India has already been acknowledged as a “knowledge superpower”. It has achieved this on the strength of contributions from only 10 per cent of its population. Imagine what is possible if every Indian has access to the same standards of education as the privileged 10 per cent? <b2>
The country is currently in a demographic sweet spot. Over the next three decades, the working age population will make up more than half its population. This is the group that earns, spends, and supports the two other population groups in any nation — the retired and the pre-working.
If India’s vast army of working age people — numbering more than 550 million — is equipped with education (both academic and vocational), then, this sweet spot can be turned into a demographic dividend. Can we do it?
Happily, the answer is: yes.
The education pipeline begins at the primary level. Here, after several false starts, the country seems to have got its formula right. The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), the government’s flagship primary education programme, has ensured that over 200 million children now go to school, double the number a decade ago.
The Millennium Development Goal of ensuring that every child goes to school by 2015 now looks achievable.
The areas of concern, however, are higher education and vocational training. Schools churned out more than 15 million students eligible for higher education in 2007-08, three times the number five years ago.
“But there aren’t enough institutions to meet this demand,” University Grants Commission (UGC) chairperson, Professor S.K. Thorat, admitted. “The target for gross enrollment ratio has been set at 15 per cent by 2012.” It would mean creating new institutions and upgrading infrastructure of existing institutions for another 60 lakh students that are expected to join
higher education in the next four years.
That will require 743 new universities, a government committee told UGC in August 2008. In all, plans for 100 universities, including 30 by the Central Government, have been approved.
Many students give up education after failing to gain admission into colleges. This is a huge loss that no aspiring knowledge superpower can afford.
In his Independence Day speech, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said: “As our primary education programmes achieve a degree of success, there is a growing demand for secondary schools and colleges.”
The Centre has announced the setting up of 6,000 model schools, a college in each district and over 40 technical education institutions, including IITs and IIMs. But the PM’s dream of better education to all eligible students cannot be met without corporate participation.
Happily, this, too, is happening. The government has come up a scheme to upgrade teaching methodology and curricula at the Industrial Training Institutes (ITIs) through the public-private partnership model.
Large corporations will adopt ITIs and train personnel keeping in mind the needs of industry. Already 1,400 ITIs have been put up for “adoption” and business houses like Infosys, the Tatas and Maruti have come forward to participate.
But more needs to be done, especially relating to institutions of higher education. The National Knowledge Commission’s recommendations will go a long way in bridging the demand-supply gap.
Former UGC chairperson Yash Pal is optimistic that the education system will meet aspirations of young Indians by 2020 following the enactment of the proposed Right to Education Bill.