While Indians were busy celebrating the country’s global triumph and commiserating about its terrestrial adventures, two important reports went almost unnoticed. The eighth annual All India Survey on Higher Education 2018-19 was released by the Ministry of Human Resource Development last week. It coincided with the release of four-monthly report ‘Unemployment in India – A Statistical Profile’ for May-August 2019 by the Centre for Monitoring India Economy.
Put together, both these surveys point to a simmering volcano of educated unemployment. This could be the visible face of the economic slowdown and could well become a political challenge to the regime.
Strange as it might look, the quality of statistics available for our higher education institutes has been much poorer than our statistics on school education. Sensing this gap, the central government instituted AISHE in 2011-12. We now have official (self-reported and unverified) statistics on the number and nature of higher education institutions, student enrolment, and pass-out figures along with the numbers for teaching and non-teaching staff. Sadly, this official survey does not tell us much about the quality of teaching, learning or research. There is no equivalent of Pratham’s ASER survey or the NCERT’s All India School Education Survey.
Degree holders without skills
The recent AISHE 2018-19 survey flatters to deceive. It tells us that the number of universities in the country is now 993, more than 50 per cent up from the 642 universities the country had in 2011-12. The fine print brings bad news: the increase is fuelled primarily by mushrooming of private universities. Of the 351 universities added in the last eight years, 199 were private universities approved by state governments. The report tells us little about the quality of education in these private universities. As someone who sat on the University Grants Commission (UGC) for a while, I can say that many of these are low-grade teaching shops that only bring disrepute to the idea of education. Their growth is not good news.
In terms of enrolment, we now have 3.74 crore students doing something or the other in higher education; the number stands at 3.34 crore if we consider only those who are pursuing proper, regular courses and not the joke that happens in the name of distant learning. This might look impressive unless we remember that this is only 26 per cent of our population aged between 18 and 23. So, about three-fourths of those who should be in higher education are still not there. Our higher equation system awards a little less than one crore degrees (90.92 lakh to be precise) every year. Most of these (about 65 lakh) are students who get an undergraduate degree. Most of the students with such degrees learn very little in terms of knowledge, life-skills or any other skills relevant to employability. For a country of our size, we produce less than two lakh MPhil/PhD degree holders annually who presumably have some research skills. Our higher education faces both a quantitative and a qualitative challenge.
One good feature of the report is that it gives social breakup of students and teachers. At least in quantitative terms, women have nearly bridged the gender gap: nearly 49 per cent of students enrolled in higher education are women. In terms of overall enrolment, the real crisis is not among the Scheduled Castes (14.9 per cent of students, compared to 16 per cent share in population) or even Scheduled Tribes (5.5 per cent, as compared to 8 per cent share in population), both slightly below their population share, but among Muslims (5.2 per cent) – their share in higher education is about one-third of what it should be as per their share in the population (14.2 per cent as per last census). The same situation prevails among the teachers too, where even the SCs (8.5 per cent) and STs (2.3 per cent) continue to be seriously under-represented despite legally mandated reservations. We also have the challenge of equity in educational opportunities.
Educated but unemployed
Now match this information with the latest estimates generated by the CMIE survey on unemployment. The latest report for May-August 2019 points to a steady increase in the unemployment rate, which has risen from 7.03 per cent in May to 8.19 per cent at the end of August. (The methodology adopted by CMIE is a little different from that adopted by the official National Sample Survey Office, hence the estimates tend to vary). This is much above the current global average of 4.95 per cent as estimated by the International Labour Organisation.
What is most striking here is that unemployment levels rise rapidly with a rise in education level. Unemployment is negligible among the uneducated and those who did not go beyond primary school, mainly because they cannot afford to remain unemployed. Unemployment level jumps to 15 per cent, roughly double the national average, among those who are graduates and above.
This level of educated unemployment in India is alarming by any standards. The CMIE tells us that there are a little over 10 crore graduates in the country, and of them 6.3 crore are in the “labour force”, i.e. willing and available for work. Of these, 5.35 crore have some kind of employment. That leaves nearly one crore (94 lakh to be precise) persons, mostly youth, with graduate or higher degree who do not have any job whatsoever. The same survey also tells us that while more women are getting education, the rate of unemployment among women is 17.6 per cent, more than double the rate for men (6.1 per cent). So, more women in higher education could soon become bad news.
A ticking time bomb
Now put both the reports together and you are looking at a perfect explosion. Nearly one-sixth of highly educated youth are unemployed. To this pool of about one crore educated unemployed, we add another one crore every year – those who pass out with degrees from higher education institutions. This pool has more women than ever before. Consider the fact that most of these graduates are not just unemployed, they are also unemployable as they bring little knowledge or skills to the market. Add economic slowdown to this equation and you know why this could be a ticking time bomb. Far from taking in new recruits, companies are retrenching their existing employees. So, these fresh degree-holders with aspirations but without skills are being pushed into a market that is not ready to receive any more.
This is exactly the kind of situation that has led to social unrest and street riots in many parts of the world. Instead of any serious attempt to address this brewing crisis, we get all kinds of distractions. We are concerned about triple talaq, Kashmir’s integration, Chandrayaan landing and Howdy, Modi! Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman is busy managing headlines and pleasing the corporates. But we hear very little about any serious initiative to tackle the growing crisis of the educated unemployed. Are we waiting for the crisis to erupt? Or, is it time to say ‘Howdy’ to our youth?
The author is the national president of Swaraj India. Views are personal.