India's higher education system has seen breakneck expansion over the last couple of decades. From 4.1 million students in universities and colleges in 1990-91, the number reached 17 million in 2010-11 - most of them at different stages of pursuing a first degree, but two million at postgraduate level. The goals for the future are even more ambitious.
The reason is that India's university enrolment is said to be only about 18 per cent of the target age group, whereas the world average is 26 per cent; India wants to get to 30 per cent by 2020.
Does this race for numbers make sense, when the Planning Commission says that only 17.5 per cent of graduates are employable?
And when Nasscom (the lobby group for the software services industry) says that only a fifth of the graduates of engineering colleges are employable?
The plans talk of hundreds more universities and thousands more colleges, even though a quality ranking has reported that 62 per cent of the existing universities and 90 per cent of the existing colleges are either average or below average.
Among the various problems waiting to be addressed, there is a massive shortage of faculty (according to a report for 2007-08, half the college posts sanctioned by the University Grants Commission were not filled); further rapid expansion can only strain the system more. How about shifting emphasis from quantity to quality, so that more of the existing universities and colleges can provide a halfway decent education, and so that their graduates can put their education to good use?
The reality check comes from the southern zone, where state after state reports that tens of thousands of seats in engineering colleges are going abegging. This may reflect the economic slowdown (IT education has suffered the most), but it also points to the exaggerated expansion that continued even after the signs of excess capacity surfaced five years ago. Andhra Pradesh reports that 100,000 seats are vacant, while in Tamil Nadu it is 80,000 and in Karnataka 19,000. Seats are going unfilled in Kerala for everything from nursing to pharmacology, and from printing technology to even business education.
Even at the Plus Two stage of schooling, more than 40,000 seats can't find students in Kerala - where the dramatic decline in the birth rate has resulted in fewer children. It goes without saying that the poor-quality and/or price-gouging institutions are the ones that have not found students; parents and students have both wised up. Meanwhile, hundreds of Indian students have found medical education in China both cheaper and better!
What may be needed is a university-level equivalent of the NGO Pratham's Annual Status of Education Report (Aser), which has found repeatedly that close to half the students in Class V cannot manage tests designed for Class II students.
Aser's annual reports have had an effect, because the government has recognised that it is not enough to provide more teachers and schoolrooms; you also need to deliver a good education - which for the first time has been made a formal objective! Something similar, done at college and university level, would be equally useful.
There is also the issue of absorption capacity. If poor-quality graduates work at jobs meant for school leavers, or are unemployed, it is because the Indian economy does not know what to do with 3-4 million substandard graduates each year, even as employers say they can't find suitable people with subject knowledge and the ability to speak and write logically, clearly and grammatically.
Perhaps all that India needs is two million quality graduates. If the university and college system can deliver them, instead of chasing enrolment numbers, student and public money will be better spent and the economy better served.