New Delhi: Student enrolment in higher education has seen a sharp increase, a development that’s expected to hearten policymakers, educationists and industry in a country where companies have for long complained about the lack of a sufficiently deep talent pool.
The national gross enrolment ratio (GER) in higher education, or the proportion of school graduates aged between 18 and 23 years entering college-level courses, rose from 12.5% in 2007-08 to 17.27% in 2009-10. At the start of the decade, only one in 10 students was opting for higher education after school. In 1980, India’s GER was 5%.
GER is computed by the University Grants Commission (UGC), which oversees the functioning of universities and is tasked with maintaining standards in institutes of higher learning in the country.
The increase in GER could mean a rise in the supply of skilled personnel in India, where companies ranging from computer service providers to retailers have been confronting a shortage of skilled and “employable” personnel. Of the total workforce in the country, around 15% is skilled. For private educational institutes, the increased enrolment points to a higher revenue-earning opportunity.
“As per our fresh calculation, the GER of the country is 17.27%. This means access to higher education is improving significantly,” said Ved Prakash, chairman of UGC.
The number is also significant because the government had been targeting a GER of 16% only by the end of the 11th Plan (March 2012), a fact the All India Council for Technical Education, another government body, underlines on its official website.
However, the progress may be testing the limitations of a country that has also been struggling to fill teacher vacancies, at present estimated as high as 30-33%. Consequently, the institutes may not be able to absorb the growing number of students opting for higher education.
Prakash said that the fresh calculation is based on the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) data published in 2011, which is again two years old.
“If we have the latest data, then the GER, we feel, could be close to 20% now,” the UGC chairman said, forecasting that the enrolment ratio will be 25% by the end of 12th Plan (2012-17).
Though the national number is impressive, the state-level picture is likely to be uneven. While the calculation is yet to be made, a study by Ernst and Young and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Ficci) earlier this year showed Delhi leading the table of best-performing states with a GER of 31.9% in 2009-10, followed by Maharashtra, where the enrolment ratio was 25.9%.
At the bottom were Tripura at 6.6% and Assam at 6.7%; Bihar had a GER of 8.5%, and West Bengal, 7.8%.
Industry executives are cautious about the latest data. Quantity without adequate quality will not serve the purpose, they said, because increased enrolment doesn’t necessarily translate into higher proficiency of the emerging workforce.
“When the economy grows, attrition increases to the tune of 16-20%. It means, there is a shortage of human resources. Increasing the number is important, but unless there is quality, this shortfall will not be taken care of,” said R.C. Bhargava, chairman of Maruti Suzuki India Ltd, the country’s largest car maker. “The problem will not be solved unless quality goes up. Other than enrolment figures, it is also important to look at the quality of education.”
Prakash of UGC said that the main challenge is to “make education available to all”.
As per UGC data, India has some 31,324 higher educational institutes, of which 611 are degree-awarding ones. Of this, 42 are central universities, 284 state universities, 129 deemed universities and 48 are so-called institutes of national importance. In 1950-51, India had 27 universities and just 578 colleges.
Sharda Prasad, director general of employment and training at the Union labour ministry, said the NSSO data shows that many students preferred to pursue higher education instead of entering the job market in 2004-2009.
“Some who dropped out of school wanted to finish schooling, some others pursued higher education. This has certainly helped the GER grow,” Prasad said.
M. Damodaran, a former chief of the market regulator Securities and Exchange Board of India, said: “Quantity is important, but just talking about quantity without looking at quality is not comforting.”
“I keep listening from companies that they don’t get quality human resources...many engineers are not employable. While numbers are important, I would like to see what is its quality,” said Damodaran, who is chairman of the board of governors at the Indian Institute of Management, Tiruchirappalli.
Still, the numbers show that access to higher education has increased, said Manish Sabharwal, chief executive officer at TeamLease Services Pvt. Ltd, a training and staffing firm.
“Once we take care of the access and quantity, the quality will be taken care of,” he said. “Access will create demand for quality institutes and those not providing it will face closure. We have started seeing this as several institutes are now struggling to fill their entire seat capacity.”
Graphic by Yogesh Kumar/Mint
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