Anju and Anita had come to me for advice on future career prospects. They were both students in my MSc course. During the conversation, I found out that Anju was the daughter of a vegetable seller while Anita’s father worked as a clerk in a private office. Both of them had been giving tuitions to school children right after their Class XII to fund their education. They would come back from their college at 5 and from 6 to 8 in the evening they would give tuitions to a group of children at another child’s house since their place did not have enough room.
The fact that they belonged to very modest families was not surprising. The results of a survey I did last year of our students in MSc Physics at Delhi University had already made me aware of the socio-economic background of our students — more than half of them were from villages or small mofussil towns; more than 50 per cent came from families where they were the first generation of college-goers; more than a quarter of them belonged to farming families and about 70 per cent of them reported their family income as less than 5 lakh a year.
The enhanced enrollment of students from these socio-economic backgrounds is primarily a result of the extension of reservations to OBCs and EWS. In addition, the massive increase in the number of higher education institutions has led to an enlargement of the number of available seats — there are more than 45,000 universities and colleges in the country. The Gross Enrollment Ratio for higher education, which is the percentage of the population between the ages of 18-23 who are enrolled, is now 27 per cent.
What is remarkable is that despite all these initial disadvantages, these students managed to finish their undergraduate degrees and some of them were now even looking at their prospects post their Master’s degree. They, and obviously their parents, have high aspirations for their future. And, this is where there is a huge mismatch between their aspirations and what they are likely to attain.
A majority of the students are aiming to get some kind of a government job post their degree. Unfortunately, the spectacular increase in enrollment in recent years has not been matched by a concomitant increase in jobs. Employment opportunities in the government have not increased proportionately and may, in fact, have decreased with increased contractualisation. Even in the private sector, though the jobs have increased with economic growth, most of the jobs are contractual. Worse, the highest increase in jobs is at the lowest end, especially in the services sector — delivery boys for e-commerce or fast food for instance. A student who has finished his college against all odds is not very keen to take up a job in a call centre or worse as a delivery agent for e-commerce or fast food.
Thus what we see is a huge pool of unemployed university graduates with unfulfilled aspirations. This group of dissatisfied, disgruntled youth can lead to disastrous consequences for our society, some of which we are already witnessing.
Attitudes towards work would not change overnight — the time scale for change in societal attitudes is possibly in decades. A reduction in the rate of increase of universities and colleges might not be politically feasible given the huge demand for higher education. But there are several things that the government can attempt to do. A concurrent increase in the number of high-quality vocational institutions is something that can be done.
There are upwards of 15,000 Industrial Training Institutes (ITIs) in the country currently. These institutions provide training in various trades like air conditioning mechanic, electrician, mechanic etc. The quality of these of course is very uneven. They are also, by and large, poorly maintained and lacking in resources, both physical and human. The curriculum remains outdated and has not been upgraded to include some of the newer skills like maintaining networking and telecom equipment.
And yet, there is a huge competition for admission into these institutions, and polytechnics. In some places, it is harder to get into these than to get admission to the local government college. The reasons are obvious. Manufacturing units prefer hiring them for blue-collar jobs since they at least have a modicum of training. In addition, the pass-outs from ITIs also have the option of being self-employed in the various service-related sectors.
Upgrading the existing ITIs, opening many more new ones with high-quality infrastructure and updated curriculum is something which should be done urgently. There is a scheme to upgrade some ITIs to model ITIs. However, what is required is not a selective approach but a more broad-based one that uplifts the standards of all of them besides adding many more new ones. Industry might be more than willing to pitch in with funding (via the CSR route) as well as equipment, training for the faculty and internships for students. After all, the industry czars never cease to remind us about the shortage of skilled labour in the country. And surely, if the government can spend thousands of crores on existing and hypothetical Institutes of Eminence, funds should not be an issue for this exercise which, coupled with our demographic dividend can be a boon for the economy and the society.
For Anju and Anita though the future remains uncertain. They would finish their MSc, possibly do a BEd, and keep trying to get a teaching job in a government school. If they are lucky — they would succeed though in all likelihood — they would have to settle for teaching in a private school for a pittance. And, of course, continue giving tuitions to support themselves and their families.
This column first appeared in the print edition on November 1, 2021 under the title ‘Future imperfect’. The writer is professor of physics and astrophysics, University of Delhi