India’s higher education system is set for change. The UK needs to help

Narendra Modi has big plans for India's education system. Minto Felix argues that UK must be there help

The “remarkable,” increase in the number of Indian students receiving a Tier 4 (study) visa for the previous year is very welcome.

But this must be examined more carefully in the context of the wider UK-India higher education relationship over the past decade. And, more importantly, we should take this opportunity to think more widely about where this relationship should go now.

A patchy few years

Rewind back to 2010 and we find that over 40,000 Indian students received a Tier 4 student visa, 10,000 more than the numbers for reported for 2019. What happened in between?

The decision in 2012, by the then Home Secretary, Theresa May, to revoke the post-study work visa saw this peak collapse to less than 13,000. The effects of this policy blunder are still being undone and mean that the UK is still playing catch up. Only in the last two years has there been a steady climb back upwards, leading to the figures reported last week.

Despite this recovery, the number of visas offered to Indian students in the UK pale in comparison to those in China, with close to 120,000 Tier 4 visas granted to students. Even taking into account the differing populations, the share of Indian students in the UK is also significantly lower to that of other countries – including in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

These figures as India is projected to have the largest number of young people who will be of higher education age by 2030, a staggering 140 million. Given the scale of domestic Indian higher education, the country is simply unable to keep up with the demand.

While the reversal of May’s changes to the student visa programme have contributed to the recovery in numbers, there is an opportunity for the UK to play a far larger role in attracting Indian students.

India at a crossroads

In June of this year, the government of Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, released the draft version of its new national education policy. The first document of its kind in over 30 years, the aspiration of this document is ambitious, setting out plans for:

“an India-centred education system that contributes directly to transforming our nation sustainably into an equitable and vibrant knowledge society, by providing high quality education to all.”

Such ambition will require significant transformation to the sector as it is currently organised and funded.

Looking at higher education, the government wishes to consolidate the current 800 universities and 40,000 affiliated colleges into 15,000 comprehensive institutions. There is also a move toward a broad-based liberal arts education at the undergraduate level – as is common in the US – and a sharp departure from the current approach, which emphasises (UK-like) early specialisation, nested in a dominant narrative of job readiness.

On research, Modi proposes to establish a National Research Foundation, which among other functions, will fund research proposals selected through peer review, and forge stronger linkages between government, industry, and research-focused institutions.

The ambitious plan has met with skepticism, but Modi’s government has provided some level of evidence as to its feasibility. In a country known for its complexity in governance – including in relation to higher education, responsibility for which is split between the central and state levels of government – the barriers to these reforms are many.

Despite these difficulties, the draft education policy serves as yet another signal by India that it wants to position itself as a major player in the “knowledge race”. An aim that the UK can and should help contribute towards.

Refreshing UK-India relations

It’s impossible to overstate the level of complexity in the Indian higher education system. Around 400 universities are spread across more than three dozen autonomous states and territories. As India’s economy transitions and becomes more reliant on the knowledge economy, the fragmentation of its institutions, the mismatch in supply and demand, and low levels of research output are potential future headaches. These are all areas where collaboration with UK could play a constructive role.

Deepening research collaborations is key, but nurturing research talent should also be priority. Only one per cent of students enrolled in Indian higher education institutions pursue research, with just 0.1 per cent graduating with a PhD qualification in 2011-12. UK higher education institutions should be looking to invest in a greater proportion of Indian students at a doctoral level who are encouraged and supported to return and contribute to their national systems. Equally, there is value in UK and Indian higher education institutions in working more collaboratively in building the capacity of doctoral education in India.

For all the celebration around a greater number of Indian students in the UK, there is a much bigger challenge – and opportunity – in the millions of students in India who are currently without access to higher education. Transnational education, online education, and education through partnership will be a bigger part of the puzzle. The Indian government needs to further consider the role and the laws by which foreign universities establish and operate in the Indian environment. This is an issue that has been recently raised by the UK India Business Council.

There are many other opportunities, and also areas where there may be clear limits to mutual cooperation, but as India sets course to transform the way the country conceives and resources higher education, the UK can be a stronger strategic partner. Attracting a greater share of Indian students to UK pastures is a first step in this relationship.

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