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The Pratham Column: India's demographic dividend, employability and education

India is projected to have one of the world's youngest populations, by 2020. But there is a long way to go to get everyone educated and employable, says Pratham's Ranajit Bhattacharyya.
BY Ranajit Bhattacharyya |   14-03-2013
Pratham: Every Child in School and Learning Well...

India is a young country. Half its population according to the 2011 census is said to be under the age of 25, and about two-third are younger than 35 – the numbers in both categories are much larger than the combined population of the EU and the USA. By 2020, India is projected to become the ‘youngest’ nation, with a national average age of 29 - well below the national average age in China, Japan, the USA, and Western Europe.

With such a young workforce, there seems to be so much potential for Indians to reap the demographic dividends. After all, Indians are already the world leaders in the field of Information Technology; Indian business managers are amongst the best in the world, Indira Nooyi the Chairman and CEO of PEPSICO, Anshu Jain Co-CEO of Deutsche Bank to name a few; there are 3 Indians in the top 50 of the Forbes’ world’s richest listings; not to mention the many overseas business acquisitions by our astute business houses (take, for example, Tata’s ownership of Jaguar Land Rover in the U.K.). The world is talking about India’s young population; even World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, on his recent trip to India, caught up with the youth representatives.  Are these reasons enough to raise our expectations for exciting times ahead?

Maybe not. Not when you read about survey reports on the un-employability of Indian graduates – the Indian engineering graduates, the Indian MBAs, and, at the lower end, not when you read about the low learning levels of rural Indian children.

Many commentators, both researchers and employers, have cited the lack of ‘industry-ready’ talent as the main reason for un-employability of Indian graduates. According to Aspiring Minds, which is an employee assessment service provider's 2012 National Employability Report, about 83% of engineering graduates are unfit for employment. They have been deemed unfit in communication skills, confidence, presentation, problem-solving capabilities and generic abilities. The report also states that, ‘50% graduates fall short of the mark in language and grammar as well.’ In this regard, it is interesting to note a widely circulated report on IAS aspirants which said, “Six out of 100 aspiring civil servants (IAS) don't know their language.”

This should come as no surprise, especially after the release of PISA 2009 (Programme for International Student Assessment)results of two Indian states, Himachal Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. PISA, which measures the knowledge and skills of 15-year-olds, an age at which students in most countries are nearing the end of their compulsory time in school, rates these 2 states at the bottom, with the scores in Mathematics and Science falling way behind the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) average.

The PISA questions were designed to assess the problem-solving capabilities of the 15 year olds. It is worth noting that Chinese children topped the PISA test, and both Malaysia and the UAE, whose children were participating in the testing for the first time, as was India, scored better than Indian children.

The low Mathematics scores of Indian children indicated in the PISA test is far from shocking if one looks at the ASER (Annual Status of Education Report) findings, which has been reporting low levels of learning amongst the 5 to 16 age group of children in rural India, since 2005. The alarming part of the recent ASER findings is the learning dip that has taken place over the last three years, and mind you, these are floor-level tests (basic  2-digit carry forward subtraction and division skills), without which one cannot progress in the school system. ASER 2010 recorded that 36.2% of Indian rural children in Std V could solve a simple division sum. By ASER 2012, this dropped to 24.8%. Similarly, in the case of reading a simple Std II text, 53.7% of Std V children could read this, according to the ASER 2010 survey. In ASER 2012, this fell to 46.8%.

Are we going to miss the bus on the demographic dividend, which the world is convinced we will achieve? With outcomes as low as we are seeing at present, we have a long way to go before we can hit the targets of such high expectations.

Ranajit Bhattacharyya has been with Pratham since 2003, and has worked as a part of North East and West Bengal ASER team since 2005. He was instrumental in starting Pratham West Bengal in 2006. He currently works as the General Manager of ASER Centre in New Delhi.


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