Our education must stem the tide
In less than a week from now, more than 50,000 students will enter the University of Delhi for three-year undergraduate courses. The students and their parents will have plans for a bright future. They will think that by studying in the best university in the country the world will be at their feet and their services will be keenly sought by employers in the public and private sectors. These students will also imagine that they will get handsome remuneration for their work and they will have comfortable working hours and environment.
At the end of their three years of study most of the new graduates will be faced with a harsh reality. Their degree will not be sufficient to get them jobs they want. If present trends continue, one out of three young graduates will remain unemployed after completion of their first degree. In what should be an eye opener for education policy planners in the country, a recent Labour Ministry survey has found that with an increase in education levels in the country, the unemployment rate was also increasing across age groups.
In its report on ‘Youth employment-unemployment scenario, 2012-2013, the Labour Bureau of the Ministry of Labour has found that one-third of the persons in the age group 15 to 29 years who had completed at least graduation was unemployed. Moreover the survey also found that the unemployment rate among the persons who cannot read and write or are considered illiterate in the 15-29 age group was the lowest among all levels of educational status at 3.7 per cent.
This report only reconfirms what several private sector reports had revealed earlier. A NASSCOM study in 2011 had reported that more than 85 per cent of general graduates are unemployable by India’s high-growth industries, including information technology and call centres. This estimate was based on results from assessment tests administered by the group. Almost the same figures have been reported by the University of Delhi after the placement interviews conducted amongst the university graduates by several private sector companies annually.
Contrast this with a report of the McKinsey Global Institute, which estimated overall future job shortages and worker surpluses for the global workforce in 2030. This report, released in 2012, had estimated that there will be an overall shortage of nearly 40 million people with higher education, as well as a shortage of 45 million people with secondary education in 2030. At the same time the report estimated that there will be a surplus of 95 million unskilled or low skilled workers in the year 2030.
All this means that there is a growing global ‘skills mismatch’; millions of graduates are entering the labour force in India and elsewhere every year, but many jobs are going begging because the available graduates do not have skills for the new jobs. An Accenture study in 2011 had reported that jobs requiring knowledge of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) are growing worldwide at a nearly twice the rate of other occupations, while low-skilled jobs are declining. It should be a matter of great concern for the education policy makers in India that the country is not producing enough STEM graduates to meet the growing need for such people in the high-growth sectors.
India has no clear approach towards the issue of creating STEM graduates. Students are free to choose their majors or specialisations before being admitted into a university and the vast majority of students do not choose STEM courses of study. It is estimated that only around 20 per cent of graduates in India come from STEM disciplines. Many other countries, including China and Singapore, by contrast, require students to apply for places within a college or university in specific options in order to be admitted. In Singapore, for example, the government estimates the fields in which workers will be needed and then allocates the slots in higher education institutions to align supply and demand as closely as possible. In both these countries, STEM graduates constitute more than 50 per cent of all graduates.
This policy to align demand and supply is generally associated with countries that pay all or most of the costs of higher education-which is the case in central and state universities in India. Several countries that have such policies also have in place schemes where the government pays for a student’s higher education in exchange for the student’s agreement to work in the country, in private or public sector, for a certain number of years following graduation. In India, it is ironic that the state and central universities and colleges which are maintained through public funds have no specific focus on job skills, whereas private universities provide only those courses which are linked to jobs in demand.
The Bachelor of Arts (BA) undergraduate course of study in the University of Delhi is an example of the unemployable graduates that needs to be STEMed in India. After remaining unchanged for more than 50 years this course was restructured in 2004, scrapped in 2013, and restored in 2014. Its core consists of two languages and two social science subjects to be studied over three years. It seems no policy maker has cared to see what skills does this course provide to a graduate or to an employer in the 21st century? There are instances of BA graduates doing house-keeping jobs as daily wagers. The country urgently needs a policy to STEM this tide of unemployable graduates.
The author is Principal of Maharaja Agrasen College, University of Delhi