Globally, 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 as well.
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 of education.
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 oversupplying them.
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?