there has been some good news on the education front
over the past decade. Across the world, literacy rates
have gone up, school enrolment rates have risen and
dropout rates have fallen. Much of the improvement
has taken place in the regions that most needed it,
relatively low-income countries that previously had
very poor enrolment ratios. And the improvements in
educational outcomes have been particularly marked
for girls and young women; gender gaps have fallen,
and in some regions have even reversed.
We can point out that such improvements are still
nowhere near adequate, but that does not take away
from the clear positives. Yet there are implications
for the future that remain inadequately analysed.
Particularly striking in the medium term is not just
the increase in education in general, but the significant
increase in higher education.
Consider the facts. According to Unesco, in the decade
until 2009 the total number of those enrolled in higher
education across the world increased by more than
70 million, of whom nearly 60% came from Asia. Since
Asia and sub-Saharan Africa continue to have much
lower average higher education enrolment rates (averaging
10-20% compared to more than 60% in more advanced
countries), this proportion is likely to increase
even further in the near future. So the bulk of new
entrants into higher education will come from these
regions in the decade ahead.
Significantly, the number of women in higher education
has increased at a much faster rate. Globally, women
now outnumber men in higher education. In some regions
(such as North America, west and eastern Europe and
Latin America) the ratio is significantly above half.
This is a process of great significance, because it
is likely to bring in its wake all sorts of social
and economic changes, and hopefully a much greater
degree of gender equality in other spheres of life
This is good news, but it also brings challenges that
are still not fully recognised. The most obvious is
ensuring enough productive employment to meet the
expectations of new graduates.
There are several interrelated issues, the first of
which is sheer quantity. Even during the phase of
global boom, the most dynamic economies in the world
were not creating enough paid employment to meet the
needs of those willing to supply labour. In some countries
this led to rising rates of open unemployment, especially
among young people. In other countries, particularly
those with poorly developed social protection and
unemployment benefits, disguised unemployment was
more the norm. But this was during the boom; the global
recession, and the lingering uncertainty in world
markets, have since made things a lot worse. In most
economies, there are simply not enough jobs being
created, even for those who have received higher levels
The second issue is quality; that is, matching education
and skills with the available jobs. The problem of
skills mismatch arises even in growing economies.
There are severe labour shortages for some kinds of
workers and a massive oversupply of others. Often
this is in spite of market forces rather than because
of them, since markets and higher educational institutions
tend to lag behind employers' skill demands before
There is another aspect to this, which also has troubling
social implications. The shortage of higher-level
jobs has forced many young people to take roles for
which they are overqualified. This in turn can create
resentment and other forms of alienation. Some attempts
to explain the recent UK riots have mentioned this
aspect of youth frustration.
The third issue – and one that we all ignore at our
peril – is related to the second, but reflects a slightly
different process. The recent global increase in higher
education enrolment is certainly welcome, but it should
be noted that a significant proportion has been in
private institutions with much higher user fees. This
is especially true in developing countries, where
costly private institutions often dominate higher
education. In India, for example, around two-thirds
of enrolment is now estimated to be in private colleges
and universities and similar institutes. Even in countries
where public education still dominates, there are
moves to increase fees.
This creates another complication around the issue
of employability. Many students, including those coming
from relatively poor families, have invested a great
deal of their own and their families' resources to
acquire an education that comes with the promise of
a better life. In the developing world, this hunger
for education is strongly associated with the hope
of upward mobility, leading families to sell assets
like land and go into debt in the hope of recouping
these investments when the student graduates and gets
a well-paying job.
As we have seen, however, such jobs are increasingly
scarce. It cannot be a recipe for social stability.
Am I alone in thinking we are sitting on a timebomb?