Reforming India’s University Sector

The Jat reservation agitation has caused considerable social and economic trauma in India, especially in the national capital region around New Delhi. The agitation began as a series of protests in Haryana in February 2016 by the Jat people who were seeking to be included in the list of so-called Backward Classes, which would entitle them to certain affirmative action policies. What was striking about the agitation was the presence of many educated young people complaining about being unable to find work. This points to the urgent need to connect education to employment in India.

As reported in the Wall Street Journal, 75 per cent of technical graduates and over 85 per cent of general graduates do not satisfy the employment criteria for India’s high-growth industries. The education and training system in its current form is not connecting degree-holders with hands-on knowledge. There is no framework or mechanism at either the state or federal level to support education institutions to encourage innovative approaches to education that emphasise flexibility in program design, development and delivery.

The demand for reservations of government jobs is directly proportional to the sense of insecurity the youth of contemporary India are subjected to. This is fundamentally due to the failure of the education system to infuse quality, creativity, innovation and imagination. The fear that educated youth will be unable to secure lasting employment is a result of the inadequacies of the prevailing education system.

Government jobs are seen as a safe haven from this insecurity as they are perceived to have lower performance standards. In the private sector, youth who meet the entry criteria and land a job often ultimately fail to retain it. In my own experience running four separate social enterprises, it is uncommon for the retention rate for new graduates to exceed 25 per cent.

There is no one answer to address the challenge, especially when India is set to be the most populous country in the world. One approach would be to make education a combination of traditional, applied and action-based learning by infusing hands-on knowledge, experience-based learning and practice-oriented pedagogy.

Centurion University, which I run, operates on such a model. Centurion University emphasises inclusive education — that is, educational strategies that are suitable for varying learning styles and needs. It focuses on providing practical skills development and a hands-on approach to help students develop sustainable livelihoods. This includes fostering the values of self-reliance and self-sufficiency.

This approach can be particularly useful for students from socio-economically marginalised groups that may not have as much opportunity to attain higher qualifications. India should develop institutional mechanisms to support education providers to embrace similar innovations in content design and delivery.

Recent government policies — such as ‘Start Up India’, ‘Make in India’ and ‘Digital India’ — must be an integral part of the education system. Universities should be built up as hubs of activity for all of these policies through seed funds provided by the Indian government. There must be policy incentives for universities to create a platform to provide inclusive, integrated and holistic education.

Building future citizens of a country is the primary responsibility of any government. In the Indian context, developing human capital is an imperative owing to the population size, language and cultural diversity, and its potential to bring about an Indian economic resurgence. Institutes of learning across the globe, and especially in India, must be responsible for making education relevant, appropriate and meaningful to boost graduates employment opportunities.

To this end, universities should create common facility centres as part of youth education and training to encourage young people to become entrepreneurs. Common facility centres would create basic infrastructure that could be used to help local students and entrepreneurs develop their skills and professional networks.

Centurion University runs one such centre called the Urban Micro Business Centre in Bhubaneswar. The centre provides training as well as a common facility, stocked with appropriate equipment, to enable skilled personnel to manufacture goods.

Such efforts by universities will act as an interlocutor to address the challenge of nurturing entrepreneurial skill and creating community leaders. Currently, university degrees have no proportional relevance to graduates’ job opportunities or practical knowledge. It is imperative that universities provide graduates with practical skills that can be quantified and replicated. This will address the underlying frustration among unemployed graduates that has manifested in the violent Jat agitation.

Reservations cannot be discarded in their entirety, but India needs to move beyond such solutions to address the underlying causes of youth unemployment. Affirmative action and sponsored mobility for disadvantaged groups must be robust. But even more importantly, India must develop a practical and innovative high education system, lest it lose its relevance as a knowledge economy.

Source: Boom Live

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