Comparisons are indeed helpful: China and India, two countries with huge landmass and population, both trying to get out of poverty and build a prosperous future, make great parallels to be looked at. Dr Rahul Choudaha in his blog (www.dreducation.com) presents the comparative pictures of Chinese and Indian Post-Secondary education, statistics that by itself highlights the contrasting growth patterns of the two countries.
Here is the statistical highlights (I am quoting from DrEducation):
1. India (26.7 million students) and China (29.1 million students) are the biggest post-secondary education systems in the world, bigger than the United States (21 million students).
2. India, however, has more students studying for an Undergraduate degree (19.8 million) than China (12.6 million).
3. In stark contrast, more students study for vocational courses in China (14.9 million) than India (4 million).
4. A similar contrast can be seen at the Post-graduate level too. India has more than double (2.7 million, or 14% of undergrad population) the number of students studying for Post-graduate degrees than China (1.2 million, or 10% of undergrad population), but China has three times more students at the Doctoral level (236,328) than India manages to get (72,202).
The statistics can be viewed in various ways and I am fully cognizant that comparisons with China, though useful, may not be the definitive benchmark. But, one can pretty easily highlight the weakness of India's vocational education sector as a cause of concern. As the economy grows, it will need professional workers at all levels, and that will include competent plumbers, builders, electricians, security guards and nurses.
India, in short, has a vocational training problem, a severe one given that annually 12.3 million people are added to the labour force. Indeed, the infrastructure has expanded in recent times, on the back of significant government investment, but how much of that has really worked can only be answered in the future. Given that the figure of 4 million includes all the students learning IT and Hospitality(often in parallel with their undergraduate studies), the number is indeed alarming. One could speculate that the apathy to vocational training may be linked to the deep-seated caste sensibilities of the Indian middle classes, and that the middle classes are continuing to develop in the colonial model of creating a pen-pushing (or laptop-typing) army of people, but this thinking will be widely divergent from the needs of a modern economy.
The imbalance at the top of the heap, the lack of doctoral students, generates more conversations, but has less to worry about. As Dr Choudaha pointed out, Masters degree studies are often a spill-over from the undergraduate mass: Those who could afford will continue to complete a Masters because their degrees will not get them a job. The Masters degree inflation is self-sustaining too: I have come across many students who would pursue a Masters degree just because other family members have done so. That such vanity effects do not translate into Doctoral studies isn't surprising. Besides, these trends should be seen in perspective with trends of students studying abroad, as education is indeed a global enterprise at the top. India sends a disproportionately large number of post-graduate and doctoral students abroad (in comparison to the number of undergraduates). Global research experience does not hurt Indian students and ultimately benefits Indian companies. One should indeed worry about the quality of India's research output, but we may not need to sound the alarm regarding the quantity as yet.
Instead, closer attention must be given to the imbalance at the bottom of pyramid in India. This also indicates the need to 'professionalize' in India, something that happened in western societies and the Chinese had a long tradition of it, though it has its own challenges at this late stage of economic development. The Indian state has done the opposite: instead of regulating the trades and facilitating a national dialogue involving employers about the skills requirements, it embarked on a system of hand-outs, in line with the crony capitalism that it generally espouses. This neither resulted in an expansion of demand for trained people, nor earned them a premium for skills: One can argue that this created a temporary system of disguised unemployment, which will further lower the demand for vocational training.
In a way, this is inevitable: Professionalization of the vocations, while inescapable in a modern economy, goes against the middle class interests. They would not just lose the status of sole purveyor of knowledge in the society, but also have to pay more for the work they receive; in effect, this will mean a redistribution of status and wealth. Therefore, professionalization is difficult politically: All the naysayers will immediately jump in claiming that this will hurt the unskilled (though it does exactly the opposite - creates a skill premium). However, this is another of the difficult structural decisions someone in India have to take some day: The statistics presented here adequately shows the tip of the latent issue.
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