Posted by: Vikram | April 4, 2011

The three weaknesses of the Indian Higher Education System

In our collective experience of past two decades or so as teachers, we observe that the great Indian undergraduate education system, on the average, serves to effectively curb independent thinking, self-study skills, resourcefulness, intellectual maturity, academic confidence, and the very motivation to learn with excellence. Academic excellence is often identified, wrongly, with performance in examinations that tend to assess mostly memorization skills of a student, and the true measures of academic excellence such as depth of understanding, originality, authenticity, creativity, and perseverance are systematically discouraged.

– Mihir Arjunwadkar, Abhay Parvate, and Dilip G. Kanhere, University of Pune, Report to the UGC

Philip Altbach, professor at the Center for International Higher Education in Boston College recently published his assessment of the future of higher education in India: “One-third of the globe: The future of higher education in China and India“. My thoughts on this important question are derived primarily from my original posts, the subsequent comments and the article by Dr. Altbach. As a producer of knowledge, India’s higher education system is in a state of extensive decay. And this decay is likely to be perpetuated further in the future, in no small part due to the preference for small, highly specialized institutes, over centralization and the disproportionate importance of examinations.

The culture of the ‘Institute of Technology’

The Indian higher education enterprise has a public and private sector component, with the majority of students being enrolled in private sector institutions. Most of the private institutions are focused on engineering and technology, particularly electrical and computer engineering. In fact, virtually all the top ranked educational institutions for engineering in India are stand alone institutions. Almost every young student studies in a narrow, specialized institution.

This contrasts greatly with the situation in the US. Most of the top engineering colleges are part of universities that have similarly excellent colleges in other fields, particularly colleges of science. It is not uncommon at my university to see Electrical Engineering PhD students take very advanced mathematics courses, and Chemical Engineering PhD students taking advanced Chemistry and Physics courses. Increasingly, American universities are seeing the development of interdisciplinary PhD programs, where students and faculty are immersed in an environment that encourages contributions at the intersection of the various engineering and science disciplines.

It is difficult for me to see how the small, focused technical institutions proliferating in India would be able to generate this kind of atmosphere. And it seems that the Indian government is further exacerbating the situation by creating more small and specialized institutes and not improving the existing universities. It is not my claim that the evolving Indian system is without any benefit, it certainly seems to allow for the quick production of a large technical workforce at a cheap cost. But it certainly inhibits the creation of comprehensive research universities. The small, specialized nature of most higher education establishments inhibits their capacity to create knowledge and produce a well rounded student body. I will quote Philip Altbach,

Its [India’s] current top institutions, the Indian Institutes of Technology and a few others, are too small and specialized to become world class research universities, and current plans do not show that India is developing a realistic strategy.

Over centralization and unfair funding policies

Although many Indian universities have considerable autonomy in matters of curriculum and administration, the central government (directly or indirectly) controls virtually all the supply of money. Severe restrictions are placed on the ability of universities to rationalize fee structures and reward superior performance by faculty. Altbach notes,

building competitive research universities requires a reasonably well paid professoriate with working conditions at least somewhat comparable to global standards, since top academics are part of a global labour market. … India has no such policies and as a result, is unable in most cases to attract its best scholars to return home

Further, the Indian government follows vastly discriminatory approaches in financial support for universities. For example, the Indian Institutes of Technology receive about 7-8 times more funds than non-IIT colleges. This is despite the relatively small student body at the IITs, and contrasts greatly with the situation in the US. For example the University of California system spends $ 90, $ 77, $ 80 and $ 48 per student on its Los Angeles, Davis, San Diego and Berkeley campuses. Every state in the US has the autonomy to set up and fund its own universities and develop its own institutions uniquely and in consonance with local conditions and goals. The involvement of the central US government is mainly through insitutions like the NSF and NIH which fund research based on the merits of individual proposals. This is to be contrasted with the Indian model of funding institutes like the IITs disproportionately a-priori, without assessment.

Narrow, exam centric modes of entry and assessment

I have written earlier about exam centric evaluation in India. In his golden jubilee assessment of the IITs, IITK alumni and current director of the IISc, P. Balaram states,

With the IITs becoming the institutions of choice for all aspiring engineers, thousands of students flock to preparatory coaching classes for a year or two before venturing to appear for the JEE. This method of selection ensures a certain academic homogeneity of IIT entrants, which may not be an entirely desirable attribute in an institution of higher learning.

The high stakes, high stress environment created in the years before entry into higher educational institutions turns many young Indians into lifelong competitors. Competitive exams, with their ruthless ranks instill a lifelong sense of victor and vanquished in many of those that are successful. A hierarchy is created in virtually every arena. Everything from the choice of one’s major to one’s college becomes a statement of what one’s status is, rather than who one aspires to be. And the narrow and one for all nature of these tests have lead to a severe decline in the vitality of India’s high schools and their capacity to teach. Such is the importance of entrance exams, that many students even stop attending high school in the year of the these tests !

In the current scenario, I have little to disagree with Philip Altbach, when he says,

Despite the use of English as the main academic language and the existence in India of many extraordinarily well trained and bright scholars and scientists, it seems unlikely that India will have internationally competitive research universities in the coming several decades.

As creators of knowledge, the future of Indian universities seems rather bleak. No surprise then that not a single Indian university features in the Top 200 ranked by the Times Higher Education supplement.


  1. Being an IITian myself( for whatever its worth is) I can categorically say that getting into an IIT is considered by many as an end in itself.

  2. Also I think that the semester exam for the assesment after one gets into an engineering college should be like the board exams which means a single question paper for all the students of any particular discipline at least upto a certain percentage of curriculum which is considered to be indispensable and which everyone learns.
    Also I think that there is a need to demarcate research institutions and IITs which are not meant to be research institutes in the first place.They should be just meant to produce engineers.
    For the research studies , only way to encourage them is to make them economically more attractive and viable. Again from personal experience i can recall that a whole lot of people of my generation undertook IIT synonymous with research and for surely research was considered a romantic option by many of us.

    @ vikram Im currently pursuing MA in Pol Sc via IGNOU correspondence course.Does that make me eligible for PhD in any Indian university?

    • pega, as far as the IITs are concerned, there seems to be a great deal of confusion regarding their mission and policies. I dont think it is (or ever was) necessary for us to setup small, specialized schools to produce good engineers. Our existing university system was more than capable of this. The alumni of Mumbai, Delhi, Anna universities include many fine engineers. In fact, most of the engineers at top spots in ISRO, Konkan Railways, BARC are not from the IITs. You simply dont need this small, elite environment to produce good engineers.

      I actually feel that there are two sensible ways to proceed regarding the IITs. One, make them into purely post-graduate centres dedicated to research, after all they do have some of the best trained researchers as faculty. Or, greatly expand their size and scope, and make them into full fledged universities.

      But most importantly, I think there is a serious need to reinvigorate our state university system. Thats where the bulk of our engineers, doctors, economists, sociologists are going to come from.

      I have sent you an email regarding your question.

  3. Regarding IITs producing engineers(not the IT software engineers but the real engineers) I have to say that one has to look at what the IITians do after graduation.
    Some IIM-MBA, some IAS\UPSC, some higher research and some(at max 25%) in core engineering.

    It shows that many of IITians just didnt wanted to be an engineer in the first place. Therefore I can say all this rat race for the IIT (which follows to IIM)is just due to the fact that it is represented as amalgam of some sort of highly brainy and highly intellectual people (which can be true to some extent).

    If you find the number of people who actually graduate from an IIT and choose to do their PG and Research there itself , you will be surprised by the shockingly few numbers. Again it shows that those people who have graduated from an IIT(ie cleared IIT-JEE which is one of the toughest exam in the world(no doubt about that)) dont find the IITS good enough a place to pursue their research(sad but true.).

    I can extrapolate the above statements to say that any institute is as good as the students and the success of IITs should be attributed to the quality of student intake and not the facilities , which by the world standards is quite dismal.

    Which pretty much anwsers the lack of scientific research and noble prizes and all that sort of things in all the fields.

    Also coudnt agree with you more on the improvement of our State Universities but again you should remember that any university is as good as its students. But when the good brains(ie with good IQ) of our societies are hallucinated with the charms of IIT and they continue to treat anything except Btech,MBBS,etc with contempt, I dont think improving the infrastructure only will help.

    • pega, have you seen the budgets of universities in America ? And I dont even mean the private ones like Harvard and MIT. Even great public universities like California, Michigan and Illinois have budgets running into billions of dollars. Keeping them as the benchmark and role models for research is simply not a realistic goal for a country like India.

      What India needs to do is to develop an ecosystem for research, this requires making a large number of independent, autonomous institutions capable of decent research, i.e. make them capable of producing decent PhDs. What the unfair funding practices seem to have done is to deprive state universities of the capital needed to achieve this.

  4. Well said and I must add I really appreciate your writings.

    • Many thanks pega ! 😀

  5. Nice post. I think the holistic point is very valid. From my own perspective, I would have loved to interact with students studying pure maths or taken a class in, I dunno, Mughal History while majoring in Engg. I’m sure it would have made me a better person/professional/engineer. Plus, that way, there would have been a lot more pretty girls. Win win.

    P.S: Btw, could I also be involved in the discussion you and Pega are having about pursuing higher studies in Pol Sci? My question is fairly similar. That is if you and Pega are okay with it. Maybe you could email me?

    • Hades, we got the chance to talk to P. Sainath recently and he summarized it very well, “Engineering education trains you, but social science education locates that education context” Social Science education, history, sociology helps you understand the society you are part of and locates your being in a context.

      I am sure we’ll get a lot more pretty girls into engineering too, if we can make it more interesting 😉

      And yeah, I will forward you the discussion there. What email to use ? The one in the comment form ?

  6. Yep, the one in the comment form will do. Thanks a lot.

  7. A few comments in general… If you compare research and education in India to that in the USA, a few things come to mind. Both countries have national level research labs like NIH labs and Scripps and so on in USA and TIFRs, CDRI and other national labs in India. Both also have what people in USA call “small schools” where the focus is just on educating undergrads and maybe post grads and very limited research happens here. Most of Indian educational institutes including the state level universities and so on tend to be in the “small schools” category. The kinds of places that seem to produce a large amount of research in USA are the Universities that have good research facilities and also good undergrad programs. The only institutes in India that qualified as those used to be the 5-7 IITs until a few years ago. And I don’t think IITs are very specialized for engineering any more. In fact that does not seem to be the long term goal. A large volume of research in IITs actually comes from the physical and biological science departments. They also have management schools and humanities departments that are quite competitive. They are constantly adding more and more desciplines, options for getting minor degrees, they have mandatory classes like economics and sociology and so on even for engineering students and you have options to choose electives in your final few years.

    Clearly, IITs are growing in the right direction to become more like the universities in the USA that have a good research and education combination. Also, the research in India is also funded by national agencies based on merit of proposals. USA has NIH and NSF, India has DST and CSIR grands and fellowships.

    The indian government seems to be spending a lot of money in research and education for building many new IITs, IISERs, NISERs and NITs which are all meant to be national institutes of education and research in science and engineering. Many of them have budgets ranging from 500-800 crores and almost every state would in that case have at least one of these. Even individual grants given to individual labs in these places could range from lakhs to crores of rupees.

    I know that India is nowhere close to being a USA in terms of research and education in science and technology, but the the situation is not as bad as many people make it sound and I believe that things are changing for the better.

    • Welcome bhabhi 🙂

      I would certainly agree with you that the IITs are perhaps the only institutions of higher education in India that come close to ‘US like’ universities and I am happy to see that they are expanding. I really hope that in time, they have full fledged programs in a variety of disciplines.

      On the same lines, I would question the need for the new IITs, NITs and IISERs. It seems that investing in the state universities like Mumbai, Hyderabad and Pune would have been a much better strategy. The govt could have given states money and let each one expand/improve as they saw fit, with adequate safeguards, of course. This would have ensured some diversity in our higher education landscape. Also, it would have been a whole lot cheaper than building brand new institutions.

      The current funding regime clearly places faculty at state universities at a disadvantage. Also, the same agency that runs the IITs/NITs/IISERs (the Union govt) is evaluating research proposals. I dont see how this can be fair. I know they might be under different ministries, but still. And it shows in the research output, (Please see table on the last page)

      Let me express my concern in a different way. Today, state universities in India dont seem to have the ability to produce good PhDs (and even graduates in many cases). And this is a deterioration from the situation after independence. This is the fundamental concern raised by the professors I quote at the start at the beginning of the post and by Dr. Altbach in his paper.

  8. Well Vikram… the table of papers published speaks for itself… Jadhavpur University in West Bengal, Anna University in Tamil Nadu and UICT in Maharashtra are almost as competitive as IITs in terms of papers published… So clearly, it is possible for establishments in different states to carry out high level research and get grants from funding agencies… Also, I don’t think it is a coincidence that these three places fall into some of the more literate states/regions of the country.
    The state governments in the other states probably have other hurdles in education to overcome before they can come to the level of putting a lot of money into research. In the mean while the central government is placing national level institutes in those states that can do research…

    • Bhabhi, for the sake of higher education in our country, I hope your intuition is right. I still have my misgivings, but lets keep working/hoping for a better future.

      • well Vikram, I think you are doing a great job here getting a lot of people thinking about issues in our country… Even though I am more optimistic than you seem to be, I do agree that India has a long way to go…

  9. Vikram, this is really good analysis, and there’s very little I could disagree with. However, I’m yet to come across someone offering practical, implementable solutions. Not that I’m very widely-read or knowledgeable on this stuff or anything, but still.

    By practical implementable solutions I don’t mean things like: “just set up a system like in country X and we’ll be fine”. What I mean is a system which will be implementable by the authorities and also widely supported by the people (i.e. people in general will clearly see some benefit in being part of the new system rather than the old).

    The reason why I’m saying this is that offering such solutions may not be that straightforward. The current higher education system in India is heavily influenced by our history (at least the last 150-200 years). Some of the immediate causes might be: 1) the generally poor state of literacy still prevalent (whatever the administrative and governance causes), 2) the middle-class having expanded very rapidly only in the last 1 or 2 generations which means that their aspirations are still influenced by what they remember of the recent past (i.e. relative poverty and lack of opportunities), 3) the computer/internet revolution which some of our educated (read “lucky”) citizens were able to partake of and thus quickly prosper.

    If you ever speak to a young Indian, generally his/her thoughts on higher education revolve around, “what job will I get after degree X?” These people (as far as I understand) are simply looking for financial stability later on, and they’ll pursue whatever they think will get them that stability in the near future. People, in general, seem to be looking for short-term benefits (that is, job in hand before walking out of college), and not long-term. Also, people are looking for individual benefits (that is, well paying job for oneself), rather than wider society-level benefits (such as “quality research universities”, or “broad-based education”).

    And this is the perspective not just of the “consumers” of higher education, but also of the “producers”. Which is why the current system is the way it is. Changing it will require changing a lot of other things which may or may not be easy.

    So on the whole while I agree on the flaws you point out (since you and I might share similar biases on what is “good” education and why the country needs it), I don’t know how we would set out to improve the system.

    Another thing I want to say is that the higher education system in the West developed organically. It was a slow process that was influenced by what the social, political and business leaders thought were the most pressing needs of the society and how they felt the education system could help in fulfilling them. I have a feeling that the same might be happening in India at the moment. And different players are trying to influence the development of the system in different ways, which is a good thing.

    Not sure how this is related to the rest of my comment, but just wanted to put it in.

    Once again, I’m not an expert on these things, so my analysis could be plain wrong in some or all ways.

    • Hey Nikhil, good to hear from you. Before anything, please do come on gchat. We have plenty of things to discuss 😀

      It is not as if the college going youth in America does not feel the need to find jobs. At UT, you will find about 80 % of undergrads enrolled in programs that will lead to a professional career (CS, engineering, business, journalism, pharmacy, pre-med and UTeach). You will actually find relatively much smaller enrollments in disciplines like physics, mathematics, liberal/fine arts, at least at the undergrad level.

      Even though disciplines like physics, English etc have lower appeal as a major, enough students from other programs take courses in these subjects to keep the departments running. And once this source of money and attendance is established, these departments can build programs somewhat on par with programs in the professional programs.

      What seems to be happening in India is a severe stratification of disciplines. We have island institutes of engineering, medicine, journalism and business, but they are dispersed and do not interact. And because no university has the critical mass to sustain undergraduate programs in the sciences and arts (and hence no PhDs and hence no faculty), they are dying out.

      If your read the report the authors of the first line I quoted, you will find a very nice quotation,
      “The job of the university is to not give society what it wants, but what it needs.”
      So while students might seek jobs, it is up to the policy makers and educators to devise a system to give them both what they want and need. I am not saying that the US way is the only or indeed the best way to do this, but it is something thats seemingly not even on the radar of Indian policy makers/producers.

      This actually ties in very nicely with the second part of your comment. I would also like to think that whats happening in India is organic, and it is to the extent that we are able to train lots of engineers/doctors/managers at a cheap cost. But beyond that, I dont see what can be organic about a central authority deciding they will build 10 XYZ institutes (of the same nature) at different geographic locations. It shows a severe lack of vision and disregard for organic growth in my opinion.

  10. pega, some IITs will allow you to do a ph.d in political science. contact their HSS departments. you may also want to contact TISS in Bombay – they will be glad to have you. Contact IIMs/XLRI – though it may be a managment school – if you can sell your proposition , you will be surprised at the response. These stand alone institutes are flexible

  11. This has bothered me ever since I was in high school. Even though I did well academically (read, scored well in exams), there was no joy in learning. All the teaching was exam-centric, and that emphasis kept getting worse as the years with dreaded entrance exams approached. I have always wondered why education is not geared towards educating and instilling a lifelong desire for learning.

    In the fiercely competitive nature of that system, students seem to grow only in one direction, and fail to become well-rounded human beings. This problem is ubiquitous (I’m assuming that you have used engineering as just an example). In medical schools, it’s the same. It’s all about the marks you score in the various exams during your training, and nothing to do with how you actually treat the patient. All the three points that you’ve discussed are valid in medical studies too, and likely in most fields of education.

    I wonder what – if any – is a way to change the system.

    • Swati, exams and tests do have their roles and benefits, but they have to be complemented by other methods of testing and assessment.

      I do know for a fact that a lot of state boards and the CBSE have made substantial revisions to curriculum and teaching strategies that have resulted in a much better classroom experience for students. However, there has not been much progress in terms of better methods for testing and student evaluation.

      Our system in its current form swears by entrance exams since they are objective and ‘equalizers’ (I personally dont think they are, I think a strategy that combines a general entrance test with school performance would perhaps work better. There are some moves in this direction and we should see some changes in the coming years.

  12. Oh, and one more thing: I wonder how many 12th Std students in India really know which field of studies they are really interested in when they choose their future profession. From what I have seen, it’s mostly based on one’s score in the exams and the in-trend at that time, coupled with parental pressure. I wonder what percentage end up regretting their choice.

    • Well, this has slowly (and rightly) become one of the central concerns of our education system, enough for a movie based on it to become the highest grossing movie in the history of Indian cinema 🙂

      I think there is a growing sensitivity to matching the interests of students and their course of study. This has been concurrent with growing awareness about careers other than those in IT and medicine. But what seriously hampers such efforts is the very narrow, focused nature of our educational institutions.

  13. Extremely good point on the disadvantage of having small specialized institutes just concentrating on specific modules of engineering. As said in US a big university with equally good departments other than engineering offer the students a good choice for a second degree or at least word of mouth publicity for some other field. India has too many engineers and doctors. About team other specialized fields get their due.

    • Welcome risingbharat 🙂 Yes, the US system is much more comprehensive and there is no reason why India cant aim for the same.

  14. Wow! So the good discussion was over in year 2011 itself. I missed it.:-(

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