I’m here to talk to you about Indian education, higher education in particular. But I’m actually going to start with demography.

How many of you here are under 35? Okay, that seems pretty representative of the country; 65% of India is under 35.

How many of you are under 25? Okay. Then you are not so representative because we have half of the Indian population pretty much under 25. We are an amazingly young country. In fact, if you just take the age group from 10 to 19, there are 226 million Indians, poised, in other words, to enter higher education, going through school and ready for higher education.

Now this is amazing because it’s happening at the time when the rest of the world is aging. Right? If you look at the average age in India today, it’s 28. Of course, don’t ask about the gap – since we heard about gaps – between the average age of the Indian person and of the Indian cabinet. I think we hold the world record for that.


But, that’s another TED talk, right? But what you’ve got with the average ages at a time when the rest of the world is changing, so by 2020, the average age in Japan is going to be 47, in China it’s going to be heading well past 40, Europe, 46, the United States, youthful US, also 40, and India’s average age is going to be 29.

So we are potentially the people who are the youthful, productive, dynamic, young population, ready to work, and transform the world, the kinds of role that, say, China played in the last generation could be ours in the next. In fact, International Labor Organization has worked out that by 2020, we’ll have 160 million people in the age group of starting work — 20 to 24 is what they calculate — and China will only have 94 million, at the same time. So we really are poised to do that.

But, and by the way, other countries will have a serious deficit that’s estimated that the US will have 17 million short in terms of how many people they need of working age. We, in India, have the people. But do we have the ability to equip the people to take advantage of this, to be the workforce of the work engine for the world? See, if we get it right, we educate and train them, we really transform not just our own economy and our society, but the world.

If we get it wrong, the demographic dividend that I’m talking about becomes a demographic disaster. Because, we’ve already seen in 165 of our 625 districts what happens when unemployed, frustrated, undereducated young men become prey to the blandishments of the Maoists and prey to the gun and the bullet.

So education in our country is not just a social or economic issue, it’s even a national security issue. We’ve got to equip our people to take advantage of what the 21st century offers them.

Now this is the story in a nutshell: 4 E’s, Expansion with our first priority in education. Why? Because the British — and I wouldn’t even ask if any of you are here — left us in 1947, with a 16% literacy rate. There were only 400,000 — four-lakh students in the entire country in higher education. We had 26 universities, fewer than 700 colleges. So obviously, expansion was essential; we’ve gone right from that 16% to 74% literacy today, we’ve gone from 26 universities to 650 universities, we’ve gone from those 400,000 students, four-lakh students, to 20 million students in higher education today, and we have 35,000 colleges as well, instead of the 700 colleges we had then. So expansion has taken place.

We’ve also had to fight for the second E of Equity. That is, including the excluded from the education, trying to reach out to the unreached, the people who didn’t get a fair shake in education for reasons they couldn’t help: gender, an obvious reason. When we had that 16% literacy rate, do you know what the female literacy rate was? 8.9% at the time of the independence. Just one out of 11 Indian women could read and write. Caste, region, religion, all sorts people got left out of system. We had to bring them in. And that became a big challenge and a priority for education.

In getting those two things more or less right, I don’t know how well we did on the third E, which is the E of Excellence. Obviously, you need quality. And we set about setting up institutions of great quality in our country. The IITs are a good example, in fact, it’s part of Jawaharlal Nehru’s vision that IIT in Kharagpur was established back in 1956, the year I was born, and it was done on the site of a British detention center, the Hijli detention center. So a symbol of political oppression became instead a symbol of hope, of technology, of looking to the future.

But, for the IITs, the IIMs, a few good institutions, I’m sure you could all pick your few around the country, these have tended to be islands of excellence floating on the sea of mediocrity. The average Indian higher education institution is simply not of the quality that you and I, all of us, in this audience would like to see.


And that ties into the fourth E that I’ve added to this catechism: Employability. Talk to employers, talk to CEOs, what would they tell you? That they’re simply not satisfied with the quality of the graduates they’re getting. Even in the T of TED, the technological area, engineering graduates, half a million engineering graduates a year, but if you talk, for example, to the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, they did a survey, 64% of employers are not satisfied with the quality of graduates they’re getting.

Some companies are running, essentially, re-education places, Infosys’, the gigantic campus in Mysore. And it’s not on the job training which big companies tend to do, it is, in fact, really a full-year’s education for the people they’ve already hired, to make up for the deficiencies of what they’ve learned or not properly learned in the college.

Now, that’s the scale of the challenge that we face. What are we doing about it? A great deal needs to be done. Of course, we are trying to put in kids into the system at an early age, the RTE, the Right to Education Act, if kids were out of school in the old days, it was their parents’ fault; today, if there are out of school it’s a state’s fault. The government is committed to actually getting them an education.

We’ve got more and more money being pumped in by the system at all levels. For example, many of you may have gone to prestigious universities; lots of people in India don’t. They go to state universities which are grossly under-financed. We’ve come up with a scheme to pump central money into the state universities, so they actually have the resources to do something with the students they have there.

Money isn’t the whole answer. There is an entire challenge, in terms of addressing things like the gender gap – that’s a gap, but despite what mister — or what an earlier speaker said, we don’t want to embrace, right? – it’s a gap we must, must overcome. Right now, women’s literacy is 66%, better than the 8.9%, but it still means that, one out of every 3 Indian women still can’t read and write. We have to overcome that.

And we need to catch the ones who’ve been left out of the net: adult literacy; huge challenge. I went off to a village in Tamil Nadu, not far from Kanchipuram, and I’ve met women, who in their 50s and 60s, were learning to read and write. And people think sometimes what’s the point, some of their own family members, their husbands, think what’s the point. The answer is it changes their lives, it empowers them in real ways. I spoke to a woman called Chitra Mani, who proudly wrote her name in Tamil on a piece of paper. And I said: “So, what does being able to read and write mean to you?”