A country that aspires to become a $5-trillion economy in a span of five years must understand that it can’t get there with a chunk of its youth having only school-level education.
A country that aspires to become a $5-trillion economy in a span of five years must understand that it can’t get there with a chunk of its youth having only school-level education. To be sure, India has made considerable progress in improving its gross enrollment ratio (GER) for tertiary education—from 21.5% in 2012-13, it rose to 26.3% in 2018-19. And, the government targets 30% by 2020. But, contrast that rate of progress with China’s—the country pushed up its GER from 39% to 51% in just three years, 2014 to 2017. This, when, in 1995, China’s tertiary GER lagged India’s (4.48% of the school-leaver age cohort in the respective national population vs 5.5%). India has a very low human capital base for research—just 0.45% of the students enrolled in higher education are enrolled in doctoral programmes.
There is no doubt that India has made significant progress in R&D capacity and output—in 2016, the US’s National Science Foundation data shows, India overtook Japan as the fourth-largest producer of science and engineering research. Between 2003 and 2016, India’s article count in Scopus, the world’s largest catalogue of abstracts and citations went up from 27,000 to 110,000. But, over that period, China’s went up from 87,000 to 426,000. Thus, the trend of rise in enrolment in science education in India at the graduate level, as AISHE data shows, is quite encouraging. The need, now, is to ensure that a critical number of science graduates receive the necessary support to enter post-graduation and get follow-on opportunities in research. It is also here that the fall in graduate engineering courses becomes worrying—technical education is key to innovation for the fourth industrial revolution, and India must focus on producing quality engineering graduates who can become part of the R&D ecosystem in companies, or enter the research pipeline at universities. Both quality of training and course content in engineering colleges must be radically rethought; else, the country will have the same high proportion of unemployable engineers that has been reported in the recent past.
Unemployment data from CMIE for May-August 2019 shows that unemployment rate is the highest for those with tertiary-level education. Either the bulk of those with tertiary level education who are part of the workforce don’t have the skills that the industry requires or don’t match up to the standards. Policymakers must pay heed to the recommendations that Mohandas Pai and Nisha Holla make in Human Capital Development in India, their report for Ficci. Pai-Holla advocate a greater role for the private sector in higher education through increased partnership with industry for infrastructure, teaching talent, and research. But, they argue, the government’s spending capacity is central to this since higher education must also be affordable and accessible. Low urbanisation, and thus a lack of diversity in skilling and employment opportunities, is also holding back human capital development. Pai and Holla recommend that higher education institutions in India’s villages and semi-urban areas focus on programmes that will skill the youth for the needs of local and traditional industry. Consolidation also must happen in the higher education space, as recommended by the draft National Education Policy, in which standalone institutions become part of multidisciplinary universities and colleges, to pool and optimise use of resources. Also, greater academic, financial, and administrative autonomy for higher education institutes will be key. The government hasn’t really committed to this, despite making the right noises.