Nabarangpur in Odisha will finally get its first functional government degree college from the next academic session starting July. This is no small development; it is indicative of the winds of change whose effects are being seen even in the country’s poorest district that is the focus of a year-long assignment by The Indian Express. In 2000, all Nabarangpur schools put together churned out a mere 700 students who cleared their Class X. But last year, the figure crossed 8,400. The fact that many of these students are now going to neighbouring Koraput district for pursuing pre-university and degree education — Nabarangpur’s existing two private-run colleges neither have the required number of seats nor the faculty and infrastructure — only shows how much behind the curve the state and district administrations were. The explosion in demand for higher education is something governments are yet to come to terms with, given their understandable emphasis on improving primary and secondary school literacy levels.
According to the ministry of human resource development statistics, India currently has over 300 million children in the 6-17 years age group. Of these, about 255 million, or 85 per cent, are enrolled in schools. At the same time, there are more than 140 million Indians aged between 18 and 23, with nearly 30 million of these, or just above a fifth, enrolled in colleges. The latter numbers will swell in the coming years, more so with the farm sector’s declining contribution to both output and employment. The period between 2004-05 and 2011-12 actually saw, for the first time, the country’s population engaged in agriculture register a decline in relative (from 56.7 to 48.8 per cent of the total labour force) as well as absolute (from 259 to 228 million) terms. This trend will only intensify as rural folk, even in places like Nabarangpur, increasingly envisage a future for their children outside agriculture. Education obviously holds the master key here.
The resultant hunger for higher education, unprecedented in scale and across communities, obviously presents huge challenges. These relate not merely to quantity — the number of colleges — but also quality. More than 40 per cent of enrolments at the undergraduate level are in the arts and social sciences streams. The employability of many of those earning degrees from these disciplines is questionable. Even with regard to the 20 per cent or so enrolled in engineering and IT/computer courses, there are legitimate concerns over the quality of education offered in most institutions vis-à-vis the skill sets required by the industry. Matters are worse when education also begets a disdain for manual labour and working with one’s hands. Addressing these issues in a nation of aspirational youth, some 12 million of who join its workforce every year, will not be easy.