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Straight Talk: Who are the losers in India's Higher Education?

In the first of a two part series, Dr. Pushkar writes that if India’s higher education system stays broken, we can realistically let go off all expectations from our demographic dividend. Who are the biggest sufferers in India’s higher education system, and why are they suffering? Read part two of the series here.
BY Pushkar |   02-03-2016

India’s higher education system is said to be in deep crisis. Some even believe that it is broken. While the crisis is acutely visible at both government and private colleges and universities, the failures of the former have increasingly driven students towards the latter which, though ordinary in most respects, appear to be a savior of sorts. Many other students, perhaps a large majority, in addition, join coaching institutes to train for competitive exams that seem to have become mandatory in order to secure jobs. A relatively smaller number of young people, though growing all the time, is heading abroad to get an education.

The blame for the current state of higher education—that is driving students to private universities, coaching institutes and to foreign shores—lies with successive governments at the centre and across India’s states. Their callous approach, bordering on near-complete neglect, all through the lost decades of the 1980s and the 1990s, has created a situation where India should realistically prepare to write off prior expectations of a demographic dividend. Indeed, if there is one consistent finding from employability reports, it is that no more than approximately 30 per cent of college graduates are suitable for employment in their areas of study. In engineering, the numbers tell a dismal story. According to a recent report, over 80 per cent of engineering graduates are unsuitable for hire by industry.

These numbers point to a demographic liability which should really, really worry government officials. They do not seem to be worried, however. In the recent past, they have chosen to blame the methodology of world university rankings (which, in all fairness, do have their limitations) for the poor performance of Indian universities rather than acknowledge the research deficit or the overall poor quality of education on offer at higher education institutions. More surprisingly, they seem to ignore or at least downplay the lack of employability among college graduates.

Better access, bleak prospects
Government officials, as one might expect, hold a more optimistic view of the state of higher education, often emphasizing that the higher education system has over the years become more accessible. Colleges and universities have indeed been built in the remotest corners of the country and hitherto marginalized and excluded sections of the population now have opportunities they did not have earlier. Where the government has fallen short, private providers have stepped in. However, improving access to education—so that one is able to acquire a college degree—cannot by itself be considered as worthy of praise when that education is quite worthless, failing to impart the skills and knowledge necessary for employment. In fact, improving access to education without due concern for its quality is even worse than lack of access because it raises great expectations among those who attend college, before bringing them down to the reality of an uncertain future after graduation. Those with college degrees in hand face the same uncertain and bleak future in the labour market as those who do not attend college.

It is quite clear from available information on the quality of education on offer at India’s colleges and universities and employability reports that the higher education system is creating larger numbers of losers than winners. Indeed, the gap between them is quite large.

It is obvious who the losers are – the young people of this country whose aspirations have become inflated with greater access to education. India is the loser as well. From a country that already boasts of the largest numbers of illiterates in the world, it may soon be home to (if it is not already) the largest numbers of the degreed-unemployable population as well. The growing numbers of the degreed-but-unemployable population—whom, following Craig Jeffrey, one may refer to as the “timepass” generation—is bound to have negative consequences on India’s economy and politics. As Harish Chaudhry recently argued (though with specific reference to management graduates), “by pursuing policies that convert the uneducated unemployed into degree-holding unemployable citizens, we are causing great harm to the psyche of the individual.” In a worst case scenario, a demographic disaster, whose economic, political and social consequences are unfathomable, awaits future India.

But there are winners too
What about the winners? Who is benefiting from India’s broken higher education?

Read part two of the series here.


The next article of this two-part series will look at those who are benefiting from the dismal state of Indian higher education.

Pushkar(@PushHigherEd) is Assistant Professor, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, BITS Pilani-Goa.



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