Higher Education at the Crossroads

A higher education specialist based out of New York, Dr Choudaha specialises in strategic management of higher education, institution building, collaborations and market development. He holds a PhD in higher education from the University of Denver, an MBA from NITIE, Mumbai and BE from Jabalpur University. He can be reached at rahul.choudaha@edu-leaders.com

India is slated to become a top ranking talent provider, globally by 2020, provided it brings about quantitative and qualitative changes in its vocational and doctoral studies curricula. As of now, they are poor cousins to the more lucrative course choices for Indias youth.

The two extremes of post-secondary education, vocational and doctoral, are facing acute quantitative and qualitative challenges in attracting talent, delivering value and meeting societys expectations.

Vocational education is impaled on the quantitative front by the large gap between demand and supply. According to the Ministry of Labour & Employment, Government of India, while 12.8mn people are added to the labour force annually, vocational training is available to only a miniscule 4.3mn.

On the qualitative scale lies the dismal skill development and training scenario. A report by the World Bank notes that over 60% of graduates from the vocational stream in India remain unemployed even three years after graduation.

A telling assessment of the poor quality of training imparted to students.

If vocational training is in a shambles, not much can be written about the postdoctoral education system either, struggling with the issues of quality and accessibility. According to the Ministry of Human Resources Development, Government of India, universities enrolled nearly 36,000 students in doctoral programmes in 2005-06 a disproportionately small number for one of the largest education systems in the world enrolling more than 8.5mn students at the undergraduate level. Despite such a small number of PhD enrolments, concerns for quality and rigour of training have been growing.

The challenges faced by vocational and doctoral education systems in India are complex and dynamic, wherein choices are driven by societal and labour market rewards. Competition for scarce resources and jobs is high. As a result, there is a marked preference for career paths with low risk and high employability.

The twin factors drive students to pursue courses that, apart from high salaries, also offer prospects for going abroad. A student wanting to pursue low paying career choices like social work with a not for profit outfit, or technical diploma at a polytechnic institute, would be under pressure from family and society to opt for a more lucrative option, even though he may neither have an interest nor an aptitude for it.

The following five major changes proposed at societal, policy and institutional levels, will pave the way for better post-secondary education in India.

Diversify Institutions
The Indian post-secondary education system needs to recognise the value of institutional diversity. To quote noted higher education researcher Frans van Vught, member of the Group of Policy Advisors to the President of the European Commission, diversity among institutions is expected to better serve the needs of the labour market, offer more and better access to a larger student body and allow institutional specialisation by which the effectiveness of the overall higher education system increases. He adds that institutional diversity offers various career pathways to students and stimulates upward social mobility.

Develop Infrastructure
Both doctoral and vocational educations need good infrastructure to make them effective. Doctoral education needs an ecosystem of scholars and peers along with research laboratories and libraries to create an engaging and rigorous training environment. Such an enabling atmosphere provides students the opportunity to engage in collaborative learning and publishing of research papers leading to advancement in the field of research. Similarly, for vocational education to thrive, infrastructural support providing opportunities for skill development through hands-on practice in workshops and laboratories must be provided.

Inform and Empower
Knowledge empowers, and information and self-awareness are the keys to sound career-making decisions. Prospective students must be empowered with a better understanding of their own skills, strengths and interests. They need to be informed about the potential of the variety of educational and career paths that confront them when they step out of school.

In the absence of such information, they depend on their families and friends to help them make crucial career choices. At the school level itself, an efficient system of career counselling and information dissemination must be established to assist students in making well-thought out and informed career choices.

Collaborate with Stakeholders
Inspiring more students to pursue academic careers and hence doctoral programmes requires early engagement. For most undergraduate students, jobs remain a priority. Early conditioning can break some stereotypes about an academic career. On the other hand, industry support and partnership for vocational programmes is imperative to make learning effective and ensure the employability of students.

Focus on Quality
Higher education policy in India obsessed with increasing access has, in the process, compromised the quality of education. Undoubtedly, institutional growth and student access are important goals, but the lack of a reliable quality assurance mechanism has resulted in graduate under-employability and unemployability. As a result, an engineering graduate, unemployable in the sector of his specialisation, ends up working as a call centre executive. The need is to integrate the post-secondary system and ensure quality education for maximising students potential. For this, the government can engage reputed public and private institutions to take up mentorship roles. According to the World Economic Forum, more than 100mn people from India the equivalent of the combined labour forces of the United Kingdom, France, Italy and Spain are projected to join the workforce by 2020. With the youngest age profile among large economies and the largest national workforce, India holds great potential to become one of the most attractive talent providers. For this to happen, India must put its post-secondary education system in order.

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