Human Development

Can India reap the demographic dividend in higher education?

  • Blog Post Date 05 September, 2017
  • Perspectives
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India’s population is going through a ‘demographic bulge’, with an increase in the proportion of the working age group and a decrease in that of dependents. In this article, Shivakumar Jolad computes the demographic changes due to fertility decline and attempts to forecast the demand and supply of higher education over the period 2016-2031, across Indian states.

India's liberalisation era that began in the 1990s has been hailed for the paradigm shifts it produced in the economy. What is less noticed is that, in the same period, India went through unprecedented demographic changes. With a median age of 24, more than half of India's population is below 25 years, making it one of the youngest nations in the world today. India's Total Fertility Rate (TFR1) is 2.2, according to the recently released National Family Health Survey (NFHS)-4 (2015-16) report. Such low fertility rates indicate that India is entering the final stage of demographic transition. Replacement level TFR of 2.1 is essential for population stabilisation, which India is poised to achieve before 2020, more than 20 years ahead of the United Nations predictions (2011).

With continual fall in fertility levels over the last three decades, the Indian population is going through a demographic bulge, which is rapidly moving upwards in the population pyramid, raising the proportion of the working age group and decreasing that of the dependent age population. Politicians have been optimistic about the country's potential to reap this demographic dividend, but demographers and economists have warned that the dividend can be realised only when right policies for education and skilling, and good governance are in place (Chandrashekar et al. 2010, Bloom et al. 2011).

Figure 1. Total fertility rate of major Indian states, 2014

Source: Sample Registration System (SRS) Statistical Report, 2014.

Projections of change in age structure in India: 2011-2031

To assess the impact of the demographic bulge on demand for higher education in India, I project population1 and age structure at national and state levels using data from Census 2011 and Sample Registration Survey (SRS) 2014-2015, along with models of fertility decline in states (Retnakumar 2009). Based on these projections, the population pyramids shown below represent the change in age structure in India during 2011-2031. During 2021-2031, the demographic peak will shift to 15-24 years, the crucial cohort to be educated and skilled to prepare for the economy.

Figure 2. Population pyramids of India, 2011

Looking at the demographic future of the country as whole hides the enormous differences across states. Some states like West Bengal (TFR of 1.6 in 2014) and Tamil Nadu (1.7) have TFR close to many European countries, whereas some others like Bihar (3.2) and Uttar Pradesh (UP) (3.1) have equivalents in sub-Saharan Africa.

In Bihar, the TFR is far from reaching replacement level, and the population pyramid has a broad base in the child age group which will move upwards. By 2021, the higher education age group of 18-23 years – will increase by 57% from 11.4 million to 17.9 million. In contrast, Tamil Nadu, which has already passed the fertility transition phase, has much broader distribution in the middle: its population in the higher education group will decline from 7.5 million in 2011 to 5.9 million in 2031. A detailed look at the population projections across states reveals that in 2016, the Hindi belt states namely, Bihar, UP, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, and Madhya Pradesh, have the maximum proportion of their population in the 18-23 years age group. Punjab, Haryana and the southern states like Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Karnataka, have the least proportion of their population (10-11%) in the 18-23 years age group.

Figure 3. Population pyramids of Bihar

Figure 4. Population pyramids of Tamil Nadu

Figure 5. Percent of those in age group 18-23 years in Bihar and Tamil Nadu

For a long time in India, the 18-23 age group meant entry into the labour force. As recently as 2001, only one out of 10 in this age group received any college education (Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD), 2016). This situation has changed dramatically in the last two decades. Demand for higher education shot up enormously post the 90s, so did the supply of institutions – primarily due to the entry of private players. India's Gross Enrolment Rate (GER) in higher education more than doubled from mere 11% in 2001 to 25% in 2015. There are currently around 799 universities, 39,071 colleges, and 11,923 stand-alone institutions (not affiliated with universities) (All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE), 2015-16). But the aggregate figures mask the huge variations across India. Among the large states, Delhi has the highest GER of 45.4%, and Bihar has the lowest GER of 14.3% (see Figure. 6) The disparity among states is even worse if we consider the access to higher educational Institutions. Karnataka has 500 colleges per million student population, whereas Bihar has seventy; the all-India average stands at 280 colleges per million. Bihar has almost twice the population as Karnataka but has less than half of the universities (22) as compared to Karnataka (52). Consequently, colleges in Bihar are also overcrowded.

Interesting patterns can also be seen in the management and type of higher education institutions across the states. At the national level, about 64% of the colleges are private unaided, 14% private aided, and the rest are government run. Southern states have a greater share of unaided private colleges than the rest. Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, and Tamil Nadu have more than 75% private unaided colleges; whereas Bihar and Assam have just about 10% private unaided colleges respectively.

Figure 6. Gross enrolment ratio in higher education

Source: All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE), 2015-16

Table 1. Access to and type of higher education institutions

Source: AISHE (2015-16)

Earlier efforts to project the future of higher education in India have failed to capture the actual trends in enrolment and Institutions. The National Knowledge Commission (NKC) report in 2006 made a conservative estimate that to achieve GER of 15% in 2015, India needs 1,500 universities. India surpassed that estimate with GER of 24.5% in 2015-16 and 800 universities (2015-16) – about half of what NKC had predicted. Also, the report did not capture the variations across states in age structure and enrolment.

Here, I have attempted to compute the demographic changes and forecast the likely scenario in higher education by estimating the future supply and demand gap in higher education. India's 18-23 year age group population (158 million in 2016) is projected to decline by 25 million in the next 10 years. But if the current demand for higher education continues, India would achieve 40% GER with 53 million students studying in colleges in 2031, adding 14 million more students (50% increase) to the colleges. Interesting variations across can also be seen. Bihar currently has 16.6 million students in the age group 18-23 years; with GER of just 14%, only 2.4 million are currently enroled in college.If Bihar has to achieve current national average GER of 25%, in 2026, it has to enroll 1.4 million more students in college- an increase of almost 60%. To achieve GER of 40% in 2031, 5.27 million students needs to be enrolled in college requiring more than doubling the higher education institutions or their total capacities.

Table 2. Current and projected enrolment rate in Bihar and Karnataka

Source: AISHE (2015-16)

Table 3. Projected enrolment in higher education in Bihar

Education policymakers and planners both at the Centre and the states have to take cognisance of the demographic trends and enrolment patterns across the states while planning and allocating budget. For example, in Delhi, the change in higher education enrolment will be driven mainly by migration of youth from across India. In Tamil Nadu, enrolment trends will be driven primarily by an increase in GER rather than demographic change, whereas in Bihar, there is enormous scope for expansion both due to demographic change and enrolment rate increase.

Targeting specific GER addresses only the access issue, masking the larger question of structural reforms needed in higher education. What kind of institutions should the new generation of students be studying at? How do we ensure that these institutions meet adequate quality standards and train the students to meet the needs of the country?

Post-Independence expansion in higher education in India mainly followed the pattern advocated by the colonial masters – opening up colleges of specialisations, and fragmenting teaching and research between colleges and research institutions rather than integrating them in universities. Model of affiliating colleges has furthered the tradition of compartmentalisation of knowledge and has widened the gap between teaching and research. In a world where knowledge is becoming increasingly interconnected and traditional boundaries are being broken down, our educational system continues to emphasise the divisions.

Taking note of this, the Yash Pal Committee Report in 2009, stressed the need for creating teaching-cum-research universities, rather than colleges or institutions of specialisations. It observed that current structure of specialised colleges and institutions affiliating to universities compromises quality and fundamentally impairs any interdisciplinary learning. It recommended creating a unified regulatory body for higher education called the National Commission for Higher Education and Research (NCHER); curricular reforms allowing mobility within a full range of curricular areas; and consolidation of colleges to form meta-universities2 to meet the demand for both quantity and quality in higher education. Although Kapil Sibal (former Human Resource Development minister) boldly promised to implement Yash Pal committee recommendations within 100 days, it never saw the light of the day.

The BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) government has plans to bring in New Education Policy (NEP) this year, covering all aspects of education (the last such policy, the National Policy on Education, was formulated 30 years ago in 1986). The Subramanian committee, which gave its report on NEP last year, had little to say about structural reforms in higher education. It made no observations on the demographic scenario on higher education and completely ignored the core recommendations of Yash Pal committee report. Let's hope better sense prevails in the new panel drafting the NEP.


  1. The TFR is an indicator of the number of children a woman is likely to have in her lifetime, given the current fertility rates.
  2. The main purpose of a meta-university is to share learning resources with different universities by using the latest technologies available in order to enable the students to benefit from the learning resources available in different institutions.

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