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Literature graduates aren’t the answer to India’s job woes

LiveMint logoLiveMint 27-06-2017 Sundeep Khanna

New Delhi: That India has a serious jobs crisis is now a foregone conclusion. But equally scary is how this is being compounded by a serious mismatch on the supply side as thousands of young Indians graduate with degrees which have little relevance in the employment market.

According to the International Labour Organization’s World Employment Social Outlook report released in January this year, the number of unemployed in India is expected to go up from 17.8 million in 2016 to 18 million in 2018. But it is at the lower end of the demographics that the problem is looming even larger. As per OECD’s annual economic survey, over 30% of youth aged 15-29 in India are not in employment, education or training (NEETs). This is more than double the OECD average and almost three times that of China.

With every passing day, those numbers are swelling as Indian companies shed employees. Last week at its annual general meeting, Infosys Ltd, which despite its boardroom woes is still one of India’s most successful firms, said that automation-driven attrition has hit 11,000 jobs. Most of them would have been trained and highly educated engineers.

Yet, a look at the list put out by the University of Delhi in terms of demand for various courses reveals little of the panic this should be causing in the ranks of degree seekers. The maximum demand is for an amorphous BA program. But what is completely baffling is that for 2017, the second most popular course is a bachelor of arts in English for which more than 120,000 applications were received this year. This is followed by applications for political science honours which number nearly 100,000.

The honours course in English doesn’t incorporate conversational English or even business writing but largely English literature as part of which students will learn to appreciate Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, William Shakespeare’s Othello, Charles Dickens’s Hard Times, besides many Indian authors and poets such as G.M. Muktibodh and Nissim Ezekiel. Hell, there’s also Alice Walker and Jean Genet for a global feel.

Which is all very well for developing the finer sensibilities and even for some fascinating conversations on a rainy day, but severely restrictive in preparing students for a future career outside of academics.

Here’s the list put out by Kiplinger, a Washington-based publisher of business forecasts and personal finance advice, of the 10 best jobs that are believed to have the most growth potential in the future: nurse practitioner, medical sonographer, health services managers, physical therapist, dental hygienist, information security analyst, computer systems analyst, app developer, market research analyst and operations research analyst.

The list relates to the demand scenario in the US so at best it is indicative. That there is no equivalent list for India underscores the sharp disconnect between our university education system and the real job market. A LinkedIn blogpost on skills that can get you hired today and tomorrow includes cloud & distributed computing, user interface design, storage systems design, public relations and communications, economics, public policy and international relations, among others.

Much as it offends those who believe literature teaches young people about life and is an essential part of education, its ability to provide jobs to the millions of young Indians is severely limited. In the three years it takes to graduate, they will learn little of the skills needed in a rapidly changing world.

Here’s what venture capitalist and tech investor Vinod Khosla had to say about a liberal arts education: “Though Jane Austen and Shakespeare might be important, they are far less important than many other things that are more relevant to make an intelligent, continuously learning citizen, and a more adaptable human being in our increasingly more complex, diverse and dynamic world.”

In the US, English ranks last in the list of the top 10 most popular majors based on average yearly graduation rates of students from specific programs. Topping the listing is business administration and management, followed by nursing.

On a day when the government disbanded its two-year old franchise model of training centres for its ambitious skills development program, there is an urgent need for a revamp of the education system to provide holistic learning which includes crucial skills that allow a young person who’s invested three years of her life to earn a reasonable livelihood.

(Full disclosure: the author read English literature in college but that was over three decades ago.)

Sundeep Khanna is a consulting editor at Mint and oversees the newsroom’s corporate coverage. The Corporate Outsider will look at current issues and trends in the corporate sector every week.

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