With India facing major challenges in setting up new universities from scratch, existing universities may have to increase student intakes to meet growing demand for higher education and the urgent need for more skilled human resources.
Some universities may have to double student enrolment in the next five years, with students per acre of university campus being used as a measure of efficiency, according to the University Grants Commission, or UGC.
This was revealed in an internal report on the 12th Five Year Plan 2012-17 for higher education, prepared for the Ministry of Human Resources Development earlier this year. The 12th Plan period began on 1 April.
However, academics say unplanned expansion could hamper the quality of education, and some critics warn that universities may not have enough academics to cope with a rapid expansion in student numbers.
The UGC, the regulatory body under the ministry, said most of the country’s universities with large campuses do not enroll enough students. “Most universities have ample land and resources, which they need to use optimally,” a senior education ministry official said.
“The 43 central universities, except a few like Delhi University, are functioning with disproportionately low student enrolment compared to the campus area,” the UGC report said. “A 100% increase in intake is feasible in 30 of these university campuses.” Scarcity of land had necessitated “vertical growth rather than horizontal spread”.
The report said that if half of India’s 317 publicly funded universities increased their total intake by an average of 30%, they could enroll an additional 200,000 students during the next five years.
Similarly, if 20,000 of the country’s 31,324 higher education colleges were allowed to expand through special funding, enrolment would increase significantly.
“Assuming the average strength of a college in India to be 400 from the current data, a modest average increase of 200 students per college will result in an increase of about four million in the 20,000 colleges,” the report calculated.
The UGC proposal, if implemented would move away from the government’s previous policy of enrolment expansion by creating new universities.
During the just-ended 11th Five Year Plan period 2007-12, the government announced it would set up 51 new public higher education institutions – including eight Indian institutes of technology (IITs) and seven Indian institutes of management (IIMs)
However, many of the proposed institutions have been plagued by various deficiencies, including shortages of teachers. Several of the planned institutions failed to take off, facing delays in land acquisition and disputes between the central government and federal states on where they should be set up.
A shortage of trained faculty is also a major stumbling block to increasing enrolment on existing campuses, with universities already facing a shortage of lecturers amounting to 25% to 30% of posts, according to official data.
“Any unplanned increase could affect the quality of education. If the government wants to increase quality it has to do so in a planned manner with support for infrastructure and human resources,” said Deepak Pental, a former vice-chancellor of the University of Delhi.
He described a 50% increase in students after affirmative action was implemented in 2008 as “challenging enough”.
During the 2008 expansion, a number of Delhi University colleges had to cope with overcrowding, particularly in science laboratories. Although extra funds were released that year to colleges by the UGC to expand enrolment of disadvantaged groups, many could not use the funds because of bottlenecks in government agency approvals.
Nonetheless, Pental added: “Publicly funded universities have the moral obligation to maximize utilization of resources. They should follow the example of universities in Singapore, which have compact campuses and [are] doing very well.”
Sriram Kelkar, associate professor at the University of Hyderabad, said just providing funds for expansion was not the answer. “Norms for hiring faculty need to be liberalized. Given the current shortage we should be allowed to take industry experts on board.”
Colleges also want more autonomy to start courses that “can fulfill the demands of the services sector", according to Kelkar.
The UGC has suggested increasing the number of teachers by appointing overseas faculty and industry experts, recommending that they be compensated adequately.
Under the 12th Plan universities will also see a higher allocation of funds to support high-quality research, and incentives to have more PhD-holders.