The Indian economy is already the 10th largest economy in the world by nominal GDP and, recently having overtaken Japan, we are also the third largest economy by purchasing power parity. But, as they say, the best is yet to come, for we have age on our side. At a time when our prominent competitors such as China, Japan and even South Korea are facing a serious demographic squeeze, we stand at the cusp of a remarkable demographic dividend. The International Labour Organisation has predicted that by 2020, India will have 116 million workers in the age bracket of 20 to 24 years, as compared to China’s 94 million. This demographic fact has the potential to be the biggest competitive advantage of India in the years to come. It is further estimated that the average age in India by the year 2020 will be 29 years as against 40 years in USA, 46 years in Japan and 47 years in Europe. In fact, we already have more than 60 per cent of our population in the age group of 15 to 65 years. This trend is very significant because what matters in the long run is not merely the size of the population, but its age.
Despite serious handicaps of means and resources, the country has built up during the last 65 years a very large system of education and has created a large pool of men and women equipped with robust scientific and technological capabilities, sensitive humanist and philosophical thoughts, and profound creativity. In 1950, we had barely 30 universities and about 700 colleges with an enrolment of just four lakh students. In six decades, we have succeeded in massively expanding the reach of higher education in our country. Today, we have over 20 million students studying in more than 600 universities and 35,000 colleges.... It is true that this expansion of numbers has not been accompanied by a commensurate increase in both the quality and the relevance of our higher education, but I would like to assure this audience that these concerns are accorded top priority by the Government of India.
I tend to think of the progress of Indian education in terms of four ‘E’s’ — Expansion, Equity, Excellence and Employability. The first E — Expansion — is at the heart of our efforts to ensure that the demographic blessing does not become a curse. With the adoption, especially, of the Right to Education Act, access to higher education for all is a policy imperative behind which we have put our full weight.
Since adopting RTE, we have achieved a gross enrolment ratio (GER) in primary education of 104 per cent: we have actually found more students in the target age group than we thought were out there, and succeeded in attracting them to schools. The challenge, however, is sustaining these rates of enrolment into higher education. In that arena, we stand nowhere near the global GER of 29 per cent, with a historically low GER, currently at 18 per cent.
Our vision for the 21st century must envision India as a knowledge society, a society capable of both creating theoretical knowledge of global significance and then materially benefitting from it; a society where pursuit of learning and innovation should not be constrained by any lack of access, infrastructure or support; where education is relevant to society, and provides the skills and competencies that society demands. We must understand clearly that we are talking of a knowledge society — one that is committed to excellence as an end in itself — and not merely a knowledge economy. Market forces will, however, demand that in the process of dissemination of knowledge at every level, we do take into account the fourth ‘E’ — the newest factor in Indian education policy thinking, Employability. I think that this is an inevitable policy imperative to balance the forces of markets with the demands of research, the pursuit of knowledge and the imperative of equity.