In much of the world higher education has experienced decades of a ‘bull market’ of massification, with increasing enrolments, expanding numbers of universities and increased scientific production. Now, for many reasons, there is evidence of a ‘bear market’ of slow growth, or even decline, resulting in negative fiscal, demographic and other pressures on institutions and systems especially, but not limited to the Global North.
Patterns of enrolments, expansion of systems, rates of access to post-secondary education, the growth of research and other factors vary according to country and region.
However, there are a number of factors that may contribute to patterns of change and often decline. Among these are the lasting impact of COVID-19. Students and institutions were subject to severe stress. Student numbers often decreased and, in some cases, have been slow to rebound. Similarly, many professors found adjusting to online teaching difficult and in some cases left the profession.
Changes in the employment market can affect enrolments and student choices. In some countries, demographic changes and a decreasing number of university-age young people have had a significant impact. Populist and authoritarian regimes have attacked the value of higher education and have often cut budgets.
It remains the case that higher education enrolments worldwide continue to grow, although it is likely that the pace of expansion is slowing. However, it is worth examining cases of decline and, to some extent, of surpluses. One surprising example is India.
The curious case of India
India now has the world’s second largest post-secondary education system (after China), enrolling more than 41 million students. The Indian government’s ambitious 2020 National Education Policy (NEP) seeks to increase the enrolment rate to 50%, from its current 27.3% by 2035. Thus, India will need to add around 34 million students to the system to achieve this goal.
The NEP also aims at establishing and developing more higher education institutions in under-served regions to ensure access, equity and inclusion. Although India has been witnessing an unprecedented growth in its number of colleges and universities over the last several decades, the arguments in favour of further expanding enrolment rates in higher education remain as strong as ever.
However, some recent data show that student enrolments have been experiencing a decline in many institutions. There are also some visible, but not yet recognised, warning signs. Recent trends show that even certain programmes offered by highly selective colleges and universities show some declines.
In 2021-22, 361 undergraduate places, 3,083 postgraduate seats and 1,852 PhD seats in the hyper-selective Indian Institutes of Technology were vacant. Further, in the similarly selective National Institutes of Technology, 685 undergraduate places, 3,413 postgraduate and 914 PhD places also remained vacant.
Around 5,000 undergraduate seats, mainly at the peripheral colleges of the University of Delhi, remained vacant even after the last round of the admissions process in December 2022.
There are reports that thousands of undergraduate places in various colleges in the southern state of Kerala were lying vacant when the gross enrolment ratio of the state is only estimated to be around 38%.
Apart from thousands of vacant places in the traditional ‘arts and science colleges’, around 23,000 seats are empty in the state’s engineering colleges.
The impact of these changes varies from state to state. However, most of the recent changes paint a grim picture. For instance, in Gujarat, around 50% of the seats in the engineering colleges were lying vacant during the 2022-23 academic year.
In Karnataka, dental programmes faced low demand during the same period. In November 2022, many places on the various postgraduate programmes of the central (national government-funded) universities in Haryana, Kerala, Pondicherry and Tamil Nadu remained vacant.
This trend is further exacerbated by the declining tendency in the number of first-year students in certain traditional programmes in some states. Recent reports say that even prestigious ‘arts and science’ colleges located in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal are facing difficulties attracting students to traditional programmes.
Another development is the vacant seats in the undergraduate engineering institutions approved by the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE). During the 2021-22 academic year, 421,203 of the potential 1,253,337 places were unfilled. This is not a surprise because an AICTE committee in 2018 had observed that the capacity utilisation (places offered versus enrolment) during 2017-18 at undergraduate and postgraduate level was as low as 49.8%.
Later, AICTE announced a moratorium on opening new institutions in traditional engineering and technology for two years. As a result, AICTE had decided not to accept applications for establishing new engineering institutions until 2023-24 – except in high demand areas that have employability in the labour market.
It was also recommended that existing postgraduate programmes be restructured and made research- and industry-centric. AICTE recently lifted its moratorium. This situation reflects the reality that much of engineering education is of poor quality and takes place in inadequately funded private colleges.
Why are institutions facing an enrolment crisis?
There are a number of hypotheses for these surprising changes – and these may have implications beyond India. Is it because of the growth of online programmes and other alternative forms of post-secondary education? Or is it because of the transformation of the economy that has been constantly creating a demand for new skills? Or because large numbers of students choose to study abroad? Or because of the poor quality of many private colleges?
Demographics are not working against institutions – India’s population is growing, although the rate of expansion is slowing. Although the GER (gross enrolment ratio) in an educationally advanced state like Kerala is only 38%, many colleges nonetheless face challenges in attracting students. It appears that a large number of students are rethinking the value of traditional colleges and programmes.
Students are expecting institutions to provide them with better job opportunities.
They are more pragmatic while making decisions because they have little faith in the value of traditional ‘arts and science’ programmes when many universities are in the process of starting four-year undergraduate programmes with multiple exit options.
The impact of the crisis has already begun. Starved of tuition revenue, hundreds of private institutions have been closed in recent years. During 2021-22 alone, around 40 institutions, mainly offering engineering and other professional courses approved by AICTE, were ‘progressively closed’ across India and they are not allowed to admit students.
During the same academic year, 1,041 undergraduate, postgraduate and diploma courses approved by AICTE were ‘progressively closed’. These courses were offered by colleges and universities and are mainly in engineering, computer science, information technology, management, pharmacy, etc. In Andhra Pradesh, 354 programmes were withdrawn from the affiliated colleges of the universities in the state.
Although the survival of existing faculty in public institutions will be heavily influenced by declining student numbers, the government and government-aided private institutions may be able to survive these challenges for the time being with public funding. However, that is not the case with private self-funded institutions because most of them are fully dependent on tuition revenue.
The consequences of these changes will reshape the higher education landscape in India, and this underlines the increased urgency to restructure the sector. Governments – both at the centre and in the states – jointly need to find out where and why these declines occurred so that corrective measures can be made to avoid closure of institutions.
It is also important to understand the changing patterns in enrolments vis-à-vis urban, rural, socio-economic background of students, type of institutions, programmes, etc. They should not wait until new enrolment issues occur and then decide how they will deal with each situation.
Philip G Altbach is professor emeritus and founding director at the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, United States. Eldho Mathews is deputy advisor in the Unit for International Cooperation of the National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration, New Delhi, India.