Role Of Policymakers In Increasing Access To Higher Education
Higher education defines the growth and direction a nation takes while competing in the global economy.
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Higher education is the last mile to creating a productive workforce. It is the culmination of years of teaching efforts to turn citizens (who can be liabilities if unproductive) into national assets. Higher education defines the growth and direction a nation takes while competing in the global economy. This is evident from the strong correlation between a nation’s wealth and participation in its higher education system (see figure). Wealthier nations have higher participation in tertiary education than emerging nations. This is no coincidence - education creates human capital which drives economic growth. And consequently, economic growth leads to greater investment in areas such as education.
Exhibit A: PPP adjusted GDP per capita vs Tertiary GER, 2011
Let’s take Singapore as an example. In its first 30 years, Singapore invested in creating a network of polytechnics and ITEs that powered its growth in electronics and manufacturing. This laid the foundation for it to become one of the richest nations today. Similarly, China’s investment in their higher education system coincides with it's breakthrough economic growth during the 90s and early 2000s. China now has 12 universities in the Global Top 100 as per QS Rankings for World Universities 2020). India has seen this in the technology sector which has leveraged the vast pool of English-speaking engineering talent to become a leader in the global technology services sector.
However, a lot needs to be done in India. Consider this - in 1991, India had more students in tertiary education compared to China. Today, China has 45 million students in tertiary education, comfortably ahead of India’s 34 million. In just the last 5 years, China added 11 million enrollments compared to India’s 6 million. To meet its goal of a $5 trillion economy by 2025, India will need to add ~2.5-3 million seats each year, implying an expenditure of Rs 30,000-40,000 crore annually on infrastructure alone. India’s overall research spend of 0.6 per cent of GDP is a far cry from the 2.1 per cent spent by China. Add the imperative of promoting more research to the goal of adding new seats, and it is clear that the task of developing India’s higher education sector cannot, and must not, lie with the government alone. The government and the numerous associated education policymakers must consider innovative ways to increase access and further nation-building via education.
There are many lessons to be drawn from how countries have used specific interventions to improve higher education access. I list four here:
Legitimising online degrees
Online education is a highly scalable yet cost-effective way of increasing access to higher education. However, regulators must treat online degrees at par with their on-campus counterparts and create mechanisms that push providers to establish equivalency between the two modes. Without regulatory recognition, online degrees will continue to be the poor cousins, under-priced and under-invested in. Australia, Brazil, China, and increasingly South Africa (through distance learning), are great examples of this approach.
Student financing system
Affordability should never be a barrier to higher education. Quality higher education ensures students are capable of generating a reasonable return on their educational investment. Student financing is a great way to bridge the gap between present affordability and future earning potential. Several countries such as the US, UK, Australia and Brazil have built government-supported student financing systems that turbocharged growth in tertiary enrollments.
Recognising work-based learning
Education is not a preserve of classrooms. People learn by doing, and it is important to recognise that work experience is a legitimate teacher. Providing due recognition to relevant work experience eases the burden on the formal higher education sector and encourages lifelong learning. UK and Australia have pioneered this approach in conjunction with robust regulatory frameworks to assess work experience and fuel upskilling of their workforces.
Promoting private participation
The government could find a willing partner in the private sector if it could create a transparent and investor-friendly environment in the sector. This would entail a practical accreditation framework for institutional quality management and instituting fee governance (and not fee control) mechanisms. The US, Brazil, Malaysia, the Middle-East have all implemented these with a fair degree of success.
With the largest university-age population in the world, the government and policymakers in India have a unique opportunity to make the country a truly global economic powerhouse. The role they play in providing quality and affordable access to higher education will define the direction India takes over the next few decades.
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