Loki Singh is a 28-year-old living in the west of Uttar Pradesh, India. He has three university degrees from the local college, but despite persisting, he has not been able to get a government job.
“Degrees here are useless,” he told me. “A university is a place where the professors don’t teach and the students don’t learn.”
For every eight people in the world, one is an Indian youth. This global demographic is facing a set of converging crises.
Statistics have recently emerged regarding the scale and nature of India’s youth unemployment problem. Outright unemployment has historically been low in India, but figures from a recent survey (which has not been made public) show 17.4% of India’s rural men and 13.6% of rural women between the ages of 15 and 29 are unemployed.
Read more: Australia and India: some way to go yet
According to Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Professor Santosh Mehrotra, the number of people who are not in employment, education or training (NEET) rose from 70 million in 2004 to an estimated 116 million in 2018 in India.
The underlying problem of underemployment is even more worrying. Throughout the 2000s, the number of young people in agriculture in India decreased, as you would expect in a modernising economy. But in the 2010s, the number increased. Most are unable to run viable farms and are effectively stuck in an occupation they may have hoped to escape.
This crisis cannot be attributed to the recent policies of the Bharatiya Janata Party. Indeed, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made the issue of youth unemployment a major focus for policy. Widespread unemployment and underemployment is instead a product of India’s colonial history and the inability of successive post-colonial regimes to generate employment growth or the conditions required for entrepreneurship.
A cluster crisis
The problem of unemployment and underemployment is a cluster crisis with three components.
First, it reflects the inability of the state to develop a form of economic growth that creates jobs. Jobless growth has become a hallmark of India’s experience of economic liberalisation since the early 1990s.
Second, youth unemployment and underemployment results from a crisis in tertiary education. There are some excellent universities and colleges in India. But they are rare. The state universities and their affiliated colleges are starved of funds.
Read more: Why it's the right time for Australia and India to collaborate on higher education
The university to which Loki Singh’s college is affiliated has more than half a million students - it is one of the largest universities in the world. But students are rarely taught by research active staff and the facilities are poor. Like most universities and colleges in India, the university faces major governance challenges.
Third, the wider environment is inimical to enterprise in many parts of India. In many northern states of India in particular, problems in obtaining institutional credit; poor quality policing; an atrophied local and regional legal system; weak road infrastructure; and poor public health care provision militate against youth starting businesses that employ others and reflect their ambitions and talents.
Why should Australians care?
This is the point in the discussion where an Australian audience might ask what all this has to do with them, and why they should care.
Read more: Government report provides important opportunity to rethink Australia's relationship with India
Australians and Australian universities are increasingly connected to people like Loki Singh through the flow of information and ideas. There are routes to developing joint projects, such as partnerships with socially-minded NGOs (OzGreen) and universities in India seeking to address the problem of unemployment and poor educational provision.
For too long, Australian universities have taken a narrow view of international engagement, summed up by student recruitment plus some research facilitation. Their interaction with higher education is often restricted to a tiny minority of elite institutions. There is a need to profoundly widen our circles of interest and action to engage with the issues facing the majority of India’s youth.