies that “revamping colleges and universities to foster excellence” is a priority for the government’s financial investment.

The Deadening Effect of Bureaucracy

Excessive bureaucracy rivals insufficient funding as a root cause of the challenges of the Indian higher education sector. Many colleges function under the supervision of a university or a government body, reducing their autonomy. In many cases, the university or government body is unable to regulate them effectively, the Brookings Institution report notes. States are also the leading funders of many institutions, removing the ability of the central government to use funding as a lever to improve the systems.

That bureaucracy has a deadening effect on the ability of Indian higher education institutions to experiment and evolve, says Pankaj Chandra, vice chancellor of Ahmedabad University, one of India’s upstart private institutions.

“Indian higher education suffers from lack of experimentation and hence an inability to react to the changing environment—and it is true of some of India’s better institutions, such as its Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) and Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs)as well,” Chandra says. “Having studied at an IIT and taught for two decades at two of the IIMs and led one of the premier IIMs as its director, I feel that they could be many times better if the government just stopped controlling them or dictating to them as to what should they do. They need to be left alone to chart their own destinies.”

Similarly, India’s regulatory framework and bureaucratic mindset “have been and remain obstacles,” in the progress of JGU, notes Sudarshan. These obstacles include passing legislation to create the university, obtaining permissions and approval for developing the land, and seeking recognition for JGU’s law school.

“There is a great tradition of individual inquiry and learning in India and its institutions; we just need to make them collectively able to deliver new ideas and scientific knowledge for the society.” —Pankaj Chandra

Streamlining systems and reducing inefficiencies are key aspects to India becoming a bigger player as a destination country in international education, though the NEP does not address these particular pain points. It does, however, outline implementation plans that include better coordination between central and state governing bodies, leveraging existing strengths of India’s academic tradition.

“There is a great tradition of individual inquiry and learning in India and its institutions; we just need to make them collectively able to deliver new ideas and scientific knowledge for the society,” Chandra says. “Given the fundamental ways in which the world is changing, here is an entry point for institutions that think differently to become leaders globally.”

Changing Mindsets

In addition to bureaucracy, long-held attitudes about higher education—and who should have access to it—prevent progress that could benefit potential students.

Brustein says he also encountered an elitist aspect to the central governmental mindset toward Indian institutional capacity development. He recalls attending Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce (FICCI) conferences in New Delhi, where government officials expressed their desire to create the equivalent of Ivy Leave institutions in India.  

“I think India would do much better with a land-grant model and, also, community colleges,” says Brustein. “That is where India could really make a difference in its higher education. But there has been no effort to do that.”   

Lakhotia agrees that more technical and vocational training might be better fits for the needs of many young Indians. “While there may be larger institutions which cater more to those primarily interested in academic careers, there have to be many smaller institutions across the country that provide basic education and vocational trainings beyond secondary schools,” he says.

The NEP outlines robust plans to reimagine how vocational training is offered in higher education, especially given the prevailing social attitudes that view vocational training as inferior. One major goal is, by 2025, to have 50 percent of Indian students exposed to some type of vocational education; currently, it’s less than 5 percent.

“The present trend that everyone should have an undergraduate degree to get a job has resulted in the unmanageable migrations from rural to urban areas on one hand, and a worrying lack of skilled manpower for agriculture and various services [on the other],” Lakhotia says.

Accreditation, Equity, and Teacher Development

The NEP focuses a large part in its higher education plans on accreditation, which is also seen as incomplete and insufficient to ensure institutional quality. Mandatory accreditation under the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) is limited to institutions seeking funding, while another accreditation body, the National Board of Accreditation (NBA), is limited to technical programs like engineering and management. NBA accredits individual courses rather than institutions, resulting in a small proportion of institutions with NAAC accreditation, notes the Brookings Institution report. In 2018, the UGC proposed that more accreditation agencies be created.

Equity is another deeply rooted obstacle for India’s higher education sector. To increase diversity in admissions, there is an affirmative action policy (called “reservation”) that allots a certain percentage of seats to historically disadvantaged groups, including women; people from disadvantaged castes, tribes, and religious minorities; and those from economically disadvantaged segments of society.

Challenges remain for many of these students once admitted. Ministry of Human Resource Development data published in 2019 reveals that out of 2,461 students who dropped out from IITs over a 2-year period, nearly half were from reservation groups. Of the 99 students who dropped out of IIMs, most were from reservation classes, writes Rudrashis Datta, an assistant professor in English at Pritilata Waddedar Mahavidyalaya in West Bengal, in an opinion article in The Statesman. A similar pattern of high dropout rates for reservation class populations from seven top IITs was reported for a 5-year period by the Education Ministry in 2021, according to The Hindu.

To remedy these problems, the NEP outlines eight specific steps for governing bodies and 14 steps for institutions to take in order to ensure better equity, access, and student success—from financial assistance and inclusive curriculum to wheelchair-accessible buildings and counseling and mentorship programs.

An area where the NEP’s efforts are bearing fruit is in boosting teacher qualifications. Under the NEP 2020, the central government requires a 4-year integrated bachelor’s of education as the minimum required degree for teaching by 2030. In 2021, the government announced a program of instruction for that degree in 50 institutions across the country. The program will start in the 2022–23 academic year and will allow graduates to get a degree in education as well as in a specialized subject, such as history, mathematics, arts, economics, or commerce.

“Having the right environment that encourages research, independence, academic freedom, and stimulating students are incentives [for faculty].” —Ramaswamy Sudarshan

In March, the UGC began considering modifications to its regulations to allow the appointment of professionals and industry experts as professors in central government universities as part of the implementation of the NEP 2020.

Better funding and institutional mandates that emphasize more research have allowed some universities to recruit and retain top talent. “We have managed to attract about 20 new faculty every year to the university during the last 4 years,” Chandra says. “The largest majority amongst them are Indians who have completed their PhDs at some of the best places like MIT, Stanford, Chicago, Penn, and Cambridge. The rest are PhDs from some of the best institutions in India.”

Similarly, says Sudarshan, “JGU has benefited from brain gain, with its top scholars returning to work with us, even though they will take a pay cut. I did when I left the [United Nations Development Programme] and joined JGU. Having the right environment that encourages research, independence, academic freedom, and stimulating students are incentives.”

Introducing New Approaches

In India, 3-year arts, commerce, and sciences degrees remain the most common. And traditional pedagogy, such as rote learning, still hold sway. Mousumi Mukherjee, a professor at JGU and deputy director of the International Institute for Higher Education Research & Capacity Building, says the teaching reality of many professors in India at colleges affiliated with public universities still resembles her own early career experience as a lecturer at a college affiliated with the University of Calcutta.

With a syllabus designed by an administrative body far from her campus, she and other teachers were expected to deliver the curriculum as planned with no autonomy in the classroom—“whether the students were actually able to understand it or not,” she says. “I later studied abroad under a Fulbright teaching fellowship, and I had to unlearn everything I had learned about teaching from that period in my career.”

However, the NEP 2020 has introduced 4-year undergraduate degrees with multiple entry and exit points. The policy also seeks to increase flexible pathways to higher education learning, including increased credit transfers between different institutions and types of programs. Other new initiatives from the NEP in this area include an academic credit bank to allow students to move between different universities and gain credits from work that count toward a final degree. 

In addition, a draft Curricular Framework and Credit System for Four-year Undergraduate Programme, introduced by the UGC, calls for multidisciplinary and holistic education to emphasize conceptual understanding, creativity, and critical thinking. Stakeholders hope the greater flexibility will improve GER ratios, reduce dropouts, and increase degree completion. However, a liberal arts approach and the flexible thinking behind it are relatively new developments to the Indian ecosystem, says Chandra.

“India needs its own experiments and it needs to build liberal arts–driven education that is located in its context and is still global in its value and aspirations of meritocracy. Ahmedabad is an experiment in that direction.” —Pankaj Chandra

“Most parents are not convinced that such an education is superior to rote learning, as the latter gets them into established public institutions like IITs and IIMs,” he says. “Most employers also value single parameter achievement that is designed around marks in standardized exams. It is going to take some time before these employers break their mindset and start to hire graduates in large numbers. Some of the more enlightened ones are already coming to our campuses.”

Ahmedabad University has successfully implemented such an approach. “Many schools are simply trying to replicate the ethos, culture, and structure of programs in the United States or Europe,” Chandra says. “They are also attracting students from a certain section of the society because of their high fees. India needs its own experiments and it needs to build liberal arts–driven education that is located in its context and is still global in its value and aspirations of meritocracy. Ahmedabad is an experiment in that direction.”

The Strength of Specialized Institutions

While schools such as Ahmedabad are beginning to address the need for liberal arts-based education, the establishment of state-sponsored, science- and business-related institutions is a time-tested achievement. Resources are concentrated on these science- and business-related institutions, which recruit top Indian students. The country’s 23 Indian Institutes of Technology, its autonomous public technical and research universities, and its 20 Indian Institutes of Management are centrally funded and enjoy greater autonomy than most institutions, though they educate a relatively small number of students.

“The IITs are a bright point in the system, in part by leaning heavily on admissions testing to yield the brightest students from an enormous number of applicants,” says Altbach. “They are world class and mainly undergraduate. The Indian Schools of Management are the same thing, funded by the federal government.”

Such institutions are among the most selective in the world. “If these students were to come to the United States, they would attend Harvard or MIT,” says Brustein.

“The IITs are a bright point in the system, in part by leaning heavily on admissions testing to yield the brightest students from an enormous number of applicants. They are world class and mainly undergraduate.” —Philip Altbach

There are also noteworthy public institutions outside the IITs and IISc, which are established brands. “These institutions as whole entities are not as comparable to world leaders abroad, but many have excellent departments that do excellent research,” says Mathews. The Indian Institute of Science, Education and Research in Pune and the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) under the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research are central institutions doing very good basic science and research, Mathews notes.

The state university system includes several standout institutions, such as Calcutta University, Jadvapur University, and Pune University. “Their funding is much lower than the IITs, yet some of their departments conduct excellent research, which is amazing,” Mathews says. “These institutions often don’t get mentioned outside of the country.”

In fact, almost all prominent states that have a major teaching university also have research and training institutions—including some in advanced fields, such as the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology (IIST) in Kerala, which is supported by the central government in strategically important areas, notes Mathews. In August 2021, the Indian Cabinet approved a noteworthy memorandum of understanding between IIST and the Delft University of Technology, for carrying out the academic programs and research activities involving students and faculty members in each institution.

A Game Changer: Distance Education

Distance education, one solution to some of India’s capacity challenges, continues to evolve—and may be one of the brightest spots in the country’s higher education sector, now that the government allows higher-ranked institutions to offer online degree programs. And as institutions around the world saw with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, remote learning is here to stay.

In India, distance learning accounts for “around 10 percent of the total enrollment in higher education, and [it’s] dominated by the public sector,” Mathews notes. “There are, however, some new forms of distance education that are disrupting the sector, most through private-public partnerships, institutions, and mass open online courses (MOOCs),” Mathews says.

Established in 1973, the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore (IIMB), is one of the top management schools in India in the public sector and has a standout MOOC program, the IIMBx program. To date, IIMBx has had over 750,000 students from more than 190 countries, says P. D. Jose, an IIMB professor.

Another online program, the National Program on Technology Enhanced Learning (NPTEL), is a project run by the IITs and the Indian Institute of Science. Since 2003, it has offered more than 2,300 courses for students online, and, since 2014, it has allowed participating students to receive certifications from those institutions that include transferrable credits. The program, which offers courses in STEM, management, and the humanities also features proctored exams. NPTEL partners with other colleges within and outside India to extend the reach of the program.

The fact that NPTEL certificates come with IIT and IISc recognition has helped their acceptance among employers, says IIT Madras’s Andrew Thangaraj, who helps run the program.

“One of the things that’s unique or very interesting in India is online higher education is actually integrated quite strongly with on-campus education,” says Thangaraj. “Pretty much every college will know about Swayam (the national MOOC portal) and NPTEL training. [Institutions] are looking for competent teaching in every subject that have actually been offered there, and they get that through these kinds of online programs.”

“It is an experiment, and we are learning every day to perfect our online education methods. If we can do quality and scale, other institutions will follow suit and we will change the game for higher education in India.” —Andrew Thangaraj

In 2021, Thangaraj says IIT Madras took the online next step and began offering a full bachelor’s program online, a 3-year degree in programming and data science, which Thangaraj says is one of, if not the, only large-scale, full-degree online programs in India. It currently has more than 12,000 students participating. The program features live interaction with instructors for 8 to 10 hours per week per course. Students must come in monthly to one of 100 exam centers throughout India or the several foreign exam centers to be tested.

“It is an experiment, and we are learning every day to perfect our online education methods,” Thangaraj says. “If we can do quality and scale, other institutions will follow suit and we will change the game for higher education in India.” 

A challenge that hinders distance and online education in India is that many colleges do not have good internet connectivity, particularly in rural areas, says Mathews. Thangaraj notes that many smaller, local colleges allow students to access online courses through labs in their facilities, which can solve the problem of access for those with no connectivity. In some cases, students watch videos of the classes rather than enjoying real-time access.

But ultimately, Thangaraj sees online education as the gamechanger that will make the NEP 2020’s goals achievable. “Only 8 million students get admission into college each year,” notes Thangaraj. “Yet India has amazingly aggressive goals of admitting 20 or 25 million students each year by 2030. I don’t see any way of getting there other than online education playing a huge role.”

A Bright Future

If India can meet the ambitious goals outlined in the NEP and related plans, there is promise that it can successfully tap the remaining pockets of unrealized potential across the country. By building on the strengths of its higher education system and acknowledging the areas in need of reform, India can not only better meet its own students’ needs, but also attract talent from the region and the world.

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