More Indian Students Will Go to College, But Few Will Demand a Better Education

The dismal state of India’s higher education sector can be explained both as a failing of top-down initiatives and near-absence of bottom-up pressures.

A classroom in Mayo College, Ajmer. Credit: endymion120/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

A classroom in Mayo College, Ajmer. Credit: endymion120/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

There is said to be a great demand for higher education – and more broadly for education – in India. According to a recent editorial, “the hunger for higher education is manifesting itself even in the poorest parts of India today.” And why not? Education is considered by many to be a great equaliser that has the potential to narrow down the opportunity gaps between those who belong to privileged backgrounds and the rest. It also brings about upward social and economic mobility. Therefore, it is unsurprising and indeed quite pleasing to know that a larger number of young Indians are seeking college education than ever before. Parents too are keen that their children go to college. Further, students (and their parents) are prepared to spend more on education as is evident from the impressive growth in enrolment, now at over 60% of the total, at relatively more expensive private institutions.

The government is also looking to push the gross enrolment ratio (GER) upward from 23.6% (as per the 2014-2015 Provisional Report of the All India Survey on Higher Education, AISHE) to take advantage of India’s demographic dividend. The 2011 census reported that around 41% of the population is below the age of 20. India is also projected to become home to the largest student population in the world by 2025.

These numbers are not just interesting; they are also terrifically important. The 15-34 age group – already in excess of 400 million and the largest such group in the world – has the potential to play a game changing role in India’s future.

Demand as political mobilisation

Do the growth in student numbers and the hunger for higher education mean that there is a growing demand for education? Yes and no. An understanding of demand in terms of growth in student enrolment or the growing desire to earn a college degree constitutes a narrow, quantitative expression of demand for education and excludes other equally important meanings. A fuller and more complete understanding requires conceptualising demand as, one, an expression of concern by citizens in opinion polls perhaps to an extent where it becomes an election-worthy issue; and/or two, political mobilisation by social groups for higher education. These clearly do not mean the same thing as the growing demand for Patanjali products, pizza or cars.

We may expect those social groups, which have traditionally been denied access to higher education, whether due to class, ethnicity, gender, the lack of awareness, or even due to physical distance from colleges, but recognise the importance of education in improving their life chances, to be more likely to demand higher education in the above-mentioned ways. However, with the growing assertion of lower castes since the 1980s (or even earlier in some southern states), the intensification of competitive politics and continued expansion in the higher education sector, barriers to access to education have declined. A larger number of poor Indians and women now attend college. In the post-Mandal era, reservations have been further extended.

There has also been a substantial increase in the total number of colleges and universities across the country. According to the 2014-2015 AISHE Provisional Report, there are now 757 universities; 38,056 colleges; and 11,922 standalone institutions in the country. As a result, the issue of access to higher education has become less relevant and less likely to become an election-worthy issue, or escalate to take the form of political mobilisation.

At the same time, however, access means very little when the quality of education on offer at a majority of higher-education institutions is so poor that it leaves students with worthless degrees in hand and quite lacking in the skills and knowledge that are required to secure meaningful employment in the new economy. This has been the story of India’s higher education for many years now. When education, including expensive engineering and MBA degrees, does not appear to improve one’s life chances in any significant way (or none at all), one should expect growing discontent and expressions of concern in opinion polls, especially among young people. There is also the possibility that such concern and discontent about the quality of education could translate into an election issue for young Indians or even take the form of political mobilisation by students and parents to demand better quality education.

Unfortunately, however, we find that there is little or no such expression of demand despite significant increases in the numbers of young people attending college.

Political mobilisation matters a lot

Academic writings on determinants of public goods provision – whether water supply, electricity, roads, health services, education or others – concur that improvements in their quantity and quality come about through top-down initiatives, bottom up pressures and some combination of the two. While top-down initiatives have typically been dominant in the initiation and expansion of public services, the pace, scope and quality of improvements are often driven by widespread and sustained bottom-up pressures by civil society actors. A weak demand from below is typically associated with gradual and modest advances in public services.

Overall, improvements in the quantity and quality of public services in India have taken place overwhelmingly via top-down initiatives; with some exceptions, bottom-up pressures have been weak or absent for most public goods, including education. It should therefore not be surprising that both primary and higher education are among those public goods that are in short supply and when available, usually of poor quality.

The dismal state of India’s higher education sector can be explained both as a failing of top-down initiatives and near-absence of bottom-up pressures. Top-down initiatives have been inadequate even in terms of public funding for higher education. Top-down initiatives have also for the most part been driven by political or ideological considerations, which has limited their effectiveness. With the share of college-age population at an all-time high (the number of Indians in the age-group of 15-34 increased from 353 million in 2001 to 430 million in 2011) and with this population segment seeking to assure and improve its life chances via education and struggling to do so, one would think that their rising frustrations would be channelized towards political mobilisation to demand decent quality education.

Indeed, such sort of demand may be quite necessary for the government to be pushed into taking decisive and substantive measures to address the quality problem. However, the ground reality, as noted earlier, is that such demand is weak and very nearly absent.

The absence of popular mobilisation for higher education

A large and growing number of Indians attend college only to secure worthless degrees, often at a high cost and by accumulating debt. While everyone seems to recognise the uselessness of a college degree in the labour market, students and parents do little more than complain about the dismal state of education. They certainly seem to evince little inclination to demand from the government that it do more to improve the quality of education.

Writing in The Burden of Democracy (2003), Pratap Bhanu Mehta reflected on this issue:

Why is political mobilisation on these [health and education] issues less effective? Can one just assume that this is simply a product of the state’s failure or is there something about the structure and ideologies in civil society that impedes the formation of effective demand for health and education?

Mehta was comparing the ‘less effective’ political mobilisation for health and education to effective mobilisation for “ethnic goods”, which can be defined as those tangible and non-tangible public goods and services that are sought by members of an ethnic group to satisfy their specific needs to the exclusion of other groups, and pointed to India’s civil society, which is fractured by ethnic, class and gender differences and therefore incapable of making effective claims on the state.

India’s political landscape is characterised by all kinds of social groups making all sorts of demands by mobilising their members. However, most such popular mobilisations –especially those that attract more participants, endure over time and are eventually more successful in achieving their objectives – are organised around identity issues and make narrow claims for their own ethnic group, almost always to the exclusion of others. And other than this fractured nature, there are factors which explain weak demand, whether for quality education or other public goods. In Democracy, Civil Society, and Health in India, we identified some of these other factors to explain why effective claims-making for health services and other health-related public goods is nearly absent.

(This was part of a larger, unpublished study by one of us that compared citizen activism or the lack thereof on health issues in New Delhi, India, and São Paulo, Brazil).

Though health services and higher education are different kinds of public goods, the findings of our prior research can be applied to higher education with some caveats.

Unlike health services, lack of access to higher education is not a matter of life and death. Therefore, claims-making for better quality education is in theory less likely than for health services and its absence less perplexing. Also, unlike access to health services, which is usually considered to be universal and broader in scope without consideration of ethnicity, gender, class, age or something else, the issue of access to high education is specific to a particular age group. (At the same time, the education of young people has a direct impact on the lives of family since it increases their chances of securing better employment.) Finally, in India, the issue of higher education is deeply immersed in caste politics due to reservations for SCs, STs and OBCs at higher-education institutions. Demand for education commonly takes the form of demand for reservations by those excluded from its benefits. Overall, the nature of competition in higher education is far more divisive than in the matter of health services.

We contended that the absence of claims-making for health services is due to the following:

  1. Citizens do not demand public goods such as health services because they do not expect or trust political leaders to deliver them;
  2. They believe that any claims-making efforts on their part at improving social service provision will not be successful;
  3. They have learned to cope with or adapted to deficits in public services so that when necessary and to the extent possible, they acquire them privately;
  4. Differences within communities, based on ethnicity, class, and gender, diminish the willingness and ability of communities to come together to demand better social services.

Without a detailed, empirical study on the ‘higher education question’, however, we can only suggest tentative leads towards explaining the absence of bottom-up pressures for quality education.

Of the four factors identified above, we believe that ethnic differences and the easy availability of private options are largely responsible for the weak demand for higher education. There may of course be other important causes as well but for reasons of brevity we will limit our discussion to these two. Further, our discussion is a stylised perspective on the role of ethnic differences and the availability of private options (or what may be called the ‘exit option’) in inhibiting the demand for quality higher education, and almost certainly requires corrections.

Ethnic divisions

Ethnic differences weaken the social fabric of societies, rendering them too divided and fragile to inspire collective action for public goods as well as for other goals. The deeper ethnic divisions are, the less likely it is for that society to make demands on the state for a common cause. In those diverse societies where ethnic divisions run deep and where ethnic identities are activated, popular mobilisation tends to be routinely along ethnic lines and for ethnic goods.

Prior to the 1980s, when lower caste popular mobilisation and lower caste parties were still to emerge, and mostly limited to a few states in the south, only a smallest fraction of lower castes had actual access to higher education. There were few challenges to upper caste domination whether in politics or others spheres. Under such conditions, the higher education sector was approximately adequate to serve the needs of the population. However, beginning from the 1980s, lower caste parties began to emerge and many states across north India witnessed widespread lower caste mobilisation. Yogendra Yadav famously labelled this phenomenon as the “second democratic upsurge”; later, Christophe Jaffrelot called it a “silent revolution”. The rise of the lower castes had two important consequences for higher education.

First, from a scenario where colleges and universities were an uncontested terrain with near-complete upper caste dominance, they became a grand arena of caste competition. Higher education became deeply enmeshed in caste politics as lower castes pushed hard for inclusion and found their messiah in V.P. Singh. Simultaneously, of course, political leaders of all ideological stripes too dangled the reservation carrot to compete more effectively for lower caste votes. Whatever the merits and demerits of Mandalisation, it has deepened caste divisions to an extent where the possibility of caste reconciliation on the issue of higher education no longer seems to exist. The aggressive push for inclusion by the lower castes, and increasingly by others, which typically comes at the expense of the upper castes, leaving them struggling to remain included, has ensured the deepening of irreconcilable differences among students (and their parents) across different castes. It has also meant that, students primarily relate to and speak the language of caste. It has also meant that students rarely speak with one voice. With the larger student community deeply fractured along caste lines, the prospects of effective mobilisation for improving the quality of higher education are slim.

Second, with the ‘silent revolution’ gaining ground, successful demands for inclusion have stretched the higher education sector to its limits. Despite an increase in the number of institutions, including a healthy growth in the private sector, it has become impossible to accommodate everyone without seriously compromising the quality of supply. Higher education has been on a downward spiral since the 1980s from which it has yet to recover and perhaps never will despite some genuine efforts in that direction. Successive governments both at the centre and across the states have themselves played a central role in undermining higher education through a combination of bad policies, low spending, politicisation and sheer neglect to an extent where a college degree has become worthless, the higher education sector short on faculty and the private sector running amok robbing young Indians of their future.

In a scenario where the higher education sector is simultaneously a hotbed of caste politics focused on inclusion via reservations, issues of quality, funding, regulation and others, remain sidelined despite statements and pronouncements to the contrary.

Private options

The other key factor which deters claims-making for better quality education is the easy availability of exit options. Private universities have grown exponentially over the years and are now widely recognized to be part of the solution to address the higher education needs of young Indians. A large number of students also migrate to other states in the country for better access to education. Finally, many more Indians go abroad for higher education. These options constitute an exit from the public higher education sector. Borrowing from the seminal writings of the great Albert O. Hirschman on “exit,” “voice” and “loyalty”, Devesh Kapur recently explained the causes of this exit from public services:

When a government’s ability to provide goods and services decline, citizens might exit by moving from a publicly provided service to a private provider, or physically relocate to a different government’s jurisdiction, either within the country (through internal migration) or outside (emigration).

Writing in 2014, one of us identified two kinds of exit options that are being increasingly utilised by young Indians: geographical and sectoral.

Geographical exit: There are two kinds of geographical exit options. First, many Indians migrate from their home state to other states for education. According to one estimate, nearly 4 million Indians move from one state to another for better quality education. Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, two states where higher education is in a complete mess, are among the leaders in sending out students. Despite the fact that young Biharis and UPites, and their parents, are very concerned about higher education, the option of exercising geographical exit has meant that higher education has not become a hot issue in the state.

Second, more affluent students as well as those able to secure scholarships have the option to head west or east for higher education. Many more Indians have become prosperous over the last two or three decades and it is not surprising that record numbers have been going abroad for higher studies. For example, the number of Indian students in the US grew from 113,649 in July 2014 to 149,999 in July 2015, an increase of 31.98%. Other than popular older destinations such as the UK and the US, countries like Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Hong Kong and Singapore have become attractive destinations.

Sectoral exit: This refers to the exit from public to private institutions. A growing number of India’s college-age people take this path due to intense competition for a small number of positions at a handful of good colleges and the dismal state of the remaining public institutions. The private sector, much of it dominated by institutions offering courses in “professional” areas such as engineering and management, already accounts for over 60% of students enrolled in higher education institutions. While India will continue to build many more colleges and universities in the coming years, it is quite certain that the growth of public sector institutions will not be enough to meet the requirements of the growing number of students. The private sector is therefore assured of continued growth and will continue to remain an option, better or worse.

(There is some overlap between the geographical and sectoral exit options. For example, sectoral exit often involves moving from one part of the country to the other. Most private colleges that offer degrees in engineering are located in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh and attract students from all over the country).

India’s higher education is characterised by high growth and weak demand. While we can expect continued increases in the number of students heading to college, there is little to suggest that they will demand better quality education from the government. Looking at the dismal quality of higher education, where a college degree has become worthless and most graduates count as unemployable, it is quite surprising that they are not up in arms about the quality of education. At least part of the answer seems to lie in caste politics and the availability of exit options. In the absence of pressures from below for better quality education, the government has no real incentive to address the issue of quality.

Madhvi Gupta is an independent writer and visiting assistant professor at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, BITS Pilani-Goa. Pushkar is an assistant professor in the same department.

  • Vaibhav Aggarwal

    I have attended school at Mayo College, Ajmer (the picture of which you have used in this article), and I can vouch for the fact that the picture which you have used grossly misrepresents the kind of classrooms we have. While the classroom does seem to be one from there, the way in which the tables etc. are scattered, have never been that way, for classrooms which are actually being used for teaching purposes. There are times when buffer tables and chairs might be kept in a spare classroom, and maybe that’s what this was. Thus, using it for the purpose of this article sends across a very wrong impression!


    Students are flocking to educations mainly due to gain lucrative employment and as an alternative to rapidly decreasing interest in agriculture sector. Unless these problems are addressed, the students will not aspire for quality education. The present government is doing its bit of spoilsport by pruning expenditure on education as well as agriculture. The shift to ‘ industrialisation’ , ‘foreign direct investment’ and ‘corporate culture’ without considering ground realities is driving students towards thoughtless robots seeking employment in some ‘foreign-styled’ companies. Thus, the research capabilities of students as well as faculties inspiring students are depleting along with farming communities abandoning fields in search of city life with cozy company rooms with computers and easy chairs.


    Ad long as priorities are misplaced, neither good quality education or good agriculture can be witnessed in India and the students or college instructions will show any inclination of real development. India might be commercially well off but educationally backward.

  • Hill Range

    Everybody wants better education or also quality education.

    • Pushkar

      And hence the question: What are they doing about it?