Educating India’s ‘Demographic Dividend’: The Role of the Private Sector

The growth prospects of the Indian economy depend to a large extent on how the country tackles certain issues of intellectual capital today. The concern largely centers on the much-debated demographic dividend, or the rising proportion of working-age people in India. The recent One Globe 2012 “knowledge conference” in New Delhi emphasized the role that industry needs to play.

Some 54% of India’s 1.2 billion people are under the age of 25. The TeamLease Indian Labor Report 2009 estimates that 300 million will enter the labor force by 2025, and by then, 25% of the world’s workers will be Indians. The National Skills Development Corporation (NSDC) is already grappling with the challenge of providing training and retraining to 500 million people by 2022. The non-negotiables to meet the challenge include fundamental education reform across primary, secondary and higher education, and significant enhancement of supplementary skills development.

These were the key concern areas addressed at One Globe 2012: Uniting Knowledge Communities, a conference held in India’s capital recently. Organized in partnership with the United States India Business Council (USIBC), India Knowledge@Wharton, and The International Herald Tribune, the two-day conference provided a platform for policymakers, entrepreneurs, industry associations and academia from across the world. The discussion was largely in line with the philosophy that knowledge and skills are the critical determinants of a country’s economic growth and standard of living. Also, quality, merit-based, equitable and efficient tertiary education and research are essential parts of this transformation.

“The government is not able to keep pace with the kind of solutions emerging in education,” said Kapil Sibal, union minister for human resource development and communications and information technology. “In the next 10 years, the nature of education will change. People across the globe are communicating with each other seamlessly, universities are collaborating digitally…. There are no territorial boundaries to hold back the mind. We are working on the concept of a meta-university, which should hopefully be in place in the next academic session.”

In his keynote address, Sibal described the meta-university as a “Facebook of institutions – an open platform where students will be able to access courses from other universities, interact with international faculty members and, in the process, generate knowledge.” Such an open platform, he said, is the future of education. “To give this idea shape, we have mounted a National Mission on Education through ICT [information and communications technology] to link 25,000 colleges and 2,000 polytechnics for enabling e-learning and content sharing. We have also created the National Knowledge Network (NKN) which will soon link 31,000 colleges…. 1,100 open source courses have already been created,” he added.

The NKN is a state-of-the-art multi-gigabit pan-India network for providing a unified high-speed network backbone for all knowledge-related institutions in the country. Its intent is to make research and development activities and innovations multidisciplinary and collaborative. Sibal also shared his efforts to get the Foreign Education Providers Act cleared.

Roadmap for Higher Education

A report titled, “A Global Perspective on Higher Education in India,” which was produced by the USIBC with YES Bank as the knowledge partner, was also released at the event. Tushar Pandey, president and country head for strategic initiative and government advisory at Yes Bank, elaborated on the 10-point roadmap the report provides for improvement in the higher education space: “The state expenditure needs to improve in order to realize the goal of access, equity and quality in higher education. Emphasis also needs to be laid on the professional development of faculty; increased emphasis on quality research; establishment of innovation universities, and reforms in leveraging information and communications technology in higher education.” He added that to prevent the “commoditization and commercialization of education, transparent, precise and unambiguous policy guidelines for the private sector are essential…. A tie-up between educational institutions and industry is equally mandatory to raise educational standards, particularly in rural and semi-urban areas. One way could be training [of] faculty by industry experts.”

Noting that India’s demographic dividend is “impressive,” USIBC president Ron Somers said higher education has an important role to play in unlocking its potential. “India is the hope of the future,” he stated. “For us to remain competitive in the 21st century, we have to develop knowledge partnerships with countries such as India. India is no longer the back-office of the world. They are adding value to our ideas 24/7.”

Somers also applauded initiatives such as the Jindal Global Law School in the state of Haryana, which was set up to promote global courses, programs, curricula, research, collaboration and interaction through a global faculty. Talking about the concerns of foreign universities entering India, Somers noted: “A university wants to keep its brand pure — to have control of the curriculum, the faculty and the quality of education. There are accreditation issues as well.”

While addressing attendees of a session on India’s demographic challenges in skills development, Raj Dravid, chief operating officer at Infrastructure Leasing & Financial Services said his firm has been training people in the poorest districts of Orissa and Chhattisgarh. “Post-training, they get jobs in urban centers such as Bangalore, but they find it difficult to adjust to the urban standard of living,” he pointed out. “Our study indicates that most are able to save and send back home about US$40 [a month]. Such piecemeal approaches won’t work. A comprehensive network that links industry, the trainees and the trainers needs to be created.”

Taking Jobs to the People

Shashi Kanth, chief operating officer of Centum WorkSkills India, an educational initiative of Sunil Mittal’s Bharti Group, agreed, suggesting that industry could address these issues by creating jobs in places where the people receiving training reside. “Industry is the victim as well as the culprit,” he said. “It needs to guide us to choose the relevant skills. Otherwise no amount of training will help.”

Arun Sundararajan, a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, highlighted the paucity of resources for vocational training. “We have embarked on an ambitious project to train 500 million people and the National Skills Development Corporation has been set up to follow this mandate. It is, of course, essential to maintain the present rate of growth in the Indian economy. But adequate resource generation holds the key.”

According to Economic Survey 2007-2008, India’s public expenditure on education was 3.6% of GDP and spending on higher education accounted for just 0.4%. According to India — Higher Education Sector: Opportunities for Private Participation, a report by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) that was released earlier this year, there is a huge opportunity for private participation. “Government resource allocation is inadequate to meet its own targets (a 30% gross enrollment ratio by 2020) leaving enough scope for private participation,” the report said. “The 11th Five Year Plan (2007-2012) allocation for technical and higher education has been raised almost nine-fold to US$18.8 billion from US$2.1 billion in the Tenth Plan. However, this is still a fraction of the estimated requirements for achieving the targets.”

Creating the Right Environment

In a spotlight session on “Learning to Learn,” Anshul Arora, co-founder and executive director of Edvance Preschools, said the country does not pay enough importance to the right environment for learning. “More emphasis needs to be laid on activity-based experiential learning,” he noted. Arora shared the example of Harvard’s Innovation Lab set up by Dean Nitin Nohria. The initiative seeks to foster team-based and entrepreneurial activities and deepen interactions among Harvard students, faculty and entrepreneurs.

Another example of this came from Stephan K. Thieringer, president & CEO of AcrossWorld Education. He talked at length about the Khan Academy, which has brought a digital revolution in the way lessons are imparted. Set up with the goal of changing education by providing free, world-class education to anyone anywhere, it has delivered 118,613,876 lessons to date. Also discussed was an innovative tool called WikiBhasha. The example was shared by Lokesh Mehra, director of education advocacy at Microsoft India. WikiBhasha is a multilingual content creation tool for Wikipedia. The tool enables contributors to Wikipedia to find content from Wikipedia articles, translate the content into other languages, and then either compose new articles or enhance existing articles in multilingual Wikipedia.

Speaking about a key factor that can help Indians compete globally, A. Didar Singh, advisor to the union ministry of overseas Indian affairs, said: “The private sector [has to play] a role in developing curriculum for skills, establishing standards, certification processes and also testing facilities.” Saurabh Johri, program advisor to the Observer Research Foundation, a think-tank added that “Education can be the only leveler. It is the means to bridge the huge divide that exists between religious groups, castes and regions. Remote and technology-based education will peak in the next decade or two. Education is steadily becoming a private good. Affirmative action on part of the private sector is imperative.”

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