Education Reform in India – The Power of Knowledge and Information

India has created one of the largest education systems in existence today. However, despite the extraordinary developments in the last decades, further reforms are necessary. The Indian government, recognizing the true importance of education in the 21st century, has made a firm commitment to creating a knowledge-based society through legislation.

Globalization brings numerous opportunities for India, which the South-Asian country could turn to its advantage due to its demographic and economic potential. More than half of India’s population is of working age, and according to forecasts, by 2020 one quarter of the world’s labor force will be made up by Indians.[1] Job creation is of central importance to the government, for its success can become the engine of economic development at later stages. In the Age of Information society, however, there is only demand for a well-educated, professional workforce, therefore education is of paramount importance.  The education system of the subcontinent’s largest country attempts to adjust to the challenges, but there is no doubt about the need for reform. In the past years, India’s governments have consciously striven to correct the errors of the old system, to adopt new developments, and to build a knowledge-based society that privileges creativity and innovation.

The winners and losers of public education

Before the age of colonization there  existed no central educational system in India. If someone wanted to study, then he voluntarily joined a master, who initiated his disciples primarily into the secrets of Sanskrit, mathematics and metaphysics. The British introduced modern school system into the country in the 1830s, as a result of which the close relationship between master and disciple ceased to exist, and the curriculum featured primarily natural sciences.[2]

 In the course of the 1920s, the British created several central institutions to oversee education in the various states, the relevance of which increased after India gained independence.

According to Article 45 of the Constitution of the Republic of India, education is compulsory for children aged 6-14, but the government encountered difficulties in attempting to enforce the article in certain areas even at the end of the 20th century. At the outset, overseeing education was considered each state’s home affair. Thus, India’s government had little influence over questions concerning education. This situation only changed in 1976, when, after an amendment to the Constitution, education came under the national government’s purview.[3] In the 1980s many legislative acts were passed to enforce compulsory education regulations and to develop elementary education. In this spirit the program “National Policy concerning Education” was passed, a modified version of which is still treated as a priority project by the Modi-government. Women’s participation in education was minimal at the beginning, but by 2001, with government support, more than 50% of all women could read and write, which can be seen as a formidable step forward in comparison to 15% in the 1960s.[4]

Biannual high school examinations

In India’s current education system both government and private sectors are represented, where maintenance of state institutions falls under the purview of the central government, single state governments, and local communities, in addition to numerous and varying kinds of private schools.

Education is pursued on three levels: elementary, middle, and higher. The lower section of elementary education comprises five years, then follow three years of upper elementary, and four years of middle school (divided into two sections each lasting two years), then at universities and colleges there is three years of Bachelor’s, two years of Master’s, and in certain cases three years of Ph.D. training.

The most important government body that exercises oversight over public education is the Council for Education, Research, and Technical Training. Among others, it oversees the implementation of education policy in the country; furthermore, it determines teaching materials and the curriculum, while it also provides financial support to institutions. India boasts serious accomplishments in elementary education development.[5]

As a result, by 2011 the literacy rate among children aged 7-10 reached 75%. This had a positive effect on economic development as well. 80% of elementary schools are state-financed. Accordingly, in 1994 a new program was started to unify elementary education, which also contributed to the development of elementary education. The newest program that aims to provide unified education for all is Sarva Shiksa Abhidjan, which is currently one of the greatest educational initiatives in the world.[6]

A characteristic feature of Indian high school education is that students must pass examinations after finishing each two-year section. In order to participate in an exam, candidates must have reached a certain age. In addition to high schools – with government incentive – a significant portion of middle institutions today also offer technical training to pupils, in order to foster their eventual later placement on the labor force market.

Disadvantaged children enjoy special privileges in this area. The Kendrija Vidalaja program was initially created for the children of public servants, later however it became a networks of state schools engaging in unified education activity.[7] Today high school education in India places strong emphasis on scientific and technical knowledge, but also on cultivating traditional arts. As a result, yoga is an integral part of the curriculum. Despite the fact that in-state institutions’ teaching is free of charge, a tendency can be observed that even the poorest strive to get their children into private institutions, primarily due to better infrastructural circumstances and better quality of education. Currently about 30% of all youth study in private institutions. Some of these institutions are indeed expensive and exclusive boarding schools, whereas others follow a special method (for instance Montessori schools), but there are also true international educational centers amongst them.

The World’s largest higher education center

India’s higher education system, following the United States and China, is the third largest in the world. Owing to the reforms and increasing investments it is continuously growing. Between 2001 and 2011 nearly 20,000 colleges were founded, the number of those pursuing higher education increased by 8,000 people.[8] (As a principle, the generation aged 18-24 is considered to be students of higher education.) Currently there are 750 universities and 34,000 colleges in the country.

According to some opinions, India might become one of the world’s largest higher education centers, which is counting ever more on the participation of foreign students in the system, primarily owing to distance education.

Currently the Indhira Gandhi Open University is the world’s largest educational institution with nearly 3.5 million students.[9]  The most important coordinating body in higher education is the University Fellowship Committee – in subordination to the Ministry for the Development of Human Resources – which has the right of accreditation and thereby exercises de facto oversight over autonomous institutions.

India’s education policy privileges modern scientific and engineering trainings. Therefore, primarily universities and colleges specializing in these subjects have gained greater prestige over the years. Mumbai University and Jawaharlal Nehru University have gained global recognition for their world-class programs. Nevertheless, amongst the 2015 global rankings two other Indian universities can be found among the top 200: The Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore was ranked 147th, Delhi Technological University 179th according to the survey.[10] Among universities, state-financed technical universities are in the most advantageous position. As institutions of paramount importance, they are expected to deliver outstanding scientific developments. Accordingly, they have no shortage of financial sources. Institutions run by single states – their numbers are the highest in the country – are quite heterogeneous with regards to the quality of education delivered, and their financial means are limited. During the past few years, the number of private universities grew further, increasing available options to future higher education students. A unique characteristic of Indian higher education is a quota system, which was introduced in the interest of historically marginalized outcast tribes and pariahs. Today there are more than 1,300 different outcast groups in the country.  India’s affirmative action policy, known locally as reservation, ensures that universities and colleges reserve at a minimum 50% of all places for the historically outcast, so that they can gain training and degrees as well.[11]

Where reforms are needed

Despite the last decades’ tremendous development several problems are present in Indian education system, the handling of which is a matter of urgency. On the elementary level, primarily rural schools struggle with serious infrastructural shortcomings. The teacher per student ratio is far too low; as the teachers are unqualified, the quality of education delivered is not satisfactory.[12]

 With regards to high schools, in the recent past the system has primarily been criticized due to outdated teaching materials. According to the critics, the materials did not develop problem resolution skills and did not prepare students according to the expectations of today’s labor force market, but rather encouraged students to memorize outdated knowledge.[13] In higher education, there were also issues related to quality, and as several institutions are operating without accreditation, there continue to be universities and colleges offering less valuable or even invalid degrees in the country.

The Indian government already recognized in the 1980s that moneys spent on education pays off in the future. Therefore, it planned to spend 6% of GDP on education. On the whole, however, by 1997-8 the government only succeeded in raising spending level to 3.6% of GDP from 1% in the 1950s. Up to 2014 there was hardly any change in this regard. Then, when Narendra Modi came to power the new government set 6% as target once again.[14]

In the past, government reforms focused fundamentally on the development of elementary education, by expanding the number of pupils participating in education. By the 2010s, this changed fundamentally, and the emphasis now shifted to higher education reform. According to a survey, higher education students studying abroad between 2000 and 2009 increased by 256%, which makes the difference in quality between Indian and foreign institutions palpable. Moreover, as part of brain drain, only slightly more than 5% of them return, or seek employment in India.[15] Reacting to the shortcomings described, in 2013 India’s president, Pranab Mukherjee named accessibility, affordability, and quality as the prime components of success in the course of education reform.

Manmohan Singh’s government drafted the 12th strategic plan, which, in addition to supporting engineering training and research, wished to emphasize infrastructural development, modifying teaching materials and distance education. It is not unimportant that under the tenure of Singh’s government technical training receive priority with the purpose that by 2022 India may have at its disposal a trained labor force numbering nearly 500 million.[16]

The Modi government’s accession

Following the election victory of Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party in May 2014, education reforms received a new momentum. Modi recognized correctly that state investments aiming to develop human capital simultaneously contribute to economic growth. Currently India has 7% economic growth, and it is counted among the world’s fastest developing economies. Unemployment however remains a serious issue. Owing to the demographic explosion, by 2024 nearly 120 million young people – the majority of whom are untrained

farmers – will appear on the labor market, while demand will largely only increase for the professionally trained labor force, in particular from foreign companies that arrive in ever greater numbers in the country.[17]

In addition, the universities graduate about 2.5 million students annually, including 25,000 medics and 350,000 engineers. However, owing partly to the shortcomings of the educational system, nearly 5 million university graduates remain unemployed, while in certain sectors the lack of trained labor force has become permanent.[18]

From the outset, the prime minister showed himself as a supporter of innovation, creativity and lifelong learning, and is also a steadfast supporter of Internet-related technological developments. Although in the area of reforms the state is counting on the support of other domestic and foreign actors, with regards to education it continues to insist on forceful centralization. In this spirit the government expanded the purview of the university fellowship committee and it strengthened its oversight function over higher education. We may consider as a great success that in 2014 India joined the Washington Convention as the 16th member state. Thus, students studying in Indian engineering training institutions accredited by the National Accreditation Council may further pursue their studies in the institutions of other member states without having to pass any further entrance exams.[19] According to the intentions of the government and in relation to Modi’s program supporting foreign investment (Make in India), a bill on the legal status of foreign suppliers will enable renowned foreign universities to establish branches in India to further aid raising the prestige and quality of higher education.

From fall 2015 in the framework of the New Education Policy initiative and via the MyGov internet platform, citizens could also voice their opinions in relation to the educational reform, and thus aid in the creation of a new, high-quality, innovative government policy that corresponds to the challenges of the present.

Starting from the academic year 2015-6 the government introduced choice-based credit system in higher education. This means that students may decide themselves which subjects they complete, when, and in which particular order. Compulsory, basic and elective courses have made an appearance in the new system, thus education has become a great deal more individual than earlier.

Simultaneously evaluation has changed, as the earlier point-based system (1-10) yielded its place to a letter-based grading scale.[20]  Adjusting to the requirements of globalization, a semester-based training has been introduced instead of the traditional academic year, while – to make global comparisons easier – the ranking of Indian higher education institutions has begun. Increasing the number of nationally relevant engineering and leadership institutions is also meant to prove India’s global role.

Although the Modi government committed itself primarily to developing higher education, several measures passed to develop elementary education and high schools. Such innovations as Smartclass and Edu India must be mentioned, as they truly mean radical innovation for the students. The former is a multimedia, 3D technology based digital teaching material database, which aids teachers in teaching and examining, and students in learning. The latter is basically an educational YouTube channel that focuses on curricular materials.[21]

In the course of public education reform, we may regard the Kerala state’s practice as exemplary. In Kerala state the literacy rate is about 90%, by far the highest in the country, and girls’ education enjoys priority. Thanks to the modern curriculum, students command a truly usable set of skills. From the outset, the government spent enormous sums on education, which in the end provided the foundation for economic growth. ”[22]

The education system of the future

The series of education provisions in the 2016-7 draft budget provides an exact picture about the Modi government’s future plans with regards to education.

The government is planning to establish a new institution (Higher Education Financing Agency) to oversee the infrastructural developments in higher education. At the same time, owing to standardization of training, a new regulatory body’s establishment has also been on the agenda. In addition to supporting online courses, the next step of the government in the direction of digitalization is the creation of an online register for report cards and degrees. .[23]

Concerning state investments, as stated earlier, higher education continues to enjoy priority, but public education, particularly technical training, will also benefit, as the allocation of financial sources makes clear.[24]

Whether the reforms live up to their promise cannot yet be seen. However, they certainly prove that India has recognized the challenges of the 21st century, the power of knowledge, information, and innovation, and accordingly radical reforms are taking place in the country. The successful creation of information society would carry great opportunities for India, while its failure could push the state towards not just an economic but a political crisis as well.


[1] VERNAL, Louis: Drive reforms in education system. In: The Times of India, August 7, 2014 (2016.04.25)

[2] KUMAR, Sasi V.: The Education System in India. GNU Operating System (2016.04.19)

[3] Kumar

[4] RAMAN, S. A.: Woman’s Education. in: Stanley, Wolpert (edit): Encyclopedia of India, Vol 4. Thomson Gale, 2006. 236.

[5] National Council of Educational Research and Training: Leading the Change. New Delhi, 2011. (2016.04.25)

[6] Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan. Ministry of Human Resource Development. (2016.04.25)


[8]CHOUDAHA, Rahul: Latest Statistics on Indian Higher Education. (2016.04.22)

[9] Preamble, IGNOU. (2016.04.27)

[10] BASU, Sreeadha: India makes debut in World University Rankings; IISC Bangalore, IIT Delhi in the list. In: The Economic Times, September 15, 2015 (2016.04.25)

[11] SHEKHRI, Sheetal: Affirmative Action and Peer Effects: Evidence from Caste Based

Reservation in General Education Colleges in India. March, 2011. (2016.04.25)

[12] FOX, Sandra J.: The Need for Indian Education Reform. (2016.04.27)

[13] MUKHERJEE, Somnath: Indian Education System – A call for reform., September 25, 2015 (2016.04.27)

[14] Landslide election win in India ushers in education reforms. ICEF Monitor, 1 July 2014 (2016.04.27)

[15] Number of Indian students heading abroad increases dramatically over past decade. ICEF Monitor, 27 November 2012 (2016.04.25)

[16] India moving forward with education reforms. ICEF Monitor, 23 April 2013 (2016.04.25)

[17] CRABTREE, James: If they can make it there… in: Financial Times, Wednesday 24 February 2016. 7.

[18] VERNAL, Louis: Drive reforms in education system. In: The Times of India, August 7, 2014 (2016.04.25)

[19] Landslide election win in India ushers in education reforms. ICEF Monitor, 1 July 2014 (2016.04.25)

[20] JAIN, Mayank: Everything you need to know about the big education reform in India., May 28, 2015 (2016.04.25)


[22] KUMAR

[23] Budget and Education. Reforming Education (2016.04.27)

[24] CHOPRA, Ritika: Budget 2016: Highly education likely to graduate with distinction. In: The Indian Express, March 1, 2016 (2016.04.27)






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