Kerala has consistently topped the charts with a near hundred percent literacy rate among all Indian States. Even with this favourable statistic, the standards of teaching, quality of education, absence of academy-industry-linkages, etc. have been concerns to address in the State. Over the decades, the State’s initiatives in the education sector have increased the number of graduates entering the labour market but failed to act on creating a thriving ecosystem that absorbs the labour force into a productive employment. This has led to a large number of educated populations whose employment prospects remain uncertain.
As per the Labour force Survey (PLFS) 2018-19, Kerala’s unemployment rate among youth stands at 36% as against the national average of 17%. This rate of unemployment is disproportionately skewed towards women at 55.4% (PLFS). The statistics also reveal that the number of students actively pursuing conventional degrees and aspiring for white-collar jobs are more than the job opportunities available. In view of this crisis, the budget speech of Kerala Government tabled recently reinforced the Government’s resolve to transform Kerala into a knowledge society through the Knowledge Economy Mission, “an initiative to boost job prospects in the State”.
An essential prerequisite for a knowledge economy includes, availability of good-quality education, matching the skills of the labour with the needs of the enterprises, and creating a robust enterprising ecosystem that generates new employment opportunities. But to fully participate in the knowledge economy, Kerala needs precise institutional and policy considerations in the education sector and labour market.
Removing Impediments to Participation
The Budget 2022-23 extended State support to many initiatives in the higher education sector such as building universities, innovation hubs, IT parks with the objective to create a skill-ecosystem. What the Budget also signalled was the heavy participation of the government as a provider of these services and therein lies the problem.
A prime reason cited for Kerala’s Knowledge Economy initiative is that educated unemployed are not employable indicating a lack of educational robustness in the State. However, the signs of stagnancy in Kerala’s higher education sector has been a symptom of a systemic issue long unaddressed by the decision makers. It should worry us but not surprise us to know that despite the State having above-national indicators in literacy and Gross Enrollment Ratio, the State is still unable to offer diversified courses that are demanded by job-market. There is a serious lack of investments and academic freedom that limits the scope for introducing innovative academic programs or Research and Development (R & D) activities in education institutions, thereby presenting a roadblock in building a robust ecosystem for the knowledge economy to thrive.
As per the consolidated list of private universities in India released by the UGC, there are 388 private universities established in India. It is astonishing that no private university has been set-up in the State of Kerala. This dearth of serious investments by private investors results in a lack of competition and a lack of options for the students, effectively eroding quality of education and diversity of courses.
Primary among the factors that dissuade investments are the legal and legislative hurdles present in the sector. The education sector is heavily regulated at provincial level which has stifled private initiatives. Moreover, through the decades, policymakers have been deliberate on having higher educational institutions being set up as non-profits which has serious ramifications on quality. There needs to be a shift in the orientation with the idea of establishing private universities in the State and allow for-profits to coexist with public and non-profit institutions.
Autonomy or the lack thereof
Autonomy is determined by the level of capability and the right of an institution to decide its course of action about institutional policy, planning, financial and staff management, compensation, students, and academic freedom, without interference from outside authorities. However, higher education institutions are highly centralised with very limited autonomy. To have courses that evolve and keep up with the dynamic job market, there is a need to give institutions greater academic freedom to design, curate and also to explore mentorship from industries and businesses.
Fostering R and D
A prime mover of the knowledge economy is R and D in innovation. Higher education institutions are centres that can drive research and fuel innovation in the State. While the National Education Policy has emphasised on R and D, the success of it depends on implementing the right policies at the state level. A knowledge economy typically fosters an ecosystem of world class institutions providing high quality resources and calibre to various industries as per their needs and requirements. A corollary to giving greater academic freedom is that it widens education institutions’ scope to collaborate with global universities in the R and D front and allow private universities to set up campuses in the State. The State needs to move away from inward looking strategies and implement policies that enable free flow of information and resources to achieve the State’s mission.
The present scenario of the higher education sector in Kerala warrants targeted efforts to enhance quality levels, which is a grave concern that the government alone cannot address unless the private sector is roped in. Venture capital culture, R and D facilities, innovation hubs are results that naturally follow. Knowledge economy does not necessarily require the State’s presence or financial investments in building institutions. It only needs the State to allow willing and eligible players to develop a knowledge economy, allowing more high-quality education providers to enter and compete in the market.
Especially now, with a rapidly evolving world characterised by innovation and technology, there is an urgent need for the young population to adapt, upskill and be integrated into the workforce. For this, it is important that institutional and policy reforms in both education and labour market be implemented en-masse for successful transition of youth into the productive work.
Dr D Dhanuraj is Chairman and Nissy Solomon Hon. Trustee (Research and Programs) at Centre for Public Policy Research. Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of the Centre for Public Policy Research.
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Nissy Solomon is Senior Research Associate at CPPR Centre for Comparative Studies. Prior to her venture into the public policy domain, she had worked as a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Analyst with Nokia-Heremaps. Her postgraduate research explored the interface of GIS in Indian healthcare planning. She is broadly interested in Public Policy, Economic Development and Spatial Analysis for policymaking. She has an MA in Economics (University of Bombay) and an MA in Public Policy (National Law School of India University, Bangalore). She can be contacted by email at [email protected]