India: Is a college degree worth it?

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 Arne Hoel / World Bank)
Three key factors are constraining learning and employability in India.  (Photo: Arne Hoel / World Bank)

The last 15 years have witnessed the largest global expansion of tertiary education in recent history due to a 60 percent growth in student enrollment. India’s performance is even more dramatic—tertiary education expanded alm­ost a spectacular threefold, from 8.4 million students in 2000-01 to 23.8 million in 2013-14. The number of tertiary education institutions has also increased significantly.

As Devesh Kapur and Pratap Mehta indicate, nearly seven colle­ges have opened daily in India over this period. As World Bank studies show, students today prefer professional education. In 2008, only 25 percent of tertiary education students opted for technical education; today nearly 50 percent are enrolled in these programmes. And importantly, the overwhelming maj­ority of India’s tertiary level students study in private unaided colleges. Over the past decade, access to tertiary education has become more equitable across all cate­gories—caste or income—though not so across regions and gender. Less positively, the quality of education imparted is mixed, and complaints about its relevance to changing labour market needs and employability issues are ubiquitous.
India is not alone in this predicament. It faces many of the same challenges that other countries face when enrollment in tertiary education rises rapidly. These inc­lude low levels of student learning and employability, weak research opportunities, and limited innovation.
Three key factors constrain learning and employability in India: low levels of student preparation for college; high faculty vacancies and little autonomy in institutes. While government efforts have led to more students completing secondary education, many of them are just not prepared for college. A large number lack the skills—low academic preparation, inadequate language capabilities, little socio-psychological readin­ess—needed to succeed. Secondly, as regards the shortage of faculty, in the average government engineering college, vacancies can be as high as 45-50 percent. While colleges tend to cover this gap with guest faculty, even students in top-notch colleges find they have no regular teacher. Thirdly, many government colleges and private colleges affiliated to state universities have little autonomy. This means they have little say in determining goals and priorities—in selecting leaders, deciding faculty app­ointments or research priorities, on designing the curriculum, structure and content of programs and examinations. With little flexibility in determining what students learn, they cannot equip students with the skills needed by a changing industry.

Next, most colleges have little resources to con­­­duct research. Private engineering colleges—forming the bulk of the sector—seldom have the money to invest in research, and their affiliating universities rarely have the facilities to encourage institutes to collaborate. Moreover, when compared to other countries, Indian industry has underinvested in R&D in technical institutes due, among other factors, to the weak enforcement of int­ellectual property rights. This is exacerbated by an overall lack of opportunities for student mobility and faculty exchanges.

But, change is within reach. Take, for example, India and the World Bank’s nearly 15-year collaboration under the Technical Education Quality Improvement Project (TEQIP) that sought to improve quality of technical education. Participating colleges were helped to develop their academic and non-academic programmes so that stu­­dents, especially first-generat­ion college-­goers, could improve emp­­loya­bility. A study by Rudraksh Mitra et al shows how the establishment of pla­cement cells in TEQIP-funded colle­ges improved students’ work-readiness thr­ough closer collaboration with industry and through focus on soft-skills, like oral communication, teamwork and time man­­agement. Students are encouraged to take tests to identify areas of deficie­ncy, and cells organise talks on employability, conduct pre-placement tests, group discussions and interview sessions.

Also, colleges in TEQIP are expected to become autonomous. As observed, autonomy, along with collaboration with IITs and IIMs, has helped them improve their research and innovation capabilities. The third phase of TEQIP sup­ports affiliating universities as well. They will be required to build research facilities for use by affiliated colleges (including private colleges).

While we have focused on technical education, this is not the only area worth investing in. For, no advanced economy trains only engineers or doctors. It also prepares educators, administrators, social scientists, lawyers, historians, philosophers etc. A comprehensive improvement of the overall tertiary education system in India is viable and sorely needed. The government, employers and society concur that improving tertiary education is essential to marshall India’s human resources and position the country as a hub of human capital for future growth.

This blog post originally appeared in Outlook India magazine on June 5, 2017.

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Francisco Marmolejo

Lead Tertiary Education Specialist

Tara Beteille

Senior Economist in the East Asia Pacific region

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