Demystifying Higher Education in India – First of a Series

We want to dive into the complex, beating heart of college education in this country and come out with a coherent map of that territory

This is a story about the Indian Higher Education system. Alright, maybe story isn’t the right word. This is a saga. And like all good sagas, it will have heroes and villains, ups and downs, and most of all, it will take a really long time to get to the end. Or maybe there’s no end. It’s one of those stories. Our goal is pretty ambitious – we want to dive into the complex, beating heart of college education in this country and come out with a coherent map of that territory.

Why is that going to be hard? India’s university system as it exists today started in 1857 with three essentially British creations – the Universities of Madras, Calcutta and Bombay. But now in 2015, there are more than 700 universities and 35,000 colleges catering to more than 30 million students spread across every state and union territory. And the regulations governing the formation, financing and functioning of these organizations are murkier than you would believe. For example, private universities (not deemed universities) in India can only be setup by legislative enactments in the state assembly. This scenario, of requiring political action for the formation of a private educational institution, has resulted in some bizarre situations. In 2005, the Supreme Court struck down a law in the state of Chhattisgarh that recognized 112 private universities in one year. 30,000 students were affected, according to Frontline.

Whoever you are, you’re a stakeholder in the education system. As a student, as a parent, as a future parent, as a citizen – this is the system that makes your doctors, your lawyers and your politicians. Well, maybe not your politicians but you get the point. The stunning lack of information about a sector that plays such a vital role in the broader story of this country’s development and transformation (which is what the Urban History Project is eager to document) seems almost criminal. So despite the desire for reform being almost universal, conversations about policy among the majority of the country are almost impossible to get off the ground. We need some facts. Or at the very least some stats! Government funding, research outputs, enrolment ratios, employment percentages and private finances – there’s a lot to know about these things and I’ll be working with the team at UHP to wrestle with all of it.

What’s our strategy? We will be working to collect, interpret and visualise public data. But public data won’t be enough and we’ll be looking to crowdsource new information, especially about the private sector. We’ll also be looking to collaborate with experts to give us in-depth answers to the questions that arise. As a matter of principle, we’ll be biting off more than we can chew and we won’t be able to succeed without the help of the larger community.

A brief introduction

The phrase ‘Knowledge is Power’ might have originated with in the 16th century with Francis Bacon or Thomas Hobbes but as a political strategy, it’s as old as time. Religious societies institutionalized the boundaries around literacy, leveraging their inaccessibility for the governance of society. When the King James Bible was being translated, the great debate centred on whether people deserved, or rather could be trusted with, the power to read the Bible without the priestly class as intermediaries. In India, Sunil Khilnani in his book The Idea of India talks about the ancient Brahmin developing a monopoly on literacy and thereby creating a power that was insulated from the political upheavals of the time. Formal education as we know it grew out of traditional systems of religious instruction. In Europe, the current university system evolved out of the monastic system of learning – universities were cathedrals of education in more ways than one.

And then, as with every aspect of public life, the state usurped the role of religion. Education began to be seen as a public good – a vital responsibility of the state towards its citizenry. And then as free market capitalism becomes the dominant ideology, private education began to be seen as the solution to a supply-demand problem that was not going away. You can watch Ken Robinson tell you in his TED talk that ‘in the next 30 years, according to UNESCO, more people worldwide will be graduating through education than since the beginning of history’.

As per the Indian government’s stated aims for higher education enrolment, India will need to add 14 million seats in the period 2014-2020. The trend is quite clear that this demand will primarily be met by the private sector. This isn’t necessarily true across the world though. Germany, Ireland, Scotland and the Scandinavian countries offer various degrees of free higher education to their residents. England moved in the other direction – raising the cap on tuition and allowing universities to charge variable fees. The United States, which takes more than 180,000 Indian students every year, has one of the largest education industries in the world with valuations going up to $400 billion. While they are home to the some of the expensive universities in the world, they also have a robust public education system – enshrining that particularly American right to the ‘pursuit of happiness’.

Without idealizing America in any way, let me state that I’ve always been fond of that phrase, even before Will Smith came out with his tribute to bad spelling. Education has always been a tool for betterment – a key to unlock doors and achieve aspirations. India is still at a stage where a large percentage of graduates are first-generation college-goers. There are a raft of fake colleges and fake universities lying in wait. Or real universities with fake facilities. An ICRIER Working Paper on Higher Education states that ‘the average enrolment in a higher education institution in India is only about 500-600 students while a higher education institution in the United States and Europe would have 3000-4000 students and in China this would be about 8,000-9,000 students’. What does such a low average enrolment mean? Does it mean that this is a fractured system that doesn’t economize on infrastructure or a decentralized system that boosts accessibility? Honestly, I don’t know.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s get back to the inexorable flow of history. In 1835, Lord Macaulay decisively stated in his Minute on Education that despite having “no knowledge of either Sanscrit (sic) or Arabic… a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia”. With that unshakeable belief in his own ignorance, he effectively introduced English as the medium for instruction. (He then went on to draft the Indian Penal Code.) In 1854, Charles Wood, the President of the East India Company, wrote to Lord Dalhousie, the Viceroy-General, making sweeping proposals for the education sector in India. Directly out of that, the Universities of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras were formed in 1857 based on the London University model.

And on that note, let me introduce you to the central part of this post. The following interactive map visualizes the entire history of the Indian university system on a timeline from 1850 to the current day. You can learn about our methodologies and the limitations of the information at the end of the post. But for now please feel free to play with it as much as you want. I’ve listed out some basic observations later on in the post but I’m very interested to hear about what you see looking at the map. You can find a button on the top right that toggle the heatmap so you can see clustering. There’s a filter on the bottom right that allows you to filter out certain types of universities or see only one particular type. Or if you’re too lazy, you could just hit the ‘Play’ button and sit back.

What we talk about when we talk about India’s higher Education

Here is some necessary context on the bureaucratic structure that governs higher education. At the very summit of the system, lies the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD). The MHRD is divided into two departments – Primary & Secondary Education and Higher Education. The functions of the Department of Higher Education are executed through a number of different autonomous bodies such as the UGC, CABE, AICTE and so on.

The University Grants Commission is a yet another victim of poor naming convention. While it is the body responsible for the dispersal of government funding, it is also the apex regulatory body of the entire university system. The UGC system consists of universities empowered to award degrees and colleges that cannot provide degrees in their own name and must be affiliated to a university.

There are four types of universities.

  1. Central: Public universities formed by passing a Central act.
  2. State: Public universities formed by passing a State act.
  3. Private: Universities established through a state or central act by a sponsoring body which can be a registered Society, Trust or Non-profit Company. Unlike public universities, they do not have the powers to affiliate colleges but they do have license to set their own criteria for admission, syllabus, etc.
  4. Deemed: The UGC website defines a Deemed University as “a high-performing institution, which has been so declared by Central Government under Section 3 of the University Grants Commission (UGC) Act, 1956”. They can be either public or privately-funded. An example of a public deemed university is the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore and an example of a private deemed university is Manipal University near Mangalore.

There are other categories of institutions outside or only partially within the ambit of the UGC. These include Institutions of National Importance (IITs, NITs, AIIMS, etc.) and Premier Institutes of Management (IIMs) which come under the direct control of the MHRD as well as Polytechnics, Teacher Training Institutes under NCTE and Nursing Institutes under INC. I’ll be making a separate post about these organizations.

The quality assurance and governance councils were established for accrediting the institutions in their field and for formulating standards. The largest such council is AICTE whose approval is needed for starting technical departments, offering new technical courses or increasing intake in those courses.

The research councils were established to promote research and aid in policy formation in their particular areas.

Flowchart of the higher education bureaucracy.

Flowchart of the higher education bureaucracy.


As per the UGC information, there are currently 46 Central Universities, 330 State Universities, 207 Private Universities and 128 Deemed Universities.

State universities seems to be growing quite consistently through the whole timeline. Deemed Universities begin to be really pick up around 2000 and and peak in 2008. This is possibly a result of incomplete data. Please refer to the Limitation section. Deemed Universities have been plagued with controversy ever since the status began to be given out to various private players. In 2009, the Tandon Committee recommended 44 be blacklisted but in 2014, this decision was reversed by the UGC. But the sharpest rise is clearly private universities and we can get a better look at it with the next graph.

Here, the rapid growth of private universities is even more clear. From 2008, more than 15 universities were created every year with more than 30 universities started in 2013. To analyze whether these universities are clustered around particular cities or areas, we generated a heat map.

Heatmap of Indian universities.

Heatmap of Indian universities.

The area around Delhi and then further north around Chandigarh are by a clear margin the largest education hubs in the country. The closest competitor seems to be a possible emerging hub on the highway linking Chennai to Bangalore. The next class of clusters all seem to be capitals of the various states like Lucknow, Patna, Guwahati , Kolkata and Bhuvaneshwar. Looking at south Madhya Pradesh or south Chhattisgarh and Orissa, you see the large white spaces. These areas look even emptier than the traditionally neglected North Eastern states.

Maps of universities in the northeast region.

Maps of universities in the northeast region.

The North East has typically been ignored in the larger story of India’s development for various reasons. This university data seems to bear that out. Mizoram, Tripura, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh don’t possess any universities in 1980 and by 2000, they each have exactly one. In fact, over 20 years only 5 universities are formed in the region.

Looking at the 2015 chart, you notice that other than Assam, no other state has setup State universities.

Arunachal Pradesh has a number of private universities that have been setup over the last decade but again they’re the exception.

Private v. deemed: Dual strategies of north v. south.

Private v. deemed: Dual strategies of north v. south.

This chart throws up a really interesting question that I don’t have an answer to yet. What is it about Private universities that make them so popular in the north and yet completely unviable in the south (except for Bangalore)? What about deemed universities makes them so clear a strategy for southern states? I’m sure there’s a story here.

1958 v. 2008: The changing intent of deemed universities?

1958 v. 2008: The changing intent of deemed universities?

The first two deemed universities formed in India were IISc in Bangalore and the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in Delhi, both in 1958. The intent of the government in deeming these research institutions seems quite clear. It fits well with the contents of Section 3 – the enabling of high-performing institutions to award post-graduate degrees in their area of specialization. Is that the same intent that is being manifested in 2008 when 25 institutions are upgraded in the same year? The Tandon Committee review that I mentioned earlier highlights how far the interpretation of that section has come.

Methodology and limitations

The lists of universities with their addresses and dates of establishment have been taken from the UGC website. The list of Central Universities is as on May 20, 2015; Private Universities, April 23, 2015; State Universities, March 31, 2015. The list of Deemed Universities is dated June 23, 2008, but contains institutions formed in 2012. We have the same count as The All India Survey of Higher Education (AISHE)’s Provisional Report for 2012-13 so it seems likely that our information isn’t as outdated as the UGC website might make it seem. Also these lists display the universities recognized as on those dates, so our data does not reflect those institutions that were recognized and then subsequently derecognized of which I’m sure there are a few.

Our real challenge was attributing a geographic marker to each university. To do this, we extracted the pin code from the addresses and generated a rough lat-long value. A number of universities didn’t have pin codes in their listed addresses so we had to manually capture it from their respective websites. There were certain universities whose websites didn’t even display a pin code and for those we just grabbed the lat-long off Google Maps. So these lat-long values come with a big disclaimer – they are not accurate by tens of kilometres and are only useful for the sort of cluster mapping that we’ve done.

One of the possibilities that we could not fully guard against was that, in the case of universities with head offices in cities and campuses outside city limits, we had captured the head office’s pin code and thus biased the map towards urban centres.

With regard to the chronological information, the date displayed for private and deemed universities are dates of notification of that status by the government. The dates displayed for central and state universities are the years of establishment. A few central universities only attained that status after 2000 even though they had been operating as state universities for decades. These points have been displayed as central from their initial date of establishment.

And that’s where we’ll stop for today. You can get in touch with me at [email protected]. Criticism and feedback, constructive or not, is perfectly acceptable. If you can help me realize the massive mandate I’ve given myself, do get in touch as well.

Thomas Manuel is a freelance writer and playwright based out of Chennai. He curates content at the Urban History Project, where this piece first appeared.