Despite being the largest in the world in respect of the number of institutions, India’s higher education sector enrols less than one-fifth of the potential college-going population. Out of 120 million students who seek entry to colleges and universities annually, only about 25 million manage to make the grades for admissions to 645 degree-awarding institutions, 33,023 colleges affiliated to 174 universities and over 12, 748 diploma-granting institutions.
Around 95 million never enter college due to lack of access to colleges, dearth of finances to pay for costly education or simply because of an absence of interest in the conventional education system that hardly trains students for the job market.
Industry associations ASSOCHAM and FICCI have repeatedly warned that India’s perceived demographic dividend could turn into a demographic disaster unless the education structures were reformed drastically to train students for the emerging job markets. By 2020, 240 million (double the number today) will seek college education. Contrast these numbers with the fact that as of today, only around five per cent of our graduates are employable, and even they need some amount of training to become industry-ready.
Shift to community college system
Such is the alarm caused by the industry-academia disconnect that Human Resource Development Minister M.M Pallam Raju termed "skilling of students" as his top priority after assuming charge of the portfolio from his predecessor Kapil Sibal last year.
Since then, the government has moved rapidly to find ways to make students more job ready. An ambitious scheme has been drafted to create 300 community colleges, modeled on the North American system, where modular credit-based courses structured to suit specific industry needs would be offered to high school pass outs who don’t want to enter the traditional college education system.
Community colleges will provide certificate courses to students after one year, diplomas or associate degrees after two years, and will retain for seekers the option of moving to the regular degree courses. Already, a National Vocational Curriculum Framework has been framed in consultation with states to allow school students to pursue vocational courses after Class IX. CBSE schools are also offering some vocational courses now and the students opting for these courses will have the flexibility of getting degrees in different vocations once they move to colleges.
Who’s ready for vocational courses?
But the moot point is — are students willing to seek vocational courses and is there enough awareness to boost demand for these? An analysis of the current enrolment structures reveals that Indian students are smitten by degree courses, which lead them to the so-called respectable jobs in engineering, medicine, teaching, business management etc. There is hardly any interest for the new kind of jobs such as those of construction experts, automobile engineers, welding experts and foremen.
Picture this — out of 217.86 lakh students enroled currently in regular courses in central, state or private higher educational institutions, a whopping 84.8 per cent (184.84 lakh) are enroled in degree courses as against just 15.2 pc (33.02 lakh) in vocational diploma courses. While 61.3 lakh additional students joined degree courses between 2007 and 2012 (11th Plan period), only 18 lakh joined diploma courses.
Bulk increase in India’s Gross Enrolment Ratio (number of students entering colleges per 100 passing out of schools annually) over the 11th Plan happened on account of an increased demand for regular, and mainly, degree education.
In the Open and Distance Learning mode offered by IGNOU, 13 state open universities and 183 distance education institutions approved by the Distance Education Council, which regulates ODL courses, 42 lakh students (out of the total 250 lakh enroled in higher education), are currently enroled.
Discipline wise disaggregation of HRD Ministry data further shows meager enrolment in technical courses as against general — out of 250 lakh students in colleges currently, 45 lakh are pursuing UG technical courses as against 116.6 lakh pursuing UG general; 17.3 lakh are enroled in PG general as against 5 lakh in PG technical; 33 lakh are pursuing regular diplomas; 42 lakh are pursuing diplomas in distance mode and only one lakh are enroled for PhD, indicating a severe lack of interest for research.
Students still prefer medicine, engineering, MBA as their top job priorities. Add to that the pressure of parents who make career choices for students and often go for degrees that promise to provide white-collar jobs. Glut in a certain job market is, therefore, natural as against the deficiency in certain other kinds of markets.
Government estimates suggest that by 2022, India will be short of around 103 million skilled workers in the infrastructure sector, 35 million in the automobile industry and 33 million in construction as against 5 million in the technology sector, where the student interest lies as is evident from 14 lakh students who took the just-concluded JEE (Mains) for admission to central technical education institutions.
Clearly, increase in enrolments is not generating for India the kind of jobs it would require to become a global economy. Industries (such as GMR) today run their own courses to train students for jobs while students seek software or mechanical engineering instead of the civil branch. Currently there is a dearth of infrastructure experts as Indian families continue to place a premium on degree education.
So while the government expands its vocational education network and sets up sector skill councils to train students in collaboration with the industry, it must ensure a demand for these skills.
AICTE, which regulates 90 per cent of technical education institutions in India, has recently finalised vocational courses in automobile, IT and entertainment sectors in consultation with the industry experts. It has now invited applications from interested institutions to offer these tailor-made courses to students.
The interest has been lukewarm, though AICTE chief S.S Mantha says it will pick up. The scheme is vital if the government has to fulfill its promise of skilling half a billion Indians by 2022. Bulk of the skilling task is already being managed by the National Skill Development Corporation whose head Dilip Chenoy has often said how Indians prefer degree education as against vocational. The challenge, therefore, is not just to build vocational institutes but also to change student mindset considering one million Indians will enter the workforce annually for the next 20 years and would need the skills to make money.
Venkat Motapatty, head of VKR and VNB Polytechnic College, Gudibada in Krishna district of Andhra Pradesh agrees. A pioneer in vocational training of rural students, Motapatty says, "We select students doing diploma engineering for our tailor-made 500-hour vocational course which includes a component of soft skills for communication. We teach students welding on imported machines where they can actually work".
Quality of vocational courses is, thus, critical. In fact, the 12th Plan Document on Higher Education acknowledges the fact that curriculum in higher educational institutions is irrelevant and needs to be changed.
Limitations of curriculum
Another problem is — 87 per cent students are currently enroled in colleges affiliated to universities. They enrol 90 per cent UG students, 70 per cent PG students and 17 per cent doctoral students, but are obligated to follow the curricula and exam systems determined by the affiliating universities.
Delhi University, for instance, has 80 affiliated colleges, including the top ranking Sri Ram College for Commerce and LSR. But their freedom to improvise courses is limited.
The 12th Plan document agrees, "Higher education sector is plagued by a shortage of well-trained faculty, poor infrastructure and outdated curricula. The use of technology in higher education is limited and the standards of research are so low that none of the Indian universities rank among the top 200 globally. Affiliated colleges that enrol maximum students have barely any academic freedom."
Going ahead, the government plans to focus on these challenges apart from continuing to improve access to higher education.
Target for the 12th Plan is to enhance enrolment capacity by another 10 million by 2017. Of this, the Government says one million will come from open and distance mode; 3.3 million through expansion of skill-based diplomas and 5.7 million from the further expansion of degree programmes. The dream of 30 pc GER by 2020 will be achieved only if this target is met.
The challenges,however, are huge — more than half (58.9 pc) of the enrolment in higher education today is in the private sector institutions that charge heavily and exclude a vast number of poor students.
Around 128.23 lakh students out of 217 lakh in regular institutions of India are enroled privately as against 41.1 pc (84.90 lakh) in government institutions. In the latter category, bulk enrolment is in state government institutions (38.5 pc), which are reeling under faculty and infrastructure shortage, as against 2.6 pc in the 81 central institutions such as IITs, IIMs, NITs, IIITs, IISERs etc.
Besides, 90 per cent of the technical education sector currently comprises private unaided institutions that have arbitrary fee-charging norms. No wonder then that 21 per cent students interviewed in the last round of the National Sample Survey Organisation said they could not pursue higher education for want of finances.
The government must, therefore, increase investment in technical education to ensure inclusiveness of access. To further enhance affordability of education along side access, enabling loan granting structures would have to be created. At present only 7 per cent of the loan-seeking students in India actually get loans under the Indian Banking Association’s ongoing scheme. Reason — banks are unwilling to lend for fear of non-recovery.
The Finance Ministry has now approved the first ever Credit Guarantee Fund for Education to pool the risk of banks and encourage them to lend. Cabinet approval for the scheme is awaited. The move is rooted in evidence that 1.66 lakh crore worth of education loans will have to be extended if the expected 42 million students are to get access to higher education by 2020. Then alone will India’s GER touch 30 pc. Today it is a dismal 18 pc, much below the world average of 26. Simply put it means if 100 Indian students pass out of schools every year, only 18 enter colleges.