The higher education myth

Latest study: India’s enrolment ratio is still well below global average

Written by Yamini Lohia | Published:April 2, 2012 3:11 am

Latest study: India’s enrolment ratio is still well below global average

The enduring myth about India’s superior higher educational institutions was tested recently,with a report assessing the country’s labour force and its preparedness. The report,released by staffing company TeamLease,found that India is failing to properly educate its workforce,especially beyond the high school level. According to the report,India’s gross enrolment ratio (GER) — the number of students enrolled versus the number of eligible students — for higher education was a mere 13.2 per cent in 2003; it is now projected to rise to 15.7 per cent,still substantially lower than the global average,marking slow progress in the government’s goal of attaining a GER of 30 per cent by 2030. India is a laggard compared even to other developing countries,whose GER averages 36 per cent. And there are as many as 374 districts where the GER is even lower than the fairly abysmal national average.

Not only is the Indian state failing to get its youth into higher educational institutions,the college graduates it does produce are by and large ill-prepared to enter an increasingly globally integrated labour market. They lack the skills to get the jobs they trained for and are not considered employable. Study after study,such as the McKinsey-NASSCOM one in 2005,quotes employers stating their dissatisfaction with the quality of graduates. There are jobs — in the IT sector,for instance — but not enough qualified engineers to fill them. According to the TeamLease report,well over half — 58 per cent,in fact — of young Indians suffer from some degree of skill-deprivation.

The challenge for the state is threefold: first,it must get eligible students into college or provide them with some form of higher education training; second,it must improve the quality of instruction available at such institutes; and third,it has to do this in a way that is cost-effective. Although the 2012 budget increased education spending by 18 per cent,the dismal state of India’s public finances will hobble any effort to seriously address the higher education deficit on both quality and quantity.

Expanding access to such institutions must be a priority if India is to reap any kind of demographic dividend from its young labour force. More than half the country’s population is under 25,and a third are less than 15 years old. The drive towards the universalisation of primary education via the Right to Education Act and a push for the expansion of secondary school education (with the Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan,for which the World Bank recently lent India an interest-free $500 million) means that more and more of these young people will be eligible for — and aspiring towards — at least some college-level instruction.

Certainly,the number of universities and colleges has increased since liberalisation. A fast-growing economy needs skilled labour,and this demand was matched by people’s changing aspirations,leading to a sharp growth in the number of public and private higher education institutes in the country. In 1991,India had 184 universities and 5,748 colleges; by 2011,this number had increased to 537 universities and 25,951 colleges. A lot of this growth has been driven by private colleges (many affiliated to state universities). But,as a FICCI and Ernst and Young report found last year,most higher education institutions,public or private,had poor physical infrastructure,suffered from faculty shortages and had outdated curricula,with little power or incentive to update them.

The UGC,the principal higher education regulator,released a list of 21 fake universities earlier this year,some of which are just hole-in-the-wall offices. AICTE,which regulates technical institutions,identified 340 private institutes that are not accredited — indeed,only about 4,500 of all of India’s universities and colleges are accredited. The proposal to unify different regulators under a single body,the National Commission for Higher Education and Research,fails to address the reasons for the structural weakness of current regulators.

Even if one sets aside the quality of instruction,only about 8 per cent of the labour force are university graduates; the rest enter the competitive global economy at a serious disadvantage.

Clearly,the government has to work towards both expanding access and ensuring a modicum of quality,and there are at least nine pieces of legislation in the pipeline to help improve the supply of quality universities and colleges for a whole generation of young Indians. But whether these bills will be enough to successfully reform the country’s broken higher education sector is another matter,especially given the limited availability of quality faculty.

It is easy to be hoodwinked into believing that there is nothing broken in the Indian higher education system — there are,after all,plenty of success stories of people graduating from IITs and IIMs and then going on to receive dream job offers. But those institutes service a tiny fraction of our population,and even they do not perform well in global university rankings. If the government is not careful,our hypothetical demographic dividend is going to turn into a very real demographic disaster,with plenty of young people with paper credentials but no skills and no jobs.

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