Graduate unemployment emerges as Indian election issue

Economy is failing to create enough professional jobs for fresh graduates, leaving young voters feeling frustrated

April 29, 2024
An Indian auto rickshaw driver tries to repair his vehicle after it broke down in heavy rain in New Delhi to illustrate Graduate unemployment emerges as Indian election issue
Source: Money Sharma/AFP/Getty Images

University courses need to be better aligned with India’s wider economic planning, academics said, as the issue of graduate unemployment emerges as a key concern for voters in ongoing elections.

Indians have begun heading to the ballot boxes in the country’s parliamentary election, which is taking place over six weeks, and the latest polls suggest that unemployment is one of the biggest issues for voters.

Earlier this year, the International Labour Organization (ILO) found that India’s educated youth experience high rates of unemployment, with the worst rates among those with a graduate degree or higher. In 2022, graduates were nine times more likely to be unemployed than their peers who could not read or write.

“The challenge of educated youth unemployment is increasing and becoming huge in India, with immense implications for societal balance and peace,” the ILO wrote in its 2024 India employment report.

“Job creation in the economy is very slow, so even if you have a higher degree, the chances of finding a suitable job are very small,” said Indian economist and retired professor Arun Kumar. It is not just unemployment that is plaguing India’s graduates, but underemployment, too, he added.

While access to higher education has continued to grow in India, with 43 million students enrolled in 2021-22, an increase of 2 million year-on-year, the country’s formal economy is struggling to absorb fresh graduates.

In particular, job adverts for highly coveted roles in the Indian civil service are notorious for attracting hundreds of thousands – and in some cases, millions – of applications for a single position. And the problems are worsening as some professions become increasingly automated.

Instead, adults with bachelor’s degrees and higher are finding themselves working as rickshaw drivers or on farms. “There’s a lot of frustration among the educated youth,” Professor Kumar said.

To tackle these issues, more needs to be done to ensure that degree programmes align with the country’s workforce needs, said Swati Narayan, author of Unequal: Why India lags behind its neighbours. “Policymakers should also collaborate with universities to increase the alignment of the country’s employment and industrial policies with the education curricula,” she said.

Professor Kumar added that the government should not rely on private universities, which have expanded significantly in India in recent years, and the private sector to tackle these issues.

If elected, India’s main opposition party has set out plans to tackle youth unemployment, including offering apprenticeships to all graduates and diploma holders.

For its part, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has promised to expand the manufacturing and tourism sectors, and to “enhance” employment among young people in these industries.

While voters may be tired of struggling to secure a job, according to Professor Kumar, the Hindu nationalist rhetoric from the prime minister, Narendra Modi, has meant that many blame minority groups and Muslim immigrants from neighbouring countries for “taking jobs”, rather than questioning government policies – meaning that the debate about youth unemployment might not sway the election outcome.

Issues such as unemployment “should have been in the forefront” of election debates, said Professor Kumar, “but the social and the political aspects…can dominate and trump the economic part”.

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