ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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Access and Equity Aspects of Higher Education in Jeopardy

Madhu Paranjape ( is former national secretary, All India Federation of University and College Teachers’ Organisation and general secretary, University of Mumbai and College Teachers Union.


An assessment of the draft National Education Policy 2019 is undertaken in this article in reference to the gross enrolment ratio. The draft policy does not review the current situation in higher education and in the light of past policy documents. It needs to focus on the access and equity aspects of higher education since these areas have not received the required attention.


The draft National Education Policy 2019 (DNEP 2019) has been prepared by the committee constituted by the Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India, under the chairmanship of K Kasturirangan. The section on higher education (Part II) is covered by Chapters 9 to 18. The main thrust as stated in Chapter 9 is “moving higher education into large multidisciplinary universities and colleges, each of which will aim to have upwards of 5,000 or more students.” As per the stated objectives, this will address many problems in higher education, most notably, “efficiency of use of resources and of resource sharing, both material and human, across higher education.”

This article is confined to assessing the impact of the stated policy thrust on the objectives of access and equity as advocated by the Eleventh (2007–12) and Twelfth (2012–17) Five Year Plans. This is imperative, since the DNEP 2019 is conspicuously devoid of any concrete review of the present situation and previous policy documents.

Growth of Higher Education

The gross enrolment ratio (GER) is the total enrolment in higher education (both degree and diploma programmes in regular and distance modes), as a percentage of the population in the age-group 18–23 years. The Eleventh Five Year Plan (2007–12) had aimed its focus on objectives of equity, access and quality while expressing concern at the poor standards of majority of institutions and extremely low 11% enrolment ratio in higher education, compared to the then world average of 23.2%, with region-, gender- and social class-based disparities (GoI 2008). This was sought to be achieved by establishing new colleges and universities, including model colleges in educationally backward districts, strengthening and expanding existing institutions, upgrading few select universities with “potential for excellence” and strengthening distance education. It was proposed that apart from increasing budgetary allocation, the additional resources required can be generated by increasing fees and also by developing loan and scholarship programmes.

The Twelfth Plan document (GoI 2011), in a shift from the Eleventh Plan, proposed to achieve objectives of access, equity and quality in higher education through a set of structural reforms. The operationalisation of the principle of “strategic central funding based on state higher education plans” and structural reforms was set in motion by the Rashtriya Uchchatar Shiksha Abhiyan (RUSA), by replacing the principle of “need-based” funding with that of “norm-based” funding (Paranjape 2017).

As per the RUSA document (GoI 2013), “low GER very aptly indicates, increase in the number of institutions has still remained inadequate to meet the increased demand for higher education.” Among various objectives enumerated in RUSA, one that is most pertinent here is, to “expand the institutional base by creating additional capacity in existing institutions and establishing new institutions, in order to achieve enrolment targets.” The targets set under RUSA were to increase the enrolment ratio in higher educational institutions to 25% by the end of Twelfth Plan (2012–17) and to 32% by the end of Thirteenth Plan (2017–22). Notwithstanding that the entire planning process is now abandoned, it is clear that the last two plans emphasised on expanding existing capacity and opening new institutions for increasing GERs. The DNEP completely ignores this.

It is important to take an overview of the present status of higher education in the country. Table 1 shows some features of the growth of higher education institutions during 2007–17.

Some characteristics of distribution of higher education (UGC 2018; AISHE 2018) are as follows:

(i) 60.5% colleges are in rural areas (this ratio was 58% in 2014–15 and 54% in 2010–11).

(ii) 48% of the enrolment comprises women students.

(iii) Category-wise enrolment: General– 46%, Scheduled Castes (SC)–14%, Scheduled Tribes (ST)–5% and Other Backward Classes–35%.

(iv) Distance enrolment constitutes 11% of total enrolment.

(v) Level-wise enrolment (regular mode): undergraduate–81.1%, postgraduate–9%, research–0.6%, diploma/certificate–8.7% and Integrated courses–0.6%.

(vi) 65% of the students are enrolled in the general stream.

(vii) 94.3% of undergraduate and 75.3% of postgraduate enrolment is in colleges and the rest is in university departments (UGC 2018).

Evidently, the undergraduate colleges, especially in the general stream, are the backbone of higher education in the country. Moreover, a majority of the undergraduate colleges are in rural areas and this proportion has grown steadily since 2010. This expansion has played a role in the rise in GER through expanded opportunities for access to higher education to rural masses. The disaggregate GERs by the end of Eleventh and Twelfth Plans are shown in Table 2.

While the gender disparity has marginally reduced across social categories and there is some narrowing of gap between overall GERs and those for SC group, the same cannot be said about the ST group. Figure 1 brings out this sustained disparity during the Twelfth Plan very sharply. It also highlights the stagnation or flattening out of the GERs beyond 2014–15. The above data signifies that we are still far below the global average GER of 37% (UNESCO 2019) and far behind that of our neighbour China’s over 45% GER.


Focusing on Maharashtra, we find that at the commencement of Twelfth Plan, in 2011–12, the states of Himachal Pradesh and Kerala had GERs as 24.8% and 21.8% respectively, which were below the 26.3% of Maharashtra. However, these two states have registered GERs higher than Maharashtra, during the Twelfth Plan as well as by the end of it. Further, Tamil Nadu has the highest GER in the country and very close to the overall target of 50% set by the DNEP. Figure 2 (p 14) highlights the comparative details of these four states. Manifestly, the sluggish enrolment growth and contraction of institutional base in Maharashtra is in stark contrast with the consistent and impressive rise in enrolment in Himachal Pradesh, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Creation of additional capacity in existing institutions and/or establishing new institutions in these three states is highly evident.

New Institutional Architecture

Figure 2 reveals that even with a near stagnant average enrolment per college, the significant jump in the GER in both Himachal Pradesh and Kerala is accompanied by a rise in the number of colleges. In the case of Tamil Nadu, it is the increase in, both, number of institutions as well as the size of the institutions.

In complete contrast, the road map to move towards the declared policy thrust, as elaborated in Chapter 10 under the title “Institutional Restructuring and Consolidation,” will actually cause a shrinkage of the expanding base of higher education. This framework comprises of developing three types of institutions: Type 1: research universities, Type 2: teaching universities and Type 3: colleges. It is proposed that this “institutional architecture” be executed through comprehensive 10-year plans prepared by all state governments, which will envisage judicious distribution of the types of institutions across the state, with a special emphasis on access in disadvantaged regions.

It is expected to have one each of types 1, 2, and 3 institutions per 50 lakh, 5 lakh, and 2 lakh of population respectively, with scope of some variation allowed across regions. The stated objective is to have bigger and fewer institutions, with the target to have about 150–300 of Type 1, 1,000–2,000 of Type 2 (with target enrolment between 5,000 to 25,000) and 5,000–10,000 of Type 3 (with target enrolment between 2,000 and 5,000) institutions. This is sought to be done by restructuring the institutions which cannot develop into Type 1, 2 or 3 due to lower enrolment levels and utilising their infrastructure for other purposes like schools, library, vocational centres, etc.

We next assess how the targets of policy thrust will impact the present higher education institutions (HEIs), at the macro and micro levels. Table 3 gives the statewise expected number of institutions to be impacted in the next two decades. Clearly, while a greater number of Type 2 HEIs (teaching universities) would be required, much fewer Type 3 HEIs (colleges) will be needed. Even if we presume that several Type 3 HEIs will evolve into Type 2 and some of the Type 2 would be upgraded to Type 1, the total number of HEIs will be less than 10,000. Thus, the veil of high-sounding jargon is to conceal the “framework” to close down colleges. Based on the United Nations projections, India’s population in the 18–23 age-group is estimated to be about 139 million in 2035 (8.8% of total population), lower than the present 141.8 million (AISHE 2018), which is 11.7% of total population. The policy aims to reach the target of 50% GER by then. This would necessitate the all-India gross enrolment to reach a target of about 70 million from the current 37 million. Apparently, this would require more sustained efforts for expansion of existing capacity, which cannot be achieved by severe curtailment of existing base.

Further, it is incomprehensible how “smaller number of institutions” (para p 10.3) with much larger average size, will lead to increase in GER and is nowhere explained in the DNEP. On the contrary, curtailment of a number of institutions can have severe repercussion on the district- and taluka (tehsil)-wise distribution of HEIs. As seen above, the consistent rise in GER has accompanied expansion of higher education base in rural India. In Maharashtra, the policy to have at least one government-aided college per taluka, led to expansion of higher education in the remote hilly and tribal areas. In view of this the DNEP in its present form constitutes a threat to the “access” and “equity” aspects of higher education.


AISHE (2018): All India Survey on Higher Education 2017–18, Ministry of Human Resource Development, New Delhi,

GoI (2008): Eleventh Five Year Plan (2007–2012), Social Sector, Vol 2, Planning Commission of India, Government of India, New Delhi.

— (2011): An Approach to the Twelfth Five Year Plan, Planning Commission, Government of India, New Delhi.

— (2013): Rashtriya Uchchatar Shiksha Abhiyan, Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India, New Delhi.

Paranjape, Madhu (2017): “Deepening Crisis of Governance in University of Mumbai,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 52, No 41, 14 October.

UNESCO (2019): Data extracted on 24 July 2019 17:15 UTC (GMT) from UIS.Stat.

UGC (2008): Annual Report 2007–08, University Grants Commission, New Delhi.

— (2012): Annual Report 2011–12, University Grants Commission, New Delhi.

— (2018): Annual Report 2017–18, University Grants Commission, New Delhi.

Updated On : 30th Aug, 2019


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