Improving women’s higher education key to India become $10-trillion economy

Improving women’s higher education is key to India becoming a $10 -trillion economy

National Fertility and Health Survey, india fertility rates, Higher education, women higher education, Gross Enrollment Ratio, female enrollment
The need of the hour is to provide the educated population with quality employment prospects.

Nisha Holla

The National Fertility and Health Survey-4 shows India’s fertility rates have dramatically dropped to 2.18, below replacement rate, as analysed in our previous article ( Demographics are changing across the socio-religious spectrum and are strongly correlated with women’s education and literacy, as discussed in another article ( We look at women’s progress in higher education to further understand this change.

Higher education statistics published by AISHE, MHRD from 2011-12 to 2017-18 show an increasing trend. Total number of males enrolled increased by 30.3 lakhs, 18.7%, in 6 years, while the number of women enrolled increased by 44.3 lakhs, a whopping 34% rise. The compound annual growth rate (CAGR) for total enrollment is 3.87%, with males at 2.9% and females at 5%. The percentage of enrolled women rose from 44.6% in 2011-12 to 47.6% in 2017-18. More women are pursuing higher education now than ever before.

Extrapolating the data out to 2030 indicates the number of women pursuing higher education might soon exceed that of men; 2024-25 could see a normalisation between genders, and 2029-30 could see as much as 53% enrollment of women, a dramatic shift. Many countries around the world have undergone this. In the United States, according to official statistics, 56% of undergraduates are women. India is following this trend.

The total Gross Enrollment Ratio (GER) in the 18-23 years age group is steadily increasing from 20.8 in 2011-12 to 25.8 in 2017-18. Male enrollment increased from GER of 22.1 to 26.3, a 19% increase. Female enrollment rose even faster, with a GER under 20 to 25.4, a significant jump of 30%. The GER between genders is normalising, again indicating that more women are turning towards higher education to improve their livelihood.

These trends show a silent revolution over the last decade, with significant implications for fertility rates and the economy. It would seem that as more women are turning towards higher education and correspondingly better employment opportunities, they are delaying childbirth and having fewer children. Higher education is one of the contributors to the levelling off of population growth.

With India’s 29 states having diverse economic conditions, variance in state-wise GER is huge. The accompanying graphic contains GER of representative states in North and South India for 2011-12 and 2017-18. On average, North Indian states have much lower GER compared to South, and the divergence is increasing. GER also correlates with development—Bihar’s GER moved nominally by 0.5 points in six years and also trails in development metrics.

The population-weighted averages of representative North and South Indian states are computed in the accompanying graphic. Significant observations are:

*Both the North and South GER have progressed significantly in the last decade. North Indian states have progressed by 4.88 points and South Indian states by 6.33 points from 2011-12 to 2017-18.
*The difference between the Northern and Southern states of India is striking. On average, the GER of South Indian states is ahead of the North Indian states by 13.37 points in 2017-18.
*Women are progressing faster than men. In North India, the average female GER jumped 5.91 points from 2011-12 to 2017-18, whereas the male GER moved 4.03 points. In South India, the female GER jumped 6.67 points whereas the male GER moved 4.49 points.

The status of women has dramatically increased in India. At the time of Independence, policymakers did not focus on educating women. As a result, household income and India’s GDP did not grow as much as it could have. Contrast this with China—with the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, chairman Mao Tse Tung famously said, “Women hold up half the sky,” and instituted strict policies to educate women. The result is evident today in women’s workforce participation, and contribution to China’s GDP and outstanding rise as a Top-2 economy. With India’s women pursuing higher education in larger numbers, they must be empowered to contribute to the nation’s growth. It is opportune for India to leverage this economic multiplier to its GDP as it sets course for the USD 10 trillion mark.

The need of the hour is to provide the educated population with quality employment prospects. These must include incentives for the participation and traction of women in the workforce. Many women in India are primary caregivers for their children and other family members. Employment policies must take these constraints into account so women can have the flexibility to work around their schedules. Otherwise, well-educated women will have no option but to drop out of the workforce, which is a loss for everyone—from the individual to her family to the nation.

Fertility survey data indicates there will be fewer young people twenty years from now. This will result in India’s workforce shrinking rapidly while supporting an ageing population. Instead, if more women are incentivised to work, they will contribute to society and the GDP for a long time, especially given that Indian lifespans and general well-being are also increasing.

Policy can also examine which fields women are pursuing more and focus on retention there. AISHE data shows that for the first time in 2017-18, enrollment in MBBS had more women, 50.3%, than men. If workforce participation for women doctors is improved through policy, this could transform India’s healthcare system.

The next pertinent question is ‘are women in India overtaking men?’ and how to deal with this. In South India, educational institutions are resorting to interesting ways of handling the inversion. For example, some pre-university colleges in Bangalore are applying a higher cut-off percentage for women applicants. While this might not be the fairest way, we certainly see a possibility of a ceiling—say 60%—imposed on women enrollment.

The data from the AISHE and NFHS surveys indicate that the best investment India can make towards economic prosperity and societal progress is in higher education and employment prospects of women.

Pai is chairman, Aarin Capital Partners, and Holla is an entrepreneur & independent researcher

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