Enrolment in Higher Education: Need for Reflection PART I

A mere increase in the enrolment in higher education may not be the ideal way forward. There is a need for a deeper analysis of factors which encourage youngsters to go to a college/​university.

Higher Education part 1 final

The New Education Policy (2020) envisages an increase in enrolment in India’s higher education (HE) to 50 percent (it is currently around 30 percent). There is a need to think about the enrolment in HE in this context. This note offers a few insights.

Is enrolment in higher education really low?

Though enrolment in primary education has gone up in India, the dropping out of children from (secondary) schools continues to be a challenge. There are states where nearly one-fifth of the children drop out while transitioning to secondary schools. Then, there are those who fail class X, which reduces the enrolment in class XI. Then, again, many fail class XII. Eventually, only around 50 percent of children qualify for enrolment to HE in India. From this group, a majority joins one or the other HE programme. So, if we consider the number of students who join HE out of those who complete schooling successfully, it is high and maybe even higher than that in some developed countries where almost all children get a school education. For example, Israel, where the enrolment in HE is around 61 percent.

In India, job seekers who have completed 12 years of schooling (no college/​university) are a relatively small minority (could be around 15 percent). This is higher in countries which are more industrialised than India, for example, China where the enrolment in HE is 64 percent or France where it is 69 percent. This may be true in countries like Israel, Italy, Japan, and the United Kingdom,1 etc. But if we consider the relatively less developed countries, like Indonesia or the Philippines, where the enrolment in HE is only 36 percent, the share of youngsters who complete school education and then take up jobs is much higher than that in India. This has implications for the economic/​human development of a country and vice versa.

Another possible implication could be an improvement in the completion rate of school education that can lead to an enrolment of 50 percent in HE (in the given conditions or without even making changes in HE). This may imply that a mere focus on increasing enrolment in HE may not be very effective. Instead, there may be underlying issues that may require greater attention.

Regional differences

Different states in India perform differently in terms of enrolment in HE. Tamil Nadu has already crossed the target that is envisaged in NEP 2020. If we take the top 12 states in terms of enrolment in HE, these include smaller states or union territories and the southern states. To a great extent, this trend also strengthens the previously mentioned point – when there is an improvement in the completion rate of school education, there is an increase in enrolment in HE and it may reach around 50 percent. Though there is an improvement in the provision of HE in these states (mainly through private, self-financing colleges), this may be more due to the demand (as more and more children complete school education). Such a strategy may be followed in other states (mainly bigger states in the North and Central parts of India) – (gradual) improvement in the rate of completion of school education. (Allowing private self-financing colleges may not require much investment on the part of the state, but it is not a desirable way to strengthen HE). There are no indications that a higher enrolment in HE in certain states is driven by an improvement in its quality. Quality standards are determined primarily at the national level, for example, Tamil Nadu does not seem to be taking active steps to improve the quality of colleges and universities in the state.

Such regional differences also indicate that the key action that is necessary to enhance enrolment in HE is to improve the completion rate of school education in states where it is significantly low. In fact, higher enrolment in HE in some states may not speak much about the impact of the quality of school education since quality is an issue in all states including those which have higher enrolment in HE (as has been highlighted repeatedly in periodical surveys, like ASER).

A mere increase in the enrolment in HE may not be the ideal way forward. There is a need for a deeper analysis of factors which encourage youngsters to go to a college/​university. This is suggested in the following sections.

Higher demand for HE in India – A failure of the economy?

The fact that only a small share of youngsters look for jobs after pursuing school education (without enrolling in HE) has multiple explanations. Since only 50 percent complete school education successfully, with more of them coming from the upper castes, they may prefer white-collar (or desk) jobs. Due to the process of Sanskritisation, even those belonging to lower castes may be influenced by this. However, due to the stagnation or unimpressive growth of the manufacturing sector, there is a shortage of low-end jobs which could have been an option for this section of school pass-outs. Youngsters, when faced with the two options of (a) working in agriculture or less-skilled jobs in construction or (b) getting a job in the formal service sector, which requires HE, choose the latter. This may increase the demand for HE in India compared not only to countries like China/​Vietnam but also the developed ones.

Demand for HE but not for employment: Female work participation

India’s female work participation rate continues to be very low at less than 25 percent. This is true even in states like Kerala and Tamil Nadu which have an improved human development status. Since the work participation of women undergoes a U‑shaped transition with the increase in education, there could be a withdrawal from paid work among girls who acquire higher levels of education (especially compared to those who do not get any education). On the other hand, in states where almost all children get a school education, one can see a trend wherein girls’ enrolment in HE (especially in arts and science colleges) is more than that of boys. This tendency combined with the lower female work participation means that a major section of students (girls) is interested in HE but not in jobs.

This is a reflection of restrictive gender norms in society. Girls do not have an enabling environment to continue with paid employment after marriage. Their’ employment and income are seen as secondary, and the primary source of income is expected to be from their husband’s work. However, there is a demand for educated’ girls in the marriage market, especially among sections that are not poor, even if that education does not lead to employment. It is noted that the continuation of HE is seen as a means to facilitate marriage. Moreover, the conditions that discourage youngsters from taking up work after the successful completion of school education work severely for girls due to gender norms. All these create a situation where a sizeable section of girls is in colleges and universities due to factors extrinsic to education. This is yet another factor that can determine the quality of HE.

Impact of under-achievements in school education on HE

The problems of school education in India have been recognised adequately. Though issues of dropping out and access are being addressed, the issue of learning achievements continues. The low learning achievements which are brought out by periodical reports by governmental and non-governmental agencies are discussed widely. This issue is not only among those children who drop out of school at different stages without successful completion but also among those who formally complete school education successfully.

There are possible connections between the quality of school education and that of HE. One of these issues is the quality of teacher training colleges. Though teacher training is part of HE, its quality has a direct bearing on school education. When India witnessed a rapid expansion of school education, there were not enough trained teachers and the lack of competent teacher educators continues to have a negative impact on school education. There can also be a reverse causality here – because the number of qualified school teachers is low, not many of them are becoming trained teacher-educators. (The rapid expansion of school education encouraged many state governments to allow the mushrooming of self-financing teacher-training colleges, and the salary of a teacher-educator in such colleges is lower than that of a government school teacher. This is a disincentive for many who are interested in becoming teacher-educators.) A poor-quality school education reduces the capabilities of those who join HE, impacting its quality.

Demand for degrees: Why?

To some extent, the demand for degrees in India is linked less to the content of education and more to non-educational’ factors. We have discussed the compulsion to enrol in HE due to the non-availability of decent jobs after completing school education. One goal of HE is to enable youngsters to get a job in India’s service sector which is the dominant sector of the country’s economy.

Services jobs include those in the government. There is an interesting trend in government jobs in India. Most of these government jobs do not require HE; the successful completion of 10 – 12 years of school education is sufficient. These include thousands of jobs, such as those of clerks or police constables. The number of people who attempt to get these jobs is huge compared to the number of positions available. This warrants competitive recruitment examinations. Such examinations may not test the proficiencies which are required for these jobs. Instead, these may test general knowledge. Hence, those who have acquired (in more or less degree) HE may have an upper hand in these recruitment examinations, that is, they may have a higher probability of passing these. This may encourage a large number of people to opt for HE even if the kind of jobs that they take up do not require it. This can also be a factor that demotivates students’ genuine interest in the content of HE.

We have noted the underdevelopment of manufacturing in India (and its inability to offer a sufficient number of decent jobs). This is leading to the persistence of a situation where only those who have HE can have a better quality of life in India. Historically, this opportunity was available to upper castes. Now, this encourages less privileged groups also to demand and focus on HE. They also see college degrees as the only route to social and economic mobility. However, the crowding of HE and huge competition to get service sector jobs may create a situation where even those who complete HE, may not get jobs.


1. The situation in the US where the enrolment in HE is around 80 percent could be due to the community colleges which enable students to get jobs that do not require typical college degrees. On the other hand, much higher enrolment in HE in the Netherlands or Singapore could be the reflection of the regional specialization of economies. Most youngsters from relatively small, developed economies may get higher education and be seeking jobs with require such education in the larger regional/​global economy.


Santhakumar V, Faculty, Azim Premji University, Bengaluru.