Over the next 20 years, 270 million people will enter India's workforce. This gives the country an opportunity to harness its demographic dividend through right investments in education. It is now critical to nurture individuals through their primary and tertiary education journeys by providing them life skills that combine core hard skills like vocational skills, with soft skills like mindsets, aspirations, and values. This implies that our education system must ensure capacity and enrolment, and provide quality.
Against these aspirations, an approximate scorecard of the education system's current national status shows uneven performance. Primary schools are strong on capacity, access, and enrolment, but challenged on quality of learning and retention - particularly the government schools which cater to 70 per cent of more than the 200 million enrolled.
The secondary level faces capacity, enrolment and quality challenges, with little focus on employability. At the tertiary level, while a few institutions have world-class reputations, overall research levels and employability outcomes significantly lag those of peer economies. The current capacity gap will also increase as secondary education completion improves.
Finally, the vocational or skill development level is challenged by quality and a tremendous capacity gap. Current capacity is five million per year - insufficient to meet skilling and up-skilling demands, which will increase to 50 million per year in the next decade. However, the education system could meet these aspirations by taking action in six critical areas.Have an integrated master plan:
A robust education plan should encompass long-term views of population and socioeconomic development needs, taking into account requirements by level and region. For example, capacity and quality parameters for primary and secondary levels, academic versus vocational tracks at secondary and tertiary levels, or a tiered view of research, teaching, or a combination of both at the tertiary level. The plan should define roles for participants.Define academic and vocational paths:
This will allow secondary students to choose vocational streams with immediate job prospects, with the option to later pursue further academics through mechanisms such as credit transfers between institutions.Establish leadership development initiatives:
These could include institutes for high quality teacher and school leader training, and faculty development initiatives like tiered faculty structures, incentives to attract Indian PhDs abroad, and accreditation programmes for distance learning faculty.Build assessment and accreditation programmes:
These should use third-party quality measurements, such as how much students have learned, rather than inspecting inputs, and allow multiple accreditation entities to coexist for scale. Such mechanisms will facilitate regulatory oversight and dispute resolution.Create frameworks for select private participation:
In primary education, for example, private expertise may be required in teacher training or managing low-performing schools, while in secondary, it will be important to attract private investment to build schools.Launch "district-by-district" transformation:
A holistic transformation effort should treat each "district" as a unit, bring together multiple related interventions, and align across the state, district and block levels. With the world's youngest population, India has the potential to harness a valuable talent pool. To translate this potential into performance, India must prepare a path for those who stand to benefit.The author is a director at McKinsey & Co's Chennai office and leader of its social sector practice in Asia. He acknowledges the contribution of Ramya Venkataraman