The Demographic dividend story is far from begun. Those in the know are careful to preface it with the word ‘potential’ or explain rapidly, that it is an opportunity waiting to be tapped. The fabled demographic dividend that India speaks of so often is but an opportunity that seeks investment. Re-named or not, a nation that has a serious over-population problem has no choice but to plan for the surge of young people that it will see within the decade. By 2026, 1.4 billion people will need to be employed, and a nation of shopkeepers will not be able to feed itself. An unemployed or unemployable generation is a one that will inevitably prey on itself and others. This is the reason we are now in a race against time to educate our youth.
Our land will soon not be able to bear the weight of its children, and these will have to cross over to other shores to earn their living. Few countries will want unskilled labour: the time for low value added slave trade is thankfully past. We will, consequently, have to prepare ourselves to meet the employment opportunities all over the globe. The need is mutual. Even studies sceptical of the benefits of immigration reveal that immigrants at least bring benefits in proportion to their size of population, while most estimate a positive contribution to GDP due to economic immigration. GDP in many developed nations is at risk due to their demographic deficit, as it were. It is indeed a fortunate circumstance that the needs of the various countries are expected to balance each other out. There is, of course the issue of nationalistic protectionism that will need to be dealt with for fears are often greater than needs.
And yet, we wait, our legislations in limbo. We count on the dividend to pay out but we hesitate to invest. Our government has structures in place, and in plan, the funding allocated, cognizance of the need. Our private sector has the funds, the experience and the ability to invest. But not enough of anything, it seems. The debate on whether education is a public good or a merit good is unlikely to be resolved. But what is sure in the short term is that it will continue to be a not-for-profit sector. This diminishes the interest of the private sector, including FDI, and, may possibly encourage higher cost structures within the industry. The bigger issues are of course those of resource constraints. Skill developers are in short supply and antiquated filtering regulations rule out the possibility of scaling up rapidly via short focused interventions that offer training, mentoring and support. Quality control mechanisms are legacy systems that do not incentivise either scaling up nor are they necessarily aligned with contemporary imperatives.
For our demographic dividend to be realised, we need a clear sense of our national education strategy, which must help define the role and goals of the participants in the industry. Our Universities need clear achievable goals, our schools the incentives to reach their targets and our skills developers a sense of their mission. Aligned systems are not created by educationists, they need experts. Just as much as we need pedagogists, researchers and leaders to people our planned superstructures, we need expert strategists-business people who can deliver results. Our Vice Chancellors are academics, who must be given the autonomy to ensure academic and governance standards are valued. They need others to do the job of aligning objectives to markets, and to deliver efficient processes. The clash and complementarities of these roles may yet deliver an honesty of achievements that we have rarely seen.
Had our need not been so urgent, we could have pursued separate paths for different streams and levels. Synergies would have evolved naturally, as would pathways for individual candidates. But now, we do not have the luxury of time. At this stage, we need all hands to the till, all resources to feed our goal. A clear strategy that aligns all streams is the sensible path to success. It is perhaps serendipitous, that, albeit temporarily, HRD, Telecoms and the Science and Technology ministries were under a single leader. The future to our scaled up, value added delivery of education is through the convergence of these very areas. Blended learning will have to fill the gaps in scale, access, standardisation, quality and shortages. Mobile phones and flexible learning centres with online lessons will be the new classrooms. For the times when Sir or madam are not there. Teaching, will of necessity evolve into a mentoring process, if educational institutions do not want to find themselves reduced to assessment centres. And learning for employability may have to take priority over learning for edification for our returns to be realised.