There has been a significant increase in enrolment in higher education in developing countries (especially Asia) in the past decade. This edition of MacroScan examines recent trends and considers the challenge of generating employment to meet the expectations of the growing number of new graduates.
Things seem to be improving in education in developing countries, at least as far as enrolment is concerned. Across the world, literacy rates have gone up, school enrolment rates are rising and dropout rates are falling. Much of the improvement has taken place in the regions that most needed it, in relatively low-income countries that previously had very low enrolment ratios. Improvements in educational outcomes have been particularly marked for girls and young women, so gender gaps are falling.
In some regions, gender gaps have even been reversed, even in tertiary education which was traditionally the hardest gap to bridge.
This is clearly good news, even if critics can point out that in several parts of the world these improvements are still nowhere near fast enough. And of course, the bare fact of enrolment tells us very little about the quality of education and its relevance for both those being educated and for the society. Even so, increasing enrolment is an important first step.
What is particularly interesting in several developing regions, including the most populous parts of the world, is that there has also been significant increase in tertiary education. Once again, this is good news. But it does have implications for the future that are still inadequately analysed.
UNESCO data on enrolment in education provide some relevant indicators. Chart 1 shows the enrolments in tertiary education by region. The first point to note is that while globally tertiary enrolment rates have been rising, regional differences still remain dramatic.
These spatial variations are possibly even more marked within the developing world than globally. Thus, tertiary enrolment rates have been rising fairly rapidly in Latin America and the Caribbean as well as East Asia and the Pacific, but much more slowly in the Arab States and in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Despite the recent increases in such enrolment in east Asia (and to a lesser extent South Asia), higher education enrolment in these regions still remains at less than half the rates achieved in Europe and North America, and also still well below other developing regions such as Latin America. What that in turn suggests is that – especially in the more rapidly growing regions – higher education enrolment rates will increase even more sharply in the near future.
This is significant simply because these are the regions with very large populations and especially with large (and mostly growing) numbers of youth. This in turn will affect the regional distribution of those in higher education quite significantly. This has already happened to some extent over the last decade, as Charts 2a and 2b indicate. In 1999, North America and Western Europe accounted for nearly one-third of the numbers of those engaged in tertiary education; by 2009 the proportion had fallen to just above one-fifth. Meanwhile the share of East Asia increased from one quarter to nearly one-third.
This tendency is confirmed by looking at the increases in enrolment numbers in Chart 3. In the decade until 2009, the total number of those enrolled in tertiary education across the world increased by more than 70 million, of whom nearly 60 per cent came from Asia. 42 per cent of the increase came only from East Asia and the Pacific (driven by significant increases in China). The other regions with demographic structures tilted towards the young are South Asia and West Asia – together they accounted for only 16 per cent of the increased enrolment in the past decade, but this is likely to be greater in the coming period, given increases in secondary education in these regions.
Since Asia and sub-Saharan Africa continue to have much lower average tertiary enrolment rates (averaging 10 to 20 per cent compared to more than 60 per cent in the 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 coming decade.
Progress of women
It is noteworthy that the number of women in tertiary education has increased at a much faster rate than for men, as shown in Chart 4. Globally, women now outnumber men in tertiary education! In some regions (like North America, Western Europe, Latin America and Eastern Europe), the ratio is significantly above half. This too 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.
The increase in tertiary education in the developing world is clearly a positive sign and obviously there is much scope for substantially more such increase in the coming years. But, like all positive changes, it also brings forth challenges, and many of these are still not recognized in full. The most obvious challenge is that of ensuring enough productive employment to meet the expectations of these new graduates.
This issue of ensuring jobs for the young are going through more levels of education than the previous generation has several inter-related aspects.
The first is that of sheer quantity of available jobs. Even during the phase of global boom, the most dynamic economies in the world were simply not creating enough paid employment to meet the needs of those willing to supply their labour. In some countries this reflected in rising rates of open unemployment, especially among the youth; in other countries with poorly developed social protection and unemployment benefits, disguised unemployment was more the norm. But this was during the boom – obviously the Great Recession and subsequent continuing uncertainty in global markets have made things a lot worse. So in most economies, there are simply not enough jobs being created, even for those who have received higher levels of education.
The second aspect is that of quality, of matching education and skills with the available jobs, or what is often described as the “employability” of the labour force. This problem of skills mismatch is a problem even in growing economies, which face severe labour shortages for some kinds of workers and massive oversupply in others. Often this is not in spite of, but because of, market forces, because markets and higher educational institutions tend to respond with lags to the demands of employers for particular skills, and then to oversupply certain skills.
This can have troubling social implications. Simply because of the shortage of higher level jobs, many young people are forced to take jobs that require less skills and training than they have actually received, and are of lower grade than their own expectations of their employability. This in turn can create resentment and other forms of alienation that get expressed in all sorts of ways.
The third aspect – and one that we all ignore at our peril – is related to the second, but reflects a slightly different process. The recent increase in tertiary enrolment across the world is certainly to be welcomed, but it should be noted that a significant part of that has been in private institutions with much higher user fees. As public investment in education has simply not kept pace with the growing demand for it, there has been in many societies, a mushrooming of private institutions many of whom are designed to cater to the demand for supposedly more “marketable” skills such as in technology, IT and management.
This is especially true in developing countries where private institutions charging very high fees have in some cases come to dominate higher education. In India, for example, around two-thirds of such 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 in order 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 such as land and go into debt in the hope of recouping these investments when the student graduates and gets a well-paying job.
But such jobs, as noted earlier, are increasingly scarce. And so these many millions of young people who will emerge with higher degrees, often achieved not just with a lot of effort but a lot of financial resources, are likely to find it even harder to find the jobs that they were led to expect.
This does not augur well for social and political stability. Policy makers across the world, and particularly in developing countries with a demographically youthful society, need to be much more conscious of this challenge than they seem to be at present.