33/100: Would More Universities Solve India's Education Problem?

India has a problem. Its many million middle class needs opportunities, so that they can make their lives better and get a share of the new prosperity. This should be easy: The Indian companies are going places and foreign companies are coming to India. In the world which is claimed to be flat, a world of opportunities have opened up to the Indian middle class. Only if they could get it.

It should be easy, but it isn't. The problem is - India's higher education system is seriously out of date and out of depth. Its initial problem was that it did not have the capacity to serve the middle class. With the government opening up the market to private investment, however reluctantly, the capacity problem seems to have been solved for the moment. Suddenly, there are vacant seats in the management and technology schools. But this could be symptomatic of their poor quality, and not a case of supply outstripping demand.

It is quite easy to see that indeed is the case. Only 2% of India's annual output of 2.9 million graduates is employable, contends Microsoft. Most large Indian companies run long term induction programmes, ranging six to nine months, to make graduates employable. An Indian software company, Infosys, was recently in the news for the alarming rate of suicide among its graduate trainees, who fail to pass its stringent qualifying criteria after such induction programmes. The country has the third largest college enrollment figures in the world, after the United States and China, but its research output and patent applications remain pitifully low. Despite certain clusters of enterprise, entrepreneurial thinking among college graduates is not a common thing.

Philip Altbach contends that India's Higher Education thinking is more aligned to its British Heritage - a ticket to privileged life - than with the more American concept of economic productivity, as in East Asia. The degree is often seen as an end objective in India, particularly in its Northern Hindi heartland (where most of its young people are), not least because obtaining a degree raises the dowry a man can get in his marriage. The White Tigers in India, the entrepreneurs, are often the ones without college education.

Indian government's approach to the solution is two-fold: First, throwing public money in building more universities and high end technical institutions, and second, allowing private investment to flow in to build even more institutions. However, these quantity solutions - indeed, the higher education capacity has gone up manifold - do not address the key problems of quality, employability and productivity. In fact, I shall argue that in a country like India, college education does more harm than good: It makes a young man (or woman) spend three to four years of his/her life in pursuit of useless knowledge, often completely divorced from what's needed in the workplace, and also gives them a sense of entitlement, which comes in the way of their own well-being. Many Indian graduates refuse to be flexible and take the job available to them because of this sense of entitlement.

The current approach of building more colleges and universities, though they satisfy the middle class voters, is neither helpful nor sustainable. Indian economy, despite the publicity, is perilously close to breaking down, with its 9% inflation and huge unemployment and underemployment, backward agriculture and corrupt politics. The publicity machine, yet again, does more harm than good to policy-making, and is sustaining a false sense of euphoria that comes in the way of serious analysis and sensible debate. The current approach to higher education adds to the plethora of misdirected policies and falls short of creating capacity and spreading prosperity: But, again, the spread of universities and colleges are seen as a sign of progress, and the resulting cacophony of Ministerial statements drown the few sensible voices in Indian Higher Education.

And, indeed, this defies common sense. Any Indian man knows that one can find a college graduate in any city street corner, but it is extremely hard to find a skilled tradesman, be it a plumber, driver of heavy vehicle, electrician or a computer repairman. The government investment in vocational training is next to nothing, and the approach to the trades is influenced by the deep-seated Indian belief in caste system and stations in life. Education policy in India completely ignores this grassroots reality (egged by its middle class voters, who want to see their sons and daughters as Engineers, and not plumbers). Interestingly, despite all the investments in educational expansion, India still lacks capacity for medical and care education: In fact, its educational provision for professional care is extremely limited and woefully poor, and I shall contend that this reflects, in an inverted way, the bias of policy making in favour of the 'Babu' class, but away from the real requirements of the economy.

So, in short, more universities and colleges will not solve India's problem, but good quality vocational training will. Consider IT programming: Private initiatives in the area, led by NIIT and Aptech, in the 1990s created more IT programmers than the colleges ever did. These vocationally trained professionals today run the Indian IT industry (at least its middle management layer) and this was the secret of India's success. I shall contend that Indian government should allow, and even support, the expansion of top quality vocational skills training, and do everything it can to encourage private investment and acceptability of the professions.


Sanjeev said…
Looks like that the Government heard you ... NSDC is a a central body that supports & drives the expansion of top quality vocational skills training.. Lots happening in this space ...

Thanks Sanjeev, this is very helpful.

India is one of the very few countries in the world which is still building public universities (or institutions like IIT). I think more money should go to vocational training, as you point out is already happening.

Last year I remember conversations about the Government selling off the ITIs. I lived close to an ITI campus in West Bengal, and I have witnessed its fall from grace through my childhood. I think the government should find money to invest in these ITIs and make them prestigious again.

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