The job conundrum over India's higher education

The phenomenon, critics fear, got an official stamp with the tone of last year’s National Education Policy. (HT)
The phenomenon, critics fear, got an official stamp with the tone of last year’s National Education Policy. (HT)


A government push towards privatization in higher education could make the sector more unaffordable and inaccessible to disadvantaged groups in the pandemic times. As colleges are pressed for funds and placements become lacklustre, job prospects for fresh graduates are looking dim

India has in recent years seen a proliferation of private universities set up under state acts. The phenomenon, critics fear, got an official stamp with the tone of last year’s National Education Policy. But as the country recovers from the covid-19 crisis, an open embrace of much costlier private higher education could come in the way of generating skilled jobs quickly enough, experts say.

India had 327 state private universities as of 2019-20, a 66% jump in four years and 32% share in all universities, government data shows. Only one other category saw comparable growth: institutes of national importance such as IITs, IIMs, AIIMS and IISERs. The overall number of public universities grew just 26%, lending weight to concerns of already-increasing privatization.

A private degree is not affordable to all. Lower-income groups were far worse hit by the pandemic, making unaffordability an even bigger concern . Professional degrees give better employability but are four times dearer than general ones, and could increasingly get out of reach.

“The government is focused on building model public institutions, but their limited intake pushes the vast majority to state private universities," said educationist Rohin Kapoor, who founded edtech app Wonk. He expects financial uncertainty to force poorer students to postpone higher education plans.

Privatization is not new to the sector, but the method has evolved with increasing private capital, which does not always mean a reliable upgrade in teaching quality or job prospects. The NEP’s answer to concerns of commercialization is “true philanthropic private participation", but not many see this enough to take distressed youngsters closer to jobs.


Inequity risk

To start with, higher education already has a poor track record of ensuring fair representation of disadvantaged groups , who have been more likely to face job losses during the pandemic. Even in public universities, Dalit and Adivasi representation falls short of mandated quotas. The situation is worse in private ones. If public education doesn’t get a funding boost and private education gets costlier, it could deprive the most disadvantaged.

Several private institutions follow reservation quotas for marginalized communities as per local state laws, but the lack of a central law that applies to private entities has failed to ensure comprehensive coverage.

Private universities should find ways such as cross-subsidization to offer fee waivers to socio-economically disadvantaged students after the pandemic, said Pankaj Mittal, secretary general of the Association of Indian Universities. Merit-based freeships given by some private institutions have not been enough, she added.

Crunched finances

In earlier decades, private higher education mainly referred to university-affiliated private colleges that flowered into “deemed" universities. The boom today is powered by corporate funding and exorbitant fees. But much like other sectors, higher education has also been pressed for funds due to the pandemic.

Liquidity crisis is the gravest risk being faced by the sector due to delayed fee payments and decline in enrolments, found a January 2021 survey of 132 senior leaders in higher education institutions by Global Risk Management Institute and FICCI. High drop-out rates in private colleges even forced teachers in certain cases to abandon teaching and focus on business development to get students back, Kapoor said.

The situation did not lead to an increased government spending: the Centre’s budget for higher education in 2021-22 is just 4% higher than 2019-20. With corporate funding and student fees facing a crunch, private institutions stand an even smaller chance, in turn making it difficult to ensure infrastructure and quality.

Jobs gloom

Higher education is perhaps the most reliable upward mobility tool available to youngsters, with professional degree holders finding a better shield from the unemployment gloom during the pandemic. But anecdotal evidence suggests college placements have become dismal—while the jobs declined for fresh graduates with technical degrees, there were also reports of job offers being withdrawn.

Only 47% employers plan to ramp up hiring in 2021, compared to 56% in 2020 and 64% in 2019, said the India Skills Report 2021 by Wheebox. If private institutions grow in coming years, they have a greater burden than usual to ensure decent placements: a return on students’ investment matters far more for them.

Worse, low-end jobs could have dimmer prospects in the near term than top-tier jobs with greater bargaining power, said Vidya Mahambare, a professor at Great Lakes Institute of Management.

As we come out of the current crisis, higher education could need greater government spending to ensure the worst-hit demographics realize their full earning potential in the years to come.

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