Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Progress in higher education hampered by poor schools

V Santhakumar Issue No:489

Higher education in India receives a relatively high level of investment. Public and private investment in higher education constitutes about 3% of India’s gross domestic product. 

There is no dearth of demand for higher education in India. In fact, the share of the population enrolling on higher education courses in the country is higher than that in other countries with comparable levels of development. But the quality of that higher education is a concern. The intrusion of the profit-making private sector into higher education is another issue. 

However, in my view, all of this is just a reflection of a fundamental issue that is not widely recognised.

If we take the education statistics that are available publicly, only 52% of Indian students enrol in 11th grade in school. So nearly 50% of young people leave school probably without successfully completing 10 years of schooling and cannot be called ‘schooled’ in any sense of the term. 

However, it seems that around 70% of students who complete 12 years of schooling successfully attempt to enrol in one or other form of higher education. Based on a back of the envelope calculation, if we take 100 people in the average cohort 50 won’t complete 10 years of school; 25 will enter 11th grade, but won’t get a high school diploma; 18 will go on to higher education; and seven will seek a job with a high school diploma. 

In terms of the share of students who complete secondary school and enter higher education, India may have a figure that is higher than that of some developed countries. In a country like the United Sates, the share of people who take up work with a high school diploma (without enrolling in higher education) is sizable and can decide electoral outcomes. This is the situation in newly industrialised countries too. 

The missing middle

The Indian education system is characterised by two major features: the majority of people do not complete schooling and 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 go into some kind of higher education. The ‘middle’ group – those who complete schooling and seek a job, for instance, as a factory employee – is not that significant in Indian education.

This has implications for the economy. India has a somewhat stagnant agricultural sector that employs nearly half of the working population. Then there are construction and small businesses that employ unskilled and semi-skilled workers. There is a booming service sector that absorbs some of those who go on to higher education (mostly those with professional qualifications). The rest of this group lives in the hope of getting a job in the service sector. 

The lower-end manufacturing sector, which should employ workers with a school education as skilled workers, is underdeveloped in the Indian economy. (The part of the manufacturing sector that performs reasonably well in India, for instance, the production of motor vehicles or pharmaceuticals requires and employs people with higher qualifications.)

The absence of a vibrant ‘middle’ in India’s education system and in its economy, how these are linked and what they mean are not understood well. It may be difficult to identify the causal relationship here: Does the missing middle in the economy lead to the same phenomenon in education or vice versa? Is it a vicious cycle?

The manifestations of this vicious cycle

Why do people enrol in higher education, especially 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, they may be more likely to get a clerical job. Formally such roles only require a high-school diploma. The knowledge that these students acquire in BA or MA programmes is useful at best for passing the recruitment tests for such jobs.

Moreover, in those states where private engineering colleges have sprouted up with an eye on jobs in the IT industry, a substantial share of their students do not graduate because they lack the maths skills they need due to poor school preparation. They also end up applying for the jobs which only require a high-school diploma.

There are other social reasons why some students seek to go into higher education. For instance, parents often encourage girls who complete high school to opt for higher education so they can increase their chance of marriage proposals. Activists focus on access to university for Dalits, and it is an issue, but they ignore the fact that many of their social group never finish school. 

What’s more, the absence of ‘middle’ jobs for those with a high-school diploma may discourage sections of society from completing schooling and may encourage other sections to go for higher education even when they are not prepared or motivated for it. 

A double failure

In essence, higher education in India is a mess. 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, India fails to use higher education to address the crucial challenges it faces – such as providing quality schooling and affordable healthcare for all or addressing the underdevelopment of significant sections of the population. 

On the other hand, we have not been very successful in producing a sizable number of good economists, sociologists or philosophers through the higher education system. 

There is a double failure here. 

The Indian higher education system cannot be reformed in isolation. Without an understanding of how so many social, educational and economic issues are connected, any reforms are doomed to fail. Meanwhile, the for-profit sector is likely to keep growing and the government’s focus on ‘world-class’ universitieswill not make any significant difference to the system as a whole. 

We need to understand the inter-linkage between the economy and education in India. There should be greater effort made to ensure quality schooling for all. Through this and by working against the gender norms that hinder the participation of girls in employment as well as other policy measures, the Indian economy could create jobs for many more school leavers. 

This in turn would reduce the number of students enrolling in higher education just for the purpose of improving their chances of getting a job that does not require a university degree or to boost their marriage prospects.

V Santhakumar is a professor at Azim Premji University, India. A version of this article was first published on his blog.

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