Is India the world’s next top knowledge power?

India is rapidly growing access to education and has the second largest number of enrolments in the world.

While Australian commentators have long focused on the rise in quality and capacity of Chinese institutions, the Indian Government’s commitment to building the scale and impact of higher education has set the nation on a trajectory to compete with China and the US for supremacy in knowledge leadership.

Last week, I visited India to discuss the ways university leaders can bolster their efforts in driving the research strategy and assess institutional impact.

Let me present a few insights about India’s higher education and research & development landscape, how it is evolving, and what these changes mean over the next ten years.

Student enrolments

  • Globally, there are 39 national systems with more than 1 million enrolments in higher education compared to 33 in 2016. India has the second largest number of enrolments globally at 40.55 million, behind China with 57.14 million and well ahead of the United States with 18.16 million according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics.


  • In India, there are more than 1,110 universities, over 43,000 colleges, and almost 11,300 standalone institutions according to the latest All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE).
  • Private providers play a major role in the provision of tertiary education in many middle-income countries, and India has over 55% of higher education students enrolled in private institutions.

Gross Enrolment Ratio

  • The Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) measures the capacity of a country to educate people in a particular age group – a key measure of access to education used by the UN and others. In 2020, India had a Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) at tertiary education level of 29.4%, compared to 26.8% in 2015 or 17.8% in 2010. India stands where China stood in 2012, South Korea in 1984, or the UK in 1991. However, India still has a long way to go to reach a 50% GER.

Building the academic and research workforce

  • The number of faculty/teachers are 15.5 million, of which about 57.1% are male and 42.9% are female, according to the AISHE.
  • There are 253 researchers per million inhabitants. India has about 15% of the number of researchers in China or one third of Viet Nam and Malaysia. India ranks 88th out of 123 countries. India is where Thailand was in 2001 and Malaysia in 2000.
  • Globally, India has the 3rd largest number of doctorate enrolments (ISCED level 8 programmes) and represents 0.5% of all HE enrolments.
  • India’s current academic and research workforce is insufficient to meet the strong demand that we see for tertiary education.

Expenditure on R&D

  • India expenditure on research and development as a proportion of the gross domestic product (GDP) is less than 0.65%, standing at 57th globally. India is at the point where Turkey was in 2007, where Malaysia was in 2002, or where China was in 1998.

Government expenditure on tertiary education

  • India’s level of expenditure on tertiary education as a proportion of GDP increased from 0.88% in 2000 to 1.52% in 2021 (latest available). The continuation of this investment is critical if India is to achieve its ambitious education goals.

Knowledge production

  • Using publications as a proxy of science or knowledge, India has the world’s third highest volume of outputs in Elsevier’s Scopus (2020-2022) behind China and the United States. In 2003, India recorded over 33,100 outputs and increased to 285,400 in 2022. As a share of the world’s outputs, India increased from 2.1% in 2003 to 7.0% in 2022.
  • India’s proportion of publications in Quarter 1 journals was 32.1% for the period between 2013 and 2022. A sustained improvement, driven by targeted interventions, should assist Indian universities to reduce the gap against rising middle-income countries, which have higher proportion of publications in top quartile journals.
  • Among rising middle-income countries, India has the lowest proportion of international collaborative publications: 18.7% for the period between 2013 and 2022. However, India’s proportion of international collaborations increased to 22% for the period between 2020 and 2022.
  • India’s research citation impact is edging closer to the world average. India’s field weighted citation impact was 0.97 for the five-year period between 2018 and 2022, compared to 0.90 for the period between 2013 and 2022.

Looking ahead

We are likely to see India strengthening its top three standing globally in terms of scholarly outputs if there is a sustained uplift in the levels of government and businesses expenditure on research & development as well as increased investment on doctoral education and research training. With this strengthened position, India’s research citation impact is likely to be well above the world average and its overall performance edging closer to several mature and high-income economies.

Based on the current trajectory, it is likely that India will reach a GER at tertiary level of 40% over the next ten years and is likely to achieve 50% within the next 15 years – a dramatic expansion of higher education participation and ultimately, knowledge creation and dissemination.

To achieve these goals, government expenditure on tertiary education needs to increase to over 2.5% from current rate of expenditure, there needs to be a strict execution of India’s education policies, along with continued growth in quality education among private providers.

In March 2023, in an important milestone for the bilateral relationship between Australia and India, the education ministers from both countries signed an agreement to mutually recognise qualifications in both nations for the purpose of access to higher education.

Australian universities at present are attracting many enrolments from India because of the shortage of higher education places at quality universities within India. The rapid growth in domestic capacity in India is likely to lead to a decline in demand for Australian education in the longer term – which explains the strategic importance of institutions seeking to establish campuses and TNE partnerships within India – embedding Australian institutions as part of the Indian HE growth strategy.

Australia and India research collaboration is also on the rise. For the period 2013 to 2022, Australia was India’s seventh biggest research collaborator. Now Australia is India’s fifth top collaborator, behind the US, Saudi Arabia, the UK and China. Interestingly, Australia and India co-authored outputs have a higher field weighted citation impact than India with those top four collaborators.

Angel Calderon is Director, Strategic Insights at RMIT University, Melbourne.



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