Education in India


India is a rapidly changing country in which inclusive, high-quality education is of utmost importance for its future prosperity. The country is currently in a youth bulge phase. It has the largest youth population in the world—a veritable army of 600 million young people under the age of 25. Fully 28 percent of the population is less than 14 years of age, and with more than 30 babies being born every minute, population growth rates are expected to remain at around 1 percent for years. India is expected to overtake China as the largest country on earth by 2022 and grow to about 1.5 billion people by 2030 (up from 1.34 billion in 2017). The UN projects that Delhi will become the largest city in the world with 37 million people by 2028.

This demographic change could be a powerful engine of economic growth and development: If India manages to modernize and expand its education system, raise educational attainment levels, and provide skills to its youth, it could gain a significant competitive advantage over swiftly aging countries like China.

Islands of Prosperity in a Sea of Poverty: Constraints, Challenges and Uneven Development

At the same time, India is still a developing country of massive scale and home to the largest number of poor people in the world next to Nigeria. Consider that some 40 percent of India’s roads are still unpaved, while the country accounts for more than a quarter of all new tuberculosis infections worldwide—the disease kills more than 435,000 Indians each year. India also has one of the highest mortality rates among children under the age of five worldwide, as well as one of the worst sanitation systems: 524 million Indians did not use a toilet in 2017.

According to the World Bank, India succeeded in bringing 133 million people out of poverty between 1994 and 2012, and extreme poverty continues to decline drastically. However, India still has about a quarter of the world’s extreme poor, and social inequalities in the country are not only rampant but rising. If current trends continue, India will be in danger of disintegrating into parallel societies with economic realities of elites in economic centers like Mumbai or Bangalore looking exceedingly different from those of the impoverished masses in underdeveloped states like Uttar Pradesh or Bihar. As economists Amartya Sen and Jean Drèze put it in a famous quote, India is looking “more and more like islands of California in a sea of sub-Saharan Africa.”


The Skyline of Mumbai and a Village in Rural Bihar

In light of such problems, it remains very much an open question whether India can harness its youth dividend to achieve inclusive economic development, or if it will become overburdened by population growth. As of now, India struggles to educate and employ its growing population: More than 27 percent of the country’s youth are excluded from education, employment, or training, while the overwhelming majority of working Indians are employed in the informal sector, many of them in agriculture, often in precarious engagements lacking any form of job security or labor protections.

It has been estimated that India’s economy needs to create 10 million new jobs annually until 2030 to keep up with the growth of its working-age population—that’s more than 27,000 jobs each day for the next 12 years. While that’s not impossible—China reportedly created 13.14 million new jobs in its cities in 2016—it’s certainly a tremendous challenge. Between 2013 and 2016 India’s economy only generated an estimated 150,000 to 400,000 jobs each year. In one stark example of the dire labor market situation in present-day India, 2.3 million applicants applied for 368 open government positions in the state of Uttar Pradesh in 2015.

India’s higher education system, meanwhile, does not have the capacity to achieve enrollment ratios anywhere close to those of other middle-income economies. The country’s tertiary gross enrollment rate is growing fast, but remains more than 20 percentage points below that of China or Brazil, despite the creation of large numbers of higher education institutions (HEIs) in recent years.

Educational attainment in present-day India is also not directly correlated to employment prospects—a fact that raises doubts about the quality and relevance of Indian education. Although estimates vary, there is little doubt that unemployment is high among university graduates—Indian authorities noted in 2017 that 60 percent of engineering graduates remain unemployed, while a 2013 study of 60,000 university graduates in different disciplines found that 47 percent of them were unemployable in any skilled occupation. India’s overall youth unemployment rate, meanwhile, has remained stuck above 10 percent for the past decade.


Modern India has been shaped by centuries of European imperialism and colonialism, most notably the formal colonial rule by Great Britain, which governed almost all of present-day India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh during the 19th century. Perhaps the most destructive aspect of that rule was the British sowed religious divisions by defining communities based on religious identity and divided the Indian subcontinent into administrative units along religious lines.

Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan (which then included present-day Bangladesh) were eventually granted independence in 1947 as separate sovereign countries—an event that was marred by horrific sectarian violence and mutual genocidal mass killings between Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs. An estimated 200,000 to two million people were killed; between 10 million and 20 million people fled and migrated between the newly created countries, or were forcefully displaced in one of the largest dislocations of people in modern history.

This tragedy was perhaps the most defining moment for contemporary South Asia. It antagonized Hindus and Muslims and placed India and Pakistan on a hostile footing ever since, resulting in three separate wars and a nuclear arms race between the two countries. The conflict over the disputed territory of Kashmir continues to be a constant source of tension and military confrontation today.


Student mobility trends in India are of great interest to university admissions personnel in the U.S., Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and increasingly in countries like Germany or China. India is currently the second-largest sending country of international students worldwide after China, and outbound student flows are surging. The number of Indian international students enrolled in degree programs abroad doubled from 134,880 students in 2004 to 278,383 in 2017, as per UNESCO.

Among these students, the U.S. is the most favored destination country by far, hosting 112,713 Indian students—40.5 percent of all outbound students in 2015. The second and third most popular study destinations are Australia, where numbers recently surged to 46,316 degree-seeking students, and Canada, which saw Indian enrollments almost quadrupled from 5,868 in 2010 to 19,905 in 2016. In the UK, Indian enrollments have tanked by 53 percent since 2011, but the country is still the fourth-largest destination with 18,177 students in 2015. New Zealand, meanwhile, saw Indian enrollments explode by more than 500 percent since 2007 and became the fifth most popular destination with 15,016 students in 2016.

Notably, outbound mobility is not only growing, but also diversifying with Indian students increasingly branching out to countries beyond traditional English-speaking study destinations. The United Arab Emirates, for instance, has become the sixth-largest study destination with 13,370 students—a trend partially driven by the fact that Indian labor migrants now make up more than 25 percent of the country’s resident population, while a number of Indian universities have set up branch campuses in the Emirates. In Germany, the number of Indian students almost tripled to 9,896 within a decade and enrollments are growing briskly even in countries like Ukraine, which now hosts 4,773 students (up from 1,170 in 2006).

Future Growth Potential and Factors Affecting Outbound Student Mobility

Notwithstanding the high number of Indian international students around the globe, India actually has a very low outbound student mobility ratio of only 0.9 percent. Merely a tiny fraction of the country’s 36 million tertiary students is currently going abroad, which means that there’s enormous long-term potential for further growth. While overall momentum in outbound mobility is slowing in countries like aging China, where the quality of universities has matured and the benefit of a Western education for Chinese students has decreased, India’s burgeoning youth population will continue to face much more Darwinian challenges in securing access to quality education for years to come.

There is little question that a lack of access to high-quality education is a key driver of student mobility from India. Demand for education in the country is surging, yet unmet by supply—India will soon have the largest tertiary-age population in the world, but the tertiary gross enrollment rate (GER) stands at only 25.8 percent, despite the opening of ever-more HEIs. Large and growing numbers of aspiring youth remain locked out of the higher education system.

As of now, outbound mobility from India is still inhibited by the limited financial resources available to most students. WES research by Rahul Choudaha, Li Chang and Paul Schulman found that less than half of Indian students in the U.S. are financially independent and that more than two-thirds seek some form of financial aid. The per capita income in India is growing, but presently stands at only USD$1,570, which means that studying abroad in expensive foreign destinations remains out of reach for most Indians unless they obtain scholarships or other forms of financial assistance.

There is consequently a strong relationship between outbound student flows and macroeconomic conditions. Between 2011 and 2013, outbound students flows decreased drastically when India suffered a severe economic downturn and the Indian rupee depreciated by 44 percent against the U.S. dollar, making it much more expensive for Indians to study abroad. Funding opportunities in the U.S. simultaneously dried up, so that many prospective international students waited out the crisis at home — a trend clearly illustrated in the graph above.

Against this backdrop, current economic developments could throttle mobility from India, particularly to the United States. The Indian rupee has depreciated 10 percent against the U.S. dollar since the beginning of the year, amid rising interest rates in the U.S. and concerns about a global trade war.

However, while such developments could presage downward fluctuations in the near term, they are unlikely to slow growth in the long run, given that India’s emergent middle class will gain greater purchasing power in the years ahead. As India’s Economic Times has noted, over “the past two decades, many first-generation Indians have risen up the corporate hierarchy and are financially well-off. These well-traveled, financially stable corporate executives desire the best for their children,” including a high-quality education.

Yet, while the number of people able to afford quality education is growing, top-notch learning opportunities are still in short supply and difficult to access in India. Many academic institutions are of lackluster quality and churn out graduates with poor employment and earning prospects—making a degree from a reputable foreign university a valuable asset in India’s competitive job market. Many Indian companies prefer to hire graduates of foreign schools.


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