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Higher and Lower Education in India: Comparisons and Conjectures

Finland has the best education system in the world, and Greece the worst. That is according to the Learning Curve report, a global study of 40 countries published just a few days ago, carried out by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) and published by Pearson.

India and China were not part of this study, but as the most populous, and two of the fastest growing countries in the world, a head to head comparison is warranted.

Dr Rahul Choudaha, the writer of an international higher education blog, DrEducation, presents some interesting data:

  1. India (26.7 million students) and China (29.1m students) are the biggest post secondary education systems in the world, bigger than the United States (21m students).
  2. India, however, has more students studying for an undergraduate degree (19.8m) than China (12.6m).
  3. But in China, more students study for vocational courses (14.9m) than in India (only 4m).
  4. A similar contrast can be seen at the post-graduate level too. India has more than double the number of students studying for post-graduate degrees (2.7m, or 14 per cent of the undergraduate population) than China (1.2m, or 10 per cent).
  5. Interestingly, China has three times more students at the doctoral level (236,328) than India manages to get (72,202).

Admittedly, China and India have very different histories. Still,

India has a clear vocational training problem, a severe one given that annually 12.3m people are added to its labour force.

Indeed, the training infrastructure has expanded in recent times, on the back of significant government investment, but that, so far, failed to lift the participation rates.

Notably, the figure of 4m on vocational courses in India includes all the students learning IT or hospitality often in parallel with their undergraduate studies. Therefore, the number is indeed alarming. One may speculate that the apathy to vocational training may be linked to the deep-seated caste sensibilities of the Indian middle classes.

The middle classes are continuing to follow the colonial model of creating a pen-pushing (or laptop-typing) army of people.

But the imbalance at the top of the heap and the lack of doctoral students in contrast with the number of students studying for Masters, gets more attention. As Dr Choudaha points out, Masters degree numbers are often a spill-over from the undergraduate degree mass: all those who could afford often continue to complete a Masters because their undergraduate degrees fail to land them a job. The Masters degree inflation is somewhat self-sustaining: many students would pursue it just because their other family members have done so. That such vanity does not translate into doctoral studies is hardly surprising.

Besides, the advanced degree trends should be seen in perspective with trends of students studying abroad, as education is indeed a global enterprise at the top. India sends a disproportionately large number of post-graduate and doctoral students abroad. Global research experience does not hurt Indian students and ultimately benefits Indian companies. One should indeed worry about the quality of India’s research output, but the issues of quantity may not be as alarming as it appears.

Instead, closer attention must be given to the imbalance at the bottom-of-pyramid in India. This also indicates the need to “professionalise” trades in India, something that Western societies and the Chinese had a long tradition of. The lack of trained and well-paid plumbers, electricians and masons hurt a modern economy.

Besides, India’s apathy to work by hand, linked to its caste sensibilities, has started hurting its modern industries too: it is hard to get an Indian programmer with more than 10 years’ computer programming experience because once someone has done coding for five years or more, they want to develop business analyst and managerial skills. So they jump ship to achieve that position.

Indian policymakers recognise the problem of vocational training. However, instead of regulating the trades and allowing skills requirements to be demand-led by the market, they embarked on a system of hand-outs to create a vocational training infrastructure. This neither resulted in an expansion of demand for trained people, nor earned them a premium for skills.

However, as a direct consequence, the new vocational training drive has created a temporary system of disguised unemployment, which would, in turn, further lower the demand for vocational training.

Seen another way, this is inevitable: Professionalisation of the vocations, while inescapable in a modern economy, goes against the middle class interests. A strong and respected vocational training system not just takes away their status of sole purveyor of knowledge in the society, but also makes them pay more for the work they receive. In effect, creation of a strong vocational education system eventually leads to a redistribution of status and wealth. Therefore, professionalisation is difficult politically.

This is one of the more difficult decisions Indian policymakers have to take one day, to set the balance of ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ education right, and to start changing the perception of vocational work in the wider society. This will please no one, but without this, Indian education (and Indian society with it), will eventually groan under such a narrow base. Comparisons with China may not be definitive, but this should spur India to think about its model one more time.

This article was published by India Incorporated here, as part of a regular EPG column entitled “The EPG Balance Sheet”.  

This entry was posted on Thursday, December 6th, 2012 at 9:05 pm and is filed under News & Press. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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