India’s Mission to the Moon and Its Higher Education

Chandrayan-3, that is part of India’s programme for exploration of outer space, has catapulted the country into an elite club of nations – the USA, erstwhile USSR, and China – that have successfully undertaken missions to the moon in the past. Earlier, on 24th September, 2014, the ISRO had placed its space craft known as Mangalyaan, that was part of its Mars Orbiter Mission, into an orbit around the Mars at a fraction of the cost incurred by countries like the USA. Indian scientists had perfected a new approach, colloquially known as ‘sling shot’ technique, to achieve their mission. Another notable feature was that Indian scientists were able to achieve their mission in their first attempt. And, now India has become the first country in the world to land a space craft on the south pole of the moon. Credit for these achievements goes to the scientists at ISRO who have worked tirelessly, against all odds and on a frugal budget to bring glory to the nation. Interestingly, India’s budget for space exploration in the last financial year was US$ 1.6bn as compared to US$ 25.4bn of the USA and US$ 10.29bn of China. It is the lowest among the countries active in this field.

Contribution of Indian Higher Education Institutions

There is a need to examine the contribution of Indian higher education institutions to its space programme. At present there are 23 IITs in India that attract the ‘cream’ of the nation for their B Tech programmes. The Joint Entrance Examination conducted to select students for admission to various IITs is reportedly the toughest in the world wherein about 9 lakh candidates compete for 17,385 seats. This phenomenon, coupled with NEET (UG) and CAT for admissions to MBBS and MBA in IIMs, respectively, has spawned a coaching industry with no parallel in the world. The stress levels on the students are so high that this year 23 students have already committed suicide at Kota – the so called hub of coaching industry in the country. Parents spend colossal amounts to get their children coached for the entrance examinations. Further, in the financial year 2022-23 the Government of India spent more than Rs 9,600 crores as grants to the IITs. With such high cost in human lives, stress on students and financial expenditure it is worth examining the contribution of IITs to Indian achievements in its space programme that has placed India in the company of scientifically advanced countries in the world.

Less than 1% of the total number of scientists in ISRO are those who have studied and completed their B Tech or other bachelors’ degrees from one of the IITs in the country. On the other hand, almost 36% of the scientists at NASA are of Indian origin. As per some estimates, 30% of the scientists at NASA are alumni of IITs. It is ironic that despite the country spending colossal amounts on educating students at IITs and parents paying huge costs for getting their wards coached for admission to the IITs the contribution of these elite institutions to national development efforts in critical sectors is very negligible. On the other hand, after having been trained at the cost of Indian exchequer the contribution of students trained at IITs to the growth of NASA is significant. It would not be an over-statement to say that the Indian tax payers have, to a considerable extent, funded the USA’s mission to the moon! Is it that the Government is not aware of this fact?

Majority of the scientists at ISRO are from Tier-2 higher education institutions in India. The quality of education being provided in these institutions is not of very high quality. However, they have proved that, despite being confronted with academic and financial constraints, if provided with the right directions and environment, they can become world beaters. One can well imagine the results they could produce if they had been given the requisite support, both financial and academic, in their formative years. The fault for the present imbalance in higher education sector mainly lies with the policy planners.

Indian Obsession with Ranking of Universities

One frequently comes across a refrain that the quality of education being provided in Indian higher education institutions is not of the desired quality and that less than 20% of the graduates produced by Indian universities are employable. Yet, the same graduates have taken the country to levels that many developed countries aspire to achieve! Indian policy planners, in their quest to improve the standards of education in Indian higher education institutions, have given undue importance to the phenomenon of ranking of universities world-wide. Therefore, the main focus of the policies is to get some Indian universities ranked among the Top 200 institutions in the world and not to improve the overall quality of education in the country. In pursuit of their endeavours, the policy makers have created a ‘caste system’ in the higher education sector wherein institutions, where less than 2-3% of the students are enrolled for higher studies, attract the attention of the policy planners whereas the institutions that cater for the education of almost 97% of the students get neglected. Thus, we have elitist institutions in ‘India’ enjoying the Brahmanical status while almost 97% of the students are left languishing in institutions of ‘Bharat’ where only lip-service is being paid to improve the standards. There is a need to bridge the gap between ‘India’ and ‘Bharat’!

Our policy planners must realise that though various systems prevalent across the globe for ranking of universities have their merits and have become popular there are some aspects in the ranking methodology that are not addressed adequately. A point that merits attention is, “Do these systems measure what is of value or do they value what they measure?” Answer, perhaps is the latter. For example, the quality of teaching-learning is measured by ‘proxy parameters’ like number of faculty with PhD qualifications, teacher-student ratio, ratio of doctorate students to bachelor’s students, reputation survey and institutional income. Some ranking systems also assess the number of applications received for admission and the numbers rejected. These systems do not take into account the value-addition brought about by an institution to the knowledge and skills of the students on successful conclusion of their respective programmes of studies. Similarly, the quality of research is measured by the number of papers published by the faculty in reputable journals and not the contribution made by the institution to the development of the local community in particular and the country in general.

Public Versus Private Debate 

There are almost 40 million students presently enrolled in higher education institutions in the country and the country’s demographic profile suggests that their number is likely to swell to 70 million by 2030. The Government may not be able to create the requisite infrastructure to cater to the needs of such large numbers. It takes about Rs 4 lakhs to create an additional seat in an average professional institution. The Government is unlikely to have requisite funds to meet the demand. In national interest, private sector would have to step in to share this challenge. Therefore, it is imperative for the policy planners to create synergy by exploiting the strong points of both the sectors – public and private, instead of pitting one against the other.

In our national interest, there is a need to leverage the strengths of private higher education institutions. The prevailing national mood is against private universities and colleges and they are routinely blamed for the falling standards of higher education in India. At present there are almost 1200 universities in India and out of these approximately 460 are in the private sector. That implies that only about 38% universities in the country are privately managed. Most of these have been in existence just for 5 to 10 years. A large number of the private universities with a young profile are doing very well. The data from National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF)  indicate that almost 35% of the Top 100 universities in India are privately managed. Similarly almost 37% of the universities that have been awarded Grade ‘A’ or above by National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) are in the private sector. Thus, the data indicate that the quality of education being provided by the private universities is almost at par with that of Government owned universities. They say that the proof of the pudding is in eating – S Somnath, Chairman ISRO, P Veeramuthuvel, Director, Project Chandrayan-3, Dr S Unnikrishnan Nair,  Director Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre and many other senior scientists associated with ISRO have obtained their B Tech degrees or other basic qualifications from Tier 2 private colleges. They may have later acquired higher qualifications from the elitist public institutions. Therefore, it is unfair to blame the private higher education institutions for the poor standards of education in the country. In fact, the requirement is to reform the system of teaching in higher education institutions in both public and private universities.

What Could be Done?

India promulgated National Education Policy 2020 on July 29, 2020. However, the progress on its implementation, especially that related to critical aspects like teaching-learning and research, has been painfully slow. Moreover, the Policy document highlights, and rightly so, what is required to be done. But, there has been no follow up to conceptualise and implement measures on how should it be done. There are almost 16 lakh faculty-members in various universities and colleges in the country. They are the critical change agents for the much needed reforms, but, are products of a teacher-and-examination-centric approach. Their knowledge is limited to their respective domains and concept of multi-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary studies is alien to them. Further, there is a need to work on their multi-domain and cross-disciplinary knowledge. National Education Policy also lays stress on liberal education. The faculty-members not only need to be sensitised about what is implied by liberal education but they also need to be trained to reshape their pedagogical skills to implement it.

Our universities, both public and private, are basically degree awarding ‘mills’. There is a need for a major transformation to ensure that their emphasis shifts from job-placements to acquisition of knowledge. Self-learning, collaborative learning, experiential learning and learning by curiosity have to be the main-stays of pedagogy. That requires sociological support too. Parents and students have to shift their preferences away from job-placements to learning. A major difference in the thought process of students in foreign and Indian universities is that in developed countries students select a university based on their desire to gain knowledge in a particular domain whereas in India the deciding factor for the students is job-placements.

A structured approach is required to bring about a major transformation in the process of teaching-learning and the way research is carried out in Indian universities. Transformation and not mere change is required – the latter is a gradual process and is time-consuming, whereas the former is akin to a surgical operation. In a fast changing world India does not have the luxury of time on its side. Universities have to initiate measures to incorporate research culture in their campuses. Students have to learn to imbibe the art of disputation and a spirit of inquiry. To usher in real development in the country Universities have to work in close conjunction with the local communities and industry, identify their challenges and work to find solutions to those. Mere publication of papers in journals is not enough. It may get brownie points to the university in the ranking exercises but the benefit to the country would be negligible.

Central and State governments and regulatory bodies should frame enabling policies to overcome the challenges being faced by the higher education institutions. Sadly, that is not happening. There are some states that have created regulatory bodies that function based on a policeman syndrome instead of trying to work collaboratively for the benefit of the system. The National Education Policy has recommended setting up of a single overarching regulatory body, known as National Council for Higher Education and Research, with four verticals to deal with different domains, at the national level. But, the progress – if at all it is happening – is painfully slow.

It is imperative that a system of accountability is created. India has a young population and its demographic dividend is likely to last till about 2040s. It is estimated that 101 million people are likely to join India’s working age population between 2020-30. Thereafter, the numbers would drastically reduce to 61 million in 2030-40 and 21 million in 2040-50. Post 2050 India’s working age population would start declining and its demographic dividend would peter off. India would be able to reap the full benefits of its demographic dividend only if the working age population possesses requisite skills to add to the national economy. Otherwise it will have negative consequences. It is in our national interest that the country harnesses its resources – both in public and private sectors – to ensure that India emerges as a knowledge power in 21st century. To achieve that people with a missionary zeal should be in key positions in the skills development sector. Moreover, a system to ensure accountability for outcomes needs to be devised and put in place.


Chandrayan-3 has given an occasion to the country to rejoice and celebrate. But, it should also be taken as a ‘wake-up’ call. India has become the most populous country in the world. It needs to harness its human resources through urgent and meaningful reforms in its education sector. India’s policy planners – to include politicians, bureaucrats and those in academia – have to work jointly, diligently and with a sense of purpose and urgency to bring about a transformation in its education sector. Unfortunately, so far the signs of that happening are not visible. India can ignore these to its ow

18 thoughts on “India’s Mission to the Moon and Its Higher Education”
  1. Dear Sir,
    Thank you for the great insight into the requirements for higher education in the future for our Country. A well researched, thought provoking and easily implementable recommendations. Hope our policy planners pay heed to critical advise from such patriotic intellectuals. Regards

      1. Excellent article sir. What you have analysed about our IITians manning NASA, which actually amounts to Indian Tax payers contributing to NASA’s successes is eye-opening. A very unique and refreshing article sir. Hope the decision makers of our education policies read this and take cues. Warm regards

  2. A thought provoking article on our education system asking why IITians are less visible in the ISRO success and the way forward to invest in institutions beyond IITs more efficiently. Truly timely and thought provoking.

  3. A thought provoking article on our education system asking why IITians are less visible in the ISRO success and the way forward to invest in institutions beyond IITs more efficiently. A intresting analysis based on the authors deep experience and knowledge in the field.

  4. Insightful and thought provoking analysis. The immense challenges clearly highlighted with cogent suggestions to address them.

  5. Like all your previous blogs, this one too is brilliantly presented. Your have been contributing to Higher Education reforms for quite sometime now but sadly the people who matter have not taken note. Infact I think they don’t care though this is most important for our country’s development. We cannot thank you enough for your insightful writtingz

    1. Brilliant write up —- great insight into the present education system . I hope the suggestions given by you are implemented earnestly and much required changes takes place . IITians manning NASA and our less recognised engineering institutions feeding ISRO projects was well brought out .

  6. A thoroughly researched and diligently analysed article. Wish the suggestions provided here are implemented at the earliest to bring the most sought after change in our education system. This holds the key to sensible and ethical progress of the country.
    Thanks for sharing your insights sir.

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