Paradox on the learning curve

As the government moves towards offering the premier Indian Institutes of Management greater autonomy in their functioning, it may need to focus some attention to a unique but well-established paradox of the wider higher education system that absorbs the bulk of the country’s school-leavers. The country boasts of the highest number of higher education institutions in the world – an astounding 33,723, according to an EY analysis – and the second largest number of enrolments in higher education at almost 27 million (to China’s 33 million). Yet it is estimated that almost 75 per cent of these graduates are unemployable. 

At a disaggregated level, the numbers look worse. Graduate employability levels cross 25 per cent for just one of the 10 key professions set out in the National Employability Report. That is relatively for low-level, low-paying clerical and secretarial jobs, for which science graduates, bizarrely, are the best prepared. IT-enabled services follow next, with an employability level of just under 25 per cent, with science graduates making the cut here too. In such so-called cerebral jobs like accounting, content development and analysis, employability levels lie below 5 per cent — and science graduates are not front-runners in these fields. No surprise, then, that the employability of graduates as teachers varies from 10 per cent to 15 per cent, a pointer to the circular nature of the problem. 

The crisis of quality in Indian higher education has been a long-festering one. It begins, of course, with the poor standards of India’s primary and secondary education that create a pool of poorly educated school-leavers. Audits routinely reveal that Indian schoolchildren fall below the minimum standards demanded of their age-group — in one inter-country study, India ranked 71 out of 74, just above Kyrgyzstan. But up the value chain, the impact of lax and corrupt regulation kicks in, in which questionable accreditation of institutions flourish with impunity. As a result, the higher education system suffers from a vicious cycle of poor quality and it is being compounded by the increasing proclivity of the central and state governments to make politically motivated interventions in university curricula and appointments. There has been a sharp rise in the proportion of private universities, which account for over 60 per cent of the total today from under 10 per cent at the start of the century. But that may not be the solution as the best professional institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Management and the Indian Institutes of Technology continue to be government-funded/created bodies. What is required is overhaul of the entire system so that homegrown institutions can flourish.

Today, almost no institute of higher education from India figures in global top 200 rankings, even as authoritarian China, which has two, is making great leaps forward in higher education. In a country that likes to boast of a “demographic dividend” – slightly less than half of India’s population is below 25 years of age – these are worrying trends. When linked to diminishing employment growth owing to the rise of artificial intelligence, the chronic un-employability of India’s educated youth raises the real prospect of social unrest, undercurrents of which can be detected in the growing violence of political contestations.

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