Higher Education in India: An Introduction

There is some disagreement in the definitions of higher education. It varies from country to country. Some define it purely as education that will result in a college degree, at least an associate’s degree. Others believe it is the pursuit of any education at levels where attendance is voluntary. In Indian context higher education is education beyond the secondary level, especially education at the college or university level.

In India education is seen as one of the ways to upward social mobility. It is seen as a stepping stone to a high flying career. The higher education in India is one of the most developed in the entire world. After China and the United States, India's higher education system is the third largest in the world. There has, in fact, been considerable improvement in the higher education scenario of India in both quantitative and qualitative terms. The IITs and the IIMs are categorized as the top higher educational institutes of the world. Moreover the Jawaharlal University, Delhi University, Allahabad University, Banaras Hindu University and the Patna University are also regarded as good higher educational institutes for doing postgraduates courses and research in science, humanities and social sciences. Today students from all parts of the world are coming in India for higher education.

 In ancient India education under the supervision of a guru was a favoured form. The learners were imparted practical knowledge of religion, philosophy, and other ancillary branches. They were trained in the various aspects of warfare and trade. The book of laws, the Manusmriti, and the treatise on statecraft the Arthashastra were among the significant works of this era which reflect the outlook and understanding of the world at the time.

Apart from the monastic orders of ancient India, institutions of higher learning and universities flourished in India well before the Common Era and continued to deliver education. Secular Buddhist institutions cropped up along with monasteries. These institutions imparted practical education. A number of urban learning centres became increasingly visible from the period between 200 BCE to 400 CE. The important urban centres of learning were Taxila and Nalanda. These institutions systematically imparted knowledge and attracted a number of foreign students to study topics such as grammar, medicine, metaphysics, logic, arts and crafts. By the time of the visit of Alberuni (973-1048 CE), an Islamic scholar, India already had a sophisticated system of mathematics and science in place, and had made a number of inventions and discoveries. Western education became ingrained into Indian society with the establishment of the British Raj.

Following independence in 1947, Maulana Azad, India's first education minister envisaged strong Central Government control over education throughout the country, with a uniform educational system. However, given the cultural and linguistic diversity of India, it was only the higher education dealing with science and technology that came under the jurisdiction of the Central Government.

Education in India falls under the control of both the Union Government and the States. Most universities in India are Union or State Government controlled. The Central Government is responsible for major policy relating to higher education in the country. It provides grants to the UGC and establishes Central Universities in the country. This Government is also responsible for declaration of Educational Institutions as 'Deemed to be University' on the recommendation of the UGC. The State Governments are responsible for establishment of State Universities and colleges. They provide plan grants for their development and non-plan grants for their maintenance. The coordination and cooperation between the Union and the States is brought about in the field of education through the Central Advisory Board of Education.

 The key player in the higher education system in the country is University Grants Commission (UGC). It is not only the grant giving agency  but also responsible for coordinating, determining and maintaining the standards in institutions of higher education. Apart from the UGC there are various professional councils that are responsible for recognition of courses, promotion of professional institutions and providing grants to undergraduate programmes and various awards. All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE), Distance Education Council (DEC), Indian Council for Agriculture Research (ICAR), Bar Council of India (BCI), National Council for Teacher Education (NCTE) Rehabilitation Council of India (RCI), Medical Council of India (MCI), Pharmacy Council of India (PCI), Indian Nursing Council (INC), Dentist Council of India (DCI), Central Council of Homeopathy (CCH) and the Central Council of Indian Medicine (CCIM) are the statutory professional councils of India.

Higher education in India starts after the higher secondary or 12th standard. There are three principle levels of qualifications within the higher education system in the country. These are:
1. Bachelor / Undergraduate level
2. Master's / Post-graduate level
3. Doctoral / Pre-doctoral level

Bachelor degree in arts, commerce and sciences take three years. In some institutions honours and special courses are available. These are not necessarily longer in duration but signify greater depth of study. Bachelor degree in professional fields like agriculture, dentistry, engineering, pharmacy, technology and veterinary medicine generally takes four years, while architecture and medicine, it takes five and five and a half years respectively. There are other bachelor degrees in education, journalism and librarian-ship that are second degrees. Bachelor's degree in law can either be taken as an integrated degree lasting five years or three-year course as a second degree. Diploma courses are also available at the undergraduate and postgraduate level. At the undergraduate level, it varies between one to three years in length. The correspondence courses are also available in various Open Universities and distance learning institutes in India.

Master's degree is normally of two-year duration. It could be coursework based without thesis or research alone. But there are some courses like Master of Computer Application that are of three years duration. Admission to postgraduate programmes in engineering and technology is done on the basis of Graduate Aptitude Test in Engineering or Combined Medical Test respectively. Postgraduate diplomas are normally awarded after one year's study.

A pre-doctoral programme - Master of Philosophy (M.Phil.) is taken after completion of the Master's Degree. This can either be completely research based or can include course work as well. Ph.D. is awarded two years after the M.Phil. or three years after the Master's degree. Students are expected to write a substantial thesis based on original research generally takes longer.

 India is today one of the fastest developing countries of the world with the annual growth rate going above 9%. In order to sustain that rate of growth, there is need to increase the number of institutes and also the quality of higher education in India. Therefore, the Prime Minister of India has announced the establishment of 8 IITs, seven Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) and five Indian Institutes of Science, Education and Research (IISERs) and 30 Central Universities in his speech to the nation on the 60th Independence Day. The outlay for education during the 11th Five Year Plan, which runs from the current fiscal to 2012-13, represents a four-fold increase over the previous plan and stands at Rs 2500 billion.

Three Indian universities were listed in the Times Higher Education list of the world’s top 200 universities — Indian Institutes of TechnologyIndian Institutes of Management, and Jawaharlal Nehru University in 2005 and 2006. Six Indian Institutes of Technology and the Birla Institute of Technology and Science - Pilani were listed among the top 20 science and technology schools in Asia by Asiaweek. The Indian School of Business situated in Hyderabad was ranked number 12 in global MBA rankings by the Financial Times of London in 2010 while the All India Institute of Medical Sciences has been recognized as a global leader in medical research and treatment.

Universities and its constituent colleges are the main institutes of higher education in India. There are nearly 227 government-recognized Universities in India. Out of them 20 are Central Universities, 109 are Deemed Universities and 11 are Open Universities and rest are State Universities. Most of these universities in India have affiliating colleges where undergraduate courses are being taught. However Jawaharlal University is a remarkable exception to this rule. According to the Department of Higher Education, Government of India, there are 16,885 colleges, 99.54 lakh students and 4.57 lakh teachers in various higher education institutes in India. As per report of the higher education in India, Issues Related to Expansion, Inclusiveness, Quality and Finance, the access to higher education measured in term of gross enrolment ratio increased from 0.7% in 1950-51 to 1.4% in 1960-61. By 2006-07 the GER increased to about 11 percent. By 2012, (the end of 11th plan objective) is to increase it to 15%.

Apart from the above mentioned higher education institutes there are several private institutes in India that offer various professional courses in the country. The improved education system of India is often cited as one of the main contributors to the economic rise of the nation. Much of the progress in education has been credited to various private institutions. The private education market in India is estimated to be worth $40 billion in 2008 and will increase to $68 billion by 2012.

As a part of the tenth Five year Plan (2002–2007), the Central Government of India outlined an expenditure of 65.6% of its total education budget of Rs. 438250 million, or (Rs. 287500 million) on elementary education; 9.9% (Rs. 43250 million) on secondary education; 2.9% (Rs. 12500 million) on adult education; 9.5% (Rs. 41765 million) on higher education; 10.7% (Rs. 47000 million) on technical education; and the remaining 1.4% (Rs. 6235 million) on miscellaneous education schemes.

Despite growing investment in education, 35% of the population is illiterate and only 15% of the students reach high school. A number of institutions face shortage of faculty and concerns have been raised over the quality of education.  According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), India has the lowest public expenditure on higher education per student in the world.

The key players like UGC and AICTE have been trying very hard to eradicate the existence of those private universities that are running courses without proper affiliation or recognition. Indian students often fall prey to such institutes.  In January 2010, the Government of India decided to withdraw Deemed University status from nearly 44 well known universities. According to the Government these institutions are being run as family fiefdoms.


AICTE (1994), Report of the High Power Committee for Mobilization of
Additional Resources for Technical Education, All India Council for Technical Education, New Delhi.

Ambani, M. and K. Birla (2001), Report on a Policy Framework for Reforms in Education,Government of India, New Delhi.
Blackwell, Fritz (2004), India: A Global Studies Handbook, United States of America: ABC-CLIO.
Editorial, Economic Times, 8 November 2005.
Government of India (2001), Approach Paper to the Tenth Five-year Plan: 2002-2007, Planning Commission, New Delhi.
Government of India (2002-2007), Tenth Five-year Plan: 2002-2007, Planning Commission, New Delhi."Infrastructure: S&T Education", Science and Technology in India edited by R.K.Suri and Kalapana Rajaram (2008), New Delhi: Spectrum.
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India Today International, 3 Oct 2005.
India on Top in US Varsity enrolments, Hindustan Times, 8 November 2005.
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Delhi Edition on July 14th, 15th and 16th, 2005.
Rani, Geetha. P. (2002), “Financing Higher Education in India during the Post
Reform Period: Focus on Access and Equity”, NIEPA Occasional Paper, No.31, NIEPA, New Delhi, September, 2002.
UGC (1999), Report of the Expert Committee Appointed by the University
Grants Commission to Review the Maintenance Grants Norms for Delhi Colleges, University Grants Commission, New Delhi.

UNESCO (2000), Higher Education in Developing Countries: Peril and
Promise, The Task Force on Higher Education and Society, World Bank, Washington, D.C.
Vrat, Prem (2006), "Indian Institutes of Technology", Encyclopedia of India
(vol.2) edited by Stanley Wolpert, 229-231, Thomson Gale.


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