“This will be a great potential resource only if they are empowered and educated,” said Kapil Sibal, India’s minister for human resources and development, at a recent summit on how the U.S. and India can collaborate on higher education.
The challenge of educating India’s tens of millions of students so the country can preserve economic growth and maintain its role as a source of skilled labor is a high-stakes endeavor for the country, which needs a huge workforce for its own economic wellbeing. To meet the challenge, India has embarked on an ambitious plan to expand access to education and ensure students are getting top-quality tuition. But economic and cultural barriers remain and analysts say the country has a mountain to climb before it can claim success.
The scale of the challenge is daunting. At 100 million, the young Indians coming into the workforce equal the workforces of Great Britain, France, Italy and Spain combined. Meanwhile, to sustain its own economic growth, India requires a skilled workforce of 500 million by 2022, Sibel said. And, “the global community will require a suitably skilled workforce to serve its needs,” he said. “Our demographic advantage could therefore become an integral part of the global workforce.”
To achieve its goal of producing highly skilled workers in large numbers India has taken steps to expand its education system through distance learning and other measures, provide universal access to schools and ensure quality with accountability.
About 15% of Indians enroll in higher education, 10 % below the world average, according to Sibel. By 2020, he hopes to double the enrollment number.
In the coming years, about 40 million Indians will reach the age of college enrollment, according to George Joseph, a Yale University administrator specializing in Asia.
“India will become the largest education market in the world in the next decade,” Joseph said in a phone interview.
To enroll them all would require the addition of 1,000 universities and 50,000 colleges in India, Sibel said, which is why the country is exploring education beyond its own borders.
In addition India is exploring online learning and distance education, while also inviting foreign institutions to help.
“I foresee a day where an engineering student from the Indian Institute of Technology can register for a liberal arts course at Yale … while simultaneously enrolling for an economics course at Stanford,” Sibel said.
In 2009, the Indian parliament passed the Right to Education Act, which made education compulsory and free for all children between 6 and 14 and reserved 25% of places in private schools for poor families.
The bill became effective on April 1, 2010, but India’s education system still has many flaws due to a lack of enforcement, experts caution.
“If they’re not able to enforce the provisions of the Right to Education Act, it’s just another piece of paper,” said Lavanya Murali Proctor, an anthropology professor at Lawrence University in Wisconsin, in a phone interview