Guru Mantra: Pawan Agarwal, Author-Indian Higher Education

Pawan Agarwal
Author, Indian Higher Education: Envisioning the Future

Pawan Agarwal is a civil servant from India. He is currently Secretary to the Government of West Bengal. He has earlier served as Director in the Ministry of Human Resource Development, as well as Financial Advisor and Coordinator of new initiatives of the University Grants Commission—a position in which he developed substantial expertise in higher education policy and practice, and gained a broad understanding of the issues and challenges faced by India’s universities and colleges.

During the year 2005–06, he was a Fulbright New Century Scholar on higher education from India. During this period, based inside a Delhi-based think tank, the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations, he published a working paper. This was rated among the top recent single country reports and widely circulated and well received both in India and abroad.

As a Fulbrighter, he was a visiting scholar under the Science and Engineering Workforce Program at the Harvard University and at the India–China–America Institute at the Emory University in the US. He has received the prestigious 2009 Endeavor Executive Award from the Australian Government. For which, he will be visiting scholar at the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Melbourne from November, 2009 to January, 2010.

His other important studies / publications cover private higher education for Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, higher education and labor markets for the World Bank. Indian higher education from Latin American perspective for Inter-American Development Bank, privatization and internationalization trends in South Asian countries for South Asia Network of Economic Research Institutions. Apart from his career as a civil servant, he continues to pursue his interest in higher education. His current focus is on higher education governance and regulation at the national, sub-national levels, changing dynamics of higher education and labor markets, private higher education, global student mobility, and use of technology in education.


RC – Please share a couple of highlights of your new book “Indian Higher Education: Envisioning the Future” by Sage.

PA – Indian higher education – currently the third largest, would surpass the US in next the five years and China in the next 15 years to be the largest system of higher education in the world. Indian higher education has a complex structure riddled with many contradictions. Thus, despite its growing importance, very little is known and understood about Indian higher education in the outside world.

The book is, therefore a window to the international higher education community on Indian higher education. It gives them an informative, up-to-date and analytical understanding of the Indian realities. It would also be immensely useful for Indians—policymakers, the academic community and the public—because it provides an overview of the complexity of the higher education system and analysis of its problems. It presents a robust base to build a progressive and forward-looking policy for higher education.

The book facilitates a clear and holistic understanding of the sector’s complex nature and breaks several myths. The empirical overview maps the ground realities providing a nice international perspective. It gives a macro or an aggregate vision and shows variation. Besides the ideas, arguments and suggestions contained, the book is virtually a reservoir of precious data that will be immensely useful for everyone, who may be interested in understanding the state of higher education in India as well as the global trends.

The book is organized in nine chapters covering almost all contemporary and relevant issues concerning higher education. While, each chapter builds on discussion in the previous ones, yet the chapters can be read independently as well as in conjunction with each other. Large volume of useful data on India is presented in comparative perspective. Thus, the arguments are not merely based on perceptions, but are supported by hard facts. Each chapter has a large number of references and endnotes making it a very useful resource for further research on Indian higher education.

The book has evolved from the ICRIER working paper released in 2006. For over three years, this paper was widely circulated and commented upon. Thus the book has benefited from valuable feedback from many people both from India and abroad. The book is written from the vantage point of an insider as well as a detached observer and academic researcher. It will be a valuable resource for centers of higher education in universities and research organizations, as well as think tanks. It would also be a useful tool for consultants and private organizations working in the higher education sector. It is hoped that this book along with its companion website would help in informed debate on higher education in India.


RC – You were also a Fulbright New Century Scholar 2005-06. Please share your experiences as a visiting scholar to US universities.

PA – With ambiguity in defining its purpose and vagueness about its quality, debate on higher education is usually full of rhetoric, and more so in India. My direct association with higher education policy and practice between 1998 and 2005, first as a Director in the Ministry of Human Resource Development and then as Financial Advisor in the University Grants Commission had left me confused with many unanswered questions.

At that time, my selection as a Fulbright New Century Scholar for 2005-06 was the best thing that could have happened. In the year 2001, going beyond the traditional bilateral exchange format, Fulbright had established the New Century Scholars program for multilateral engagement and multidisciplinary research collaboration to examine topics of global significance. Topic for 2005–06 was ‘Higher Education in the 21st Century: Global Challenges and National Response’.

Long association with the sector enabled me to compete successfully. I was amongst the 31 New Century Scholars from 22 countries in the program. This gave me an opportunity to understand higher education in a global perspective and build enduring relationships with scholars around the world.

As a Fulbrighter, I was a visiting scholar at the Science and Engineering Workforce Program at Harvard University and at the India–China–America Institute at Emory University. I visited new places including some of the best universities in the world and attended very intense seminars on the future of higher education. These were intellectually stimulating and gave new insights.

For me, my Fulbright experience has been incredibly enriching and satisfying. I have gained immensely from this experience and it has been a significant part of my professional and personal journey.


RC – Indian higher education is facing several challenges among which improving access without compromising on quality and cost is the most significant one. What are your key recommendations for overcoming this optimization challenge?

PA – With a growing number of young people, gains in school education and rising prosperity, demand for higher education is rising rapidly. India would have the largest population by 2028 and population of its young (15-24 years) already exceeds that of China. This would put enormous pressure on the Indian higher education. Thus, improving access without compromising on quality and cost is the most significant challenge before India’s higher education.

In recent years, higher education enrolment has shown a healthy growth of about 9 percent annually (though not as dramatic as China, where it has grown nearly 20 percent annually). A major part of this has come from the private sector. While private higher education based on full cost recovery is expensive, fee levels for professional courses even within the public institutions have risen sharply. Thus, there is serious concern about ability of the poor to access higher education.

Besides, fees for general higher education (for which there few willing takers) not being raised, very little is being done to put in place an adequately funded scholarship and loan scheme for the poor. Such an intervention is urgently required to promote inclusion in higher education and address equity issues.

To ensure quality, accreditation agencies have been put in place. Admissions and fees are tightly regulated. Yet, the impact has not been to the desired extent due to a hiatus between what is said and what actually gets done. Due to lack of transparency and fair play (or perception of the same), private institutions do not have incentive to do the right things. Therefore standards continue to fall and some private institutions indulge in gross malpractices creating a poor overall image of private higher education.

Standards in public institutions continue to deteriorate. While, funding is an issue, yet with no competition, flawed personnel policies and dysfunctional governance structures, there is little hope that public institutions would improve. Personnel policies and governance system require to be fixed. Public institutions that are starved of funds definitely require more funds. Many countries of the world now use fund allocation mechanisms to create competitive environment and leverage change. Experience has shown that clear financial incentives enable public institutions to deliver better on goals set as per national policy objectives. Thus, besides increase in level of funding, its use to ensure public funds are used to direct change becomes important.

Overall, in the current scenario, several steps should be taken to improve access without compromising on quality and cost. While domineering role of the private sector would bring in dynamism and foster competition in the sector, it needs right incentives to ensure quality. Regulations need to be rooted in the current realities and applied in a fair and transparent manner. While accepting the fact private sector would result in skewed growth; public institutions would continue to play an important role and need to be supported for the same. There is a need to increase the funding level and use innovative financing mechanism to create incentives for public institution to do the right things and change with time.

Thus, at a time when the Indian economy is at take-off stage, taking into account the current realities, the Government should direct and accelerate the change in the Indian higher education for both public and private institutions to grow and flourish.