There is a serious, but unrecognised, issue in Indian higher education

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Higher education in India gets a higher level of investments. Public and private investments together for this purpose constitute about 3 percent of the GDP of the country[i]. The salaries of teachers in universities and colleges which are funded/controlled by governments are reasonably good while considering the purchasing power parity (PPP).

There is no dearth of demand for higher education, in India. In fact, the share of population enrolling for higher education in the country (with a Gross Enrolment Ratio of 18 percent[ii]) is higher than that in other countries with comparable levels of development. However the quality could be a concern. The intrusion of profit-making private sector into higher education could be another issue. However, in my view, all these are reflections of a fundamental issue that is not recognised widely.

If we take the educational statistics which is available publicly[iii], the share of students enrolling in 11th grade in school is only 52 percent of the population of corresponding age group. Or nearly half of students get out of schooling, probably without a successful completion of 10 years of schooling, and by considering the poor learning achievements in Indian schools, these students cannot be called `schooled’ in any sense of the term. Given the enrolment in higher education in India, it looks that more than 70 percent of students, who complete 12 years of schooling successfully in the country, attempt to enrol in one or other form of higher education. If I do a back of the envelope calculation, the distribution of 100 people of a cohort could be as follows:

Those who get out without completing 10 years of schooling successfully 50
Those who enter 11th grade but do not get a high school diploma 25
Those who go for some form of higher education 18
Those who seek a job with a high school diploma 7


Hence, if someone makes an assessment of the share of students who enter higher education out of those who complete schooling successfully in different countries, India may have a figure which is higher than that of a few developed ones. In a country like the United States of America, the share of people who take up work with a high school diploma (and without enrolling in higher education) is sizable and they can decide electoral outcomes. This is the situation in newly industrialised countries too.

Hence Indian education system is characterised by two major features: The majority does not complete schooling and they end up as unskilled (or semi-skilled) workers in agriculture or in non-agricultural activities such as construction. Most of the minority of students who complete schooling successfully, get into some kind of higher education. Or the `middle’ – those who complete schooling and seek a job like that of a factory employee – is not that significant or somewhat missing in Indian education.

Interestingly, the `middle’ is underdeveloped in Indian economy too. We have a somewhat stagnant agriculture which employs nearly half of the working population. Then there are construction and small trade which employ unskilled and semi-skilled workers.  There is a booming service sector that accommodates one part of the minority which has different levels of higher education (mostly those with professional qualifications). The other part of this minority lives in the hope of getting such a job. The lower-end manufacturing which should have employed workers with school education as skilled workers is underdeveloped in Indian economy. (That part of manufacturing which performs reasonably well in India like the production of motor vehicles or pharmaceuticals requires and employs people with higher qualifications.)

The absence of a vibrant `middle’ in India’s education and in its economy and their inter-linkages and possible implications are not understood well. It may be difficult to identify the causal relationship here: Is the missing middle in the economy leads to the same phenomenon in education or vice versa? Both these could be part of an equilibrium, and the apparent determinants and impacts could be part of a vicious cycle.

The manifestations of this vicious cycle

Why do people go for higher education, especially to colleges in small towns of India offering liberal arts and science courses? There is one benefit: If someone continues in (or completes) a BA or MA degree, it may enhance the probability of getting the job of a clerk in government service which formally requires just the completion of school education. There could be a number of jobs of this kind.  The knowledge that they get in BA or MA program is useful at best to write the recruitment tests for such jobs.

There is another harmful consequence in those states where private engineering colleges have sprouted with an eye on the employment in IT industry. A substantial share of students who get admitted in such colleges do not pass out successfully, and they come out without a degree after spending 4 -5 years in the college. The lack of their preparedness in maths in schools is one major reason. These people also join the crowd which write the recruitment tests for jobs which require a high school diploma.

There is another interesting but not-so- desirable trend. In those social contexts within India where the majority of girls complete schooling, they opt for one or other form of this higher education. What is the purpose? Mothers may give the following response: `let her go out and let others see her’, and `that may help getting more marriage proposals’. Here higher education becomes a space for a regulated exhibition in the market for arranged marriages. The employment as an electrician or a factory worker may reduce the attractiveness of a girl in Indian marriage market whereas being in college (or having a BA or MA degree) may enhance it (among that section of society which enables girls to complete schooling). The content of higher education does not matter much here.

Dalit activists focus on the issues of access to higher education. Though this is a genuine concern, there is not much concern among them about the lack of completion of schooling by the majority of students belonging to this social group. The lack of completion of schooling and poorer learning achievements are important factors that work against the enhancement of welfare for Dalit and tribes in India.  However, the attraction towards higher education among the small minority which completes schooling encourages these sections to neglect those core issues faced by them.

The main job that requires the knowledge available from higher education is a teacher in a school or college. However in both these cases, the prevailing perception is that the job requires only the communication of what one has studied and does not require any creative adaptation or interpretation. Hence there is no serious incentive to teach or learn the subject in a way to enable such a creative adaptation/interpretation.

These features of Indian education could be shaped by the policies followed in the country during 1950-80. Then the focus was on higher education, and schooling was provided only to those who demanded it. Then schooling was used mostly by those who had plans to go for, and benefit from, higher education. This trend continues despite the gradual expansion of schooling to include other sections of Indian society.

There could be a two-way relationship between the nature of economy and that of education in India. The absence of not many workers who have completed school education and are looking for a skilled job in a factory may have a negative impact on the economy. The absence of many jobs for such people may discourage sections of society from completing schooling, and may encourage another section to go for higher education even when they are not prepared or motivated for it. The gender norms that sustain a lower work-participation rate for females may be leading to a particular kind of participation in education, which in turn may be shaping the nature of Indian economy.

In essence, higher education in India is in a messy situation. This is despite the fact that there is a creamy layer of students who benefit from India’s higher education and do well according to international standards.  On the one hand, we fail to use higher education to address those crucial challenges faced by India – such as providing quality schooling and affordable healthcare for all. On the other hand, we are not that successful in producing a sizable number of good economists, sociologists or philosophers through the higher education within the country. Hence there is a double failure here.

This system of higher education cannot be reformed in isolation. All those efforts and prescriptions without understanding these underlying connections are doomed to fail. More investments by the government may not happen. For-profit private sector is likely to stay and grow. The efforts to create `world class’ universities would not make any significant difference in the system as a whole.

We need to understand the inter-linkage between the economy and education in India. There should be greater efforts to ensure quality schooling for all. Through this, and by working against those gender norms that restrain the participation of girls in employment, and through other policy measures, Indian economy should be made capable to create employment for many more people who have completed schooling successfully. Hence the movement of students towards higher education just for enhancing the probably to get a job which does not require a university degree or marriage prospects, or for no other opportunities should come down.


[ii] See the reference in note No. i


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