India ‘faces demographic disaster’ if education reforms fail

Success of India’s education reforms ‘matter tremendously to the world’ but foreign institutions will not solve country’s problems, says former UK universities minister

February 11, 2021
Crowd of Indian students
Source: iStock

India risks turning a “demographic dividend into a demographic disaster” if it fails to implement its ambitious new education policy, with detrimental knock-on effects for the rest of the world, a Times Higher Education conference has heard.

Lord Johnson of Marylebone, a former UK universities minister, said it was “remarkable that in a year in which government departments have been grappling with the unexpected challenges of a global pandemic”, India’s government had “managed to produce an extraordinarily ambitious reform initiative in the National Education Policy”.

However, speaking at the THE India Universities Forum, Lord Johnson said that the big challenge would now be implementing the policy, warning that there was much at stake if the changes failed to get off the ground.

“The risk is a more volatile India, one that’s more susceptible to instability, corruption and all the malaise that you get when you have a vast young population unable to find its way in a globalised economy,” he said.

“That would be a real problem and that would turn the demographic dividend into a demographic disaster.”

The NEP seeks to lift India’s gross enrolment ratio in postsecondary education from 26 per cent in 2018 to 50 per cent by 2035. It envisages turning all higher education institutions into large, multidisciplinary institutions via widespread mergers and expansion programmes, and the creation of a new independent research funder and a new regulator.

Lord Johnson, who is president’s professorial fellow in King’s College London’s Policy Institute, said that the success of the NEP would not only determine India’s future but would also “matter tremendously to the world”.

“We’re not going to achieve our sustainable development goals globally unless India makes progress with us. Therefore, the success of the NEP matters in Washington, it matters in Tokyo, it matters in Brussels, London and everywhere. We all need this policy to succeed. We all need India to step up and become exactly what it’s aiming to become, which is a global knowledge superpower,” he said.

Lord Johnson contrasted India’s “embrace” of universities with the UK, where there is “a move to reduce the position and the status that universities have relative to other parts of our tertiary system”.

“In India, the government is walking towards universities; it wants to see them as part of the solution, it wants to see them, for example, enrol 50 per cent of young people in higher education, just as the UK is moving away from those targets,” he said.

Lord Johnson also spoke about India’s new internationalisation policies, which enable Indian universities to establish foreign branch campuses and international universities to set up outposts in India.

On the former, he said that India’s big university brands, such as its institutes of technology, would “have a good chance” of successfully setting up overseas, while on the latter he said that the “biggest barrier” was “the climate around academic freedom in India”, followed by a potentially prohibitive regulatory environment.

However, he said that ultimately “foreign universities and international influences on India are going to be marginal in the difference that they can make to India’s success”.

“They can have a demonstrative effect of showing different types of best practice, which Indian institutions may or may not wish to borrow from…But the reality is India is going to solve India’s problems and the contribution that institutions from overseas, whether they’re in the top 100 universities around the world or not, is going to be of secondary or tertiary relevance,” he said.

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