Investing in quality education is imperative if India wants to reap demographic dividends

By Frank-Jürgen Richter

Daily News and Analysis, September 13, 2017

Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave a patriotic speech on Independence Day from the ramparts of the Red Fort, New Delhi, saying, “…the 1st of January 2018 will be no ordinary year. Those born in the 21st century will turn 18 in January. I welcome you all to your adulthood. You will play a crucial role in shaping a grand India.”

PM Modi has now been in office for three years: And things are changing. We feel his momentum. He has speeded up his legislature and instigated many initiatives to open up opportunities for the nation’s poor — such as their digital registration in the Aadhaar scheme which, via the Digital India reforms, now includes an ability to distribute welfare measures directly and correctly to the needy so they can open bank accounts. He has a new accord with Japan to supply nuclear electricity capacity to boost his Green Energy initiative that aspires for over 60 per cent renewables by 2027. Thus, India now holds the second most attractive global energy investment spot ahead of the US. The India-Japan Vision 2025 for the Indo-Pacific Region will counterbalance the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative.

At the 9th Horasis India meeting in Interlaken, Switzerland in June 2017, many Indian business leaders suggested their country could surpass a growth rate of 10 per cent per year by easing of just a few restrictions. The World Bank projects 7.5 per cent growth in 2018 rising to 7.7 per cent in 2019. PM Modi’s new nationwide GST ought to support growth in domestic demand and help create a business environment more inclined to private investment.

This is the age of the demographic dividend in India that will have more than 50 per cent of its population below the age of 25 in 2020. However, about 63 million young people aged between 20 and 35 have entered the workforce in the last five years and many of them are unhappy. Some 40 per cent complain of excessive workload with office politics being a hindrance. Worryingly, only 9 per cent said they have the skills needed to perform better, and only 5 per cent said they have the persuasive skills needed for betterment. However, they seem too passive. Whatever one thinks of the demographic dividend, it will be nothing without good education delivering a workforce able to reach for the stars.

What then, is the state of education in India? With 700 universities and more than 35,000 affiliated colleges enrolling over 20 million students, Indian higher education is a large and complex system yielding some 9 million graduates per year. However, in the 2018 QS World University Rankings, we find India does not appear until IIT(Delhi) entry at #172. Even so, India’s education is ranked 24th in the world by QS Higher Education Systems. Looking upstream, the Indian Annual Education report of 2016 states only 48 per cent of Class 5 children can read a text meant for Class 2. This means every other student is unable to read something meant for someone three classes below.

Referring again to the Horasis Interlaken meeting, the Swiss and German education mode of co-promoting a technical and academic stream of studies was praised. It was recognised that not all Indian students are suited to an academic approach, but there is a dearth of support for skills-based learning. Clearly, the Indian diaspora has made a great impact on global firms both as managers and innovators, and the government as well as business leaders expect the demographic dividend to provide the future workforce to make India great. By raising Indian standards, better-educated graduates will be able to ratchet up India’s performance, and more able technicians will add their support to future growth.

Strenuous efforts have been made to include all children in schooling through the UN Millennium Development Goals, but the quality of education was not given equally high priority contributing to a global learning crisis. PM Modi is streamlining the Indian education sector by removing overlapping and redundant bureaucracies and the low quality is being addressed through the deployment of better qualified and better-motivated teachers, especially to rural areas. For older children remediation can be achieved by the adoption of computer-mediated learning so they may enter the workforce able to read, write and understand the mathematics of daily life. Through better education, we see India’s economic competitiveness will increase and its economic divide will reduce.

The Indian government is initiating widespread developments to enhance infrastructure with new transport systems, homes, factories and smart cities. The changes have taken a while to be initiated, with many blaming its noisy democracy for the delays. This is changing quickly under the guidance of PM Modi who is looking for all his people to blend in.

The author is Chairman and Founder of Horasis, a global visions community. Views expressed are personal.