Why autonomous universities are essential to harness India’s demographic dividend
By Shobitha Cherian
India is currently in an extremely advantageous position, demographically speaking. Half of its burgeoning population of 1.27 billion people is comprised of individuals under the age of 25 and a quarter of the increase in the global working population between 2010 and 2040 is projected to come from the country. This so called ‘demographic dividend’ could be extremely beneficial to the Indian economy. According to the IMF, it could potentially result in an increase in the GDP growth rate by two percentage points each year for the next twenty years. However, in order to harness this demographic, it is necessary that this growing population also be productive and employable.
But what determines the employability of an individual? A lot of employers would say it is the extent to which a worker can utilise his attributes, skills or knowledge in order to contribute productively. So, in addition to a bare modicum of knowledge and skills, it is essential that workers are also capable of actually translating that expertise into productive labour. Unfortunately, such workers are far from being prevalent in India, and a vast amount of work is required before the majority of India’s young workforce becomes employable.
Higher Education in India: Vision 2030, a report produced by Ernst and Young for the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) states that 75 percent of graduates from Indian universities are said to be unemployable in the IT sector. This number decreases to 55 percent in manufacturing and 50 percent in the banking and insurance sectors. While graduates from the country’s top universities are much more capable, they comprise a small proportion of the national average. Overall, there is an apparent disconnect between the skills and knowledge of a majority of the Indian workforce and the needs of their respective industries. This must be rectified as soon as possible, otherwise India’s youth will age past the point of productivity without ever realising their potential.
One major problem with the current education system is that it churns out students that are theoretically proficient in their subjects but lack the ability to adapt and apply this knowledge to perform specific tasks required on the job. Theoretical know-how is relayed in isolation through prescribed text books and written examinations; this is not enough to understand practical or real world applications in their industries. The problem is particularly pronounced with science and engineering graduates; the ability to apply scientific theories to come up with practicable solutions is an absolute necessity in a job environment.
In order to ensure that students possess this ability, it is necessary that they are given expertise in the tools and practices actually used in their respective industries. In the United States, the Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS) was appointed in 1990 to determine the skills needed for young people to succeed in the workplace. In its report, which is still widely used as a guideline for educational institutions in the States, it illustrates five competencies that all graduates must possess-
- Knowledge of how to effectively allocate time, money, materials and human capital.
- The ability to work on a team, teach, lead, negotiate, serve customers and work with people from diverse backgrounds.
- Knowledge of how to acquire, evaluate, interpret and communicate data.
- Knowledge of how to design and improve social, organizational, and technological systems.
- Having the ability to effectively use technology.
It is vital that Indian universities adopt such guidelines when setting their curricula. In this regard, universities should be granted more autonomy in deciding their curriculums and with other such vital functions. The current framework empowers regulatory authorities to micromanage universities through various laws, rules and guidelines, often to poor results. This level of regulation makes it nigh impossible for progressive minded faculty to adopt more modern and practical curricula. This autonomy could be granted without detrimentally affecting educational standards by defining some basic pre-requisites for each university.
Creating a regulatory structure where universities are empowered to produce graduates that cater to industry requirements is the need of the day. Without it, the potential of the majority of India’s workforce will not be realised into actual contributions to the economy. Currently, the demographic dividend is closer to a non-performing asset about to turn into a liability.
Shobitha Cherian is an intern at the Takshashila Institution.