To begin with, the quality of school education remains a concern.
The All India Survey of Higher Education (AISHE) 2018-19, read with its predecessors, reveals a stagnation of tertiary GER over the past half-decade. It was 24.3 in 2014-15, and is now 26.3; India targets 30 by 2020. For perspective, China improved its tertiary GER from 39 in 2014 to 51 in 2017. While government funding for higher education has gone up significantly over the years, and its showing on infrastructure growth is not poor—from 642 universities in 2011-12, there are 993 now—there are many drags on tertiary level enrollment.
To begin with, the quality of school education remains a concern. The now-junked no-detention policy under the Right to Education (RTE) Act, among other factors, saw over 17% students drop out at the secondary level in 2014-15. Nearly a quarter of the remainder, who enrolled in the senior secondary (SS)/intermediate level, didn’t pass the Class XII exam the following year (2016). Despite most school education boards inflating SS scores, it is likely, given the ever-rising threshold for entry into tertiary education, that a large part of the SS/intermediate-pass population simply doesn’t make the cut. At the same time, the affordability of higher education is still a serious problem for many households, especially when costs get compared with the perceived economic returns. The expenditure incurred by a household per person at the under-graduate level, as per the HRD ministry, is nearly twice what is spent at the secondary level. With many blue-collar jobs requiring just primary or secondary or even no education at all, the choice of pursuing higher education must compete with economic compulsions, and the opportunity cost of starting to earn right after school. The digital economy has also opened up unforeseen employment opportunities for those with basic or no education. For instance, just Ola and Uber are estimated to have a total driver app install of 3 million. Not all Ola/Uber drivers will be of tertiary-education age, and neither are the education levels the same for all the drivers. But, it indicates that many new livelihood opportunities that don’t require higher education are getting created.
Unemployment data for May-August 2019 from CMIE shows that the unemployment rate is the highest (15%) for those with tertiary-level education. To be sure, at lower levels of education, the quality of jobs isn’t great, but there is no denying the dissonance between higher education in India and the jobs getting created. At this juncture, it is important to match higher education primarily to industry needs. Given how, as AISHE 2018-19 shows, the appetite for graduate engineering education as well as Arts is falling, there is already a market-dictated move away from these disciplines. For engineering education, this indicates a wide gap between course design/content and the industry’s requirements. With paradigm-shifts occurring faster in technology, legacy engineering education, apart from being deficient in quality, as the 2017 Aspiring Minds study showed, is simply not equipping graduates for Industry 4.0. There is, thus, a need to radically reimagine higher education in India.