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Straight Talk: Building more colleges will not help India's youth; improving existing ones will

Constructing more colleges simply to accommodate larger numbers of students will not fix the real problem of absorbing graduates into the economic mainstream.
BY Pushkar |   03-11-2017
(Photo by Jubair1985, used under CC license)

A record number of Indians – nearly 35 million - are attending college. The gross enrolment ratio (GER) has jumped from 19.4% in 2010 to 24.5% in 2015. With the growing demand for college degrees, the number of higher education institutions has increased as well. In 2011-12, there were 642 universities, 34,852 colleges and 11,157 stand-alone institutions; their numbers increased to 799 universities, 39,071 colleges and 11,923 stand-alone institutions in 2015-16. Notably, most of the growth has been in the private sector even though the central government has done its bit by announcing the opening of more elite institutions, notably Indian more IITs, IIMs and central universities across the country.

The numbers of young people attending college is expected to continue increasing for a while before it begins to fall. India is already home to the largest number of young people in the world and will soon have the largest number of college students. Therefore, looking ahead, it seems reasonable to think the country needs more colleges and universities. However, building more buildings and calling them colleges simply to accommodate larger numbers of students will not resolve the real problems facing India’s young people. And that ‘real’ problem is how the growing numbers of college graduates will be absorbed into the economic mainstream i.e. employed in jobs for which they are trained. If India is to achieve the economic integration of its young people with some degree of success, it must concentrate on improving the quality of already-existing colleges and consider a moratorium on new ones.

There are three very good reasons why India needs to focus on improving existing colleges and stop building more buildings called colleges.

First, existing colleges are primarily producing unemployable graduates. A large majority of institutions – both public and private - are so substandard in term of the quality of education they offer that at the end of it all students obtain nothing more than a piece of paper called a bachelor’s degree whose real value in the labour market is not even worth a month’s tuition that they pay. Many of these colleges – especially private institutions offering ‘professional’ degrees - are being found out by students and parents and are having to shut down because they are unable to admit sufficient numbers of students. But new ones emerge in their place so that the total number of junk colleges has remained high enough for the employability rates of college graduates to remain abysmally low over the past many years. The growth in the numbers of public institutions has slowed down already; perhaps it is time to consider a moratorium on new private institutions for the next five years.

Second, India needs to stop building colleges because college degrees are – instead of improving one’s employment prospects - in most cases leading to growing student debt. About 67% of all students attend private institutions most of which are run by profit-driven owners and managers fully committed to enriching themselves by all means possible at the expense of students and parents. Higher tuition at these predatory institutions translates into growing student debt which is sourced from public sector banks. Student debt is going up all the time and so is loan default. A good part of student loans will likely be written off by the government. When not, there will be indebted students and families left behind because most students graduating from private colleges will be seeking that elusive regular job for most of their working lives. It is a loss-loss situation.

Third, a college degree raises expectations that one’s life chances will improve. This does not and will not happen in most instances. The size of the degreed-indebted-underemployed-frustrated is increasing steadily and creating conditions for higher incidences of social conflict. It already seems to have become easier to variously find and make villains of the upper/lower castes, Hindus/Muslims, linguistic groups, even men and women, and the ruling party and the opposition, in order for individuals to overcome and survive in a difficult environment of low skills-few jobs. There are clear signs of growing restlessness among India’s young people. While it is too early to say where the current stirrings will lead the nation, the growing violence against others, whether women, Muslims, Hindus, lower castes or upper castes, is a cause for worry.

In sum, India faces the challenge of absorbing larger numbers of college graduates into the economic mainstream so that they not only contribute to the nation’s prosperity but also improve their own life chances. This is a tall order, especially given the broken state of higher education in the country and the unwillingness and/or inability of successive governments to address the shortcomings in the education sector, both at the school and college level. With a large majority of graduates considered unemployable and the current government not doing too well with job creation, the prospects for India’s young do not look promising. Add to it the challenges posed by artificial intelligence and growing automation and the causes for worry increase manifold.

None of the challenges that India’s young population faces can be addressed simply by building more colleges; however, improving the quality of education at existing colleges will go a long way in helping the cause of young people and of the nation.

Pushkar is Director, The International Centre Goa (ICG), Dona Paula, Goa. Views expressed here are personal.
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