A variety of things are on sale along the highway between Delhi and Meerut—luxury cars, travel packages, “VVIP addresses”—but nothing seems to be more in demand on this 80-km stretch than professional degrees. The closer you get to Meerut, the more professional institutes you find every kilometre: Milestone Institute of Professional Studies, Banke Bihari School of Technology, Krishna Institute of Management, Meerut Institute of Engineering and Technology, Deewan’s Institute of Management Studies.
One of north India’s “education hubs”, the tier-2 city has roughly 80 “technical-professional” institutes, four universities and 150 colleges of which many offer professional courses.
Professional education makes good business sense in a place like Meerut where a professional degree means upward mobility. So it has been for at least a decade now.
In 2007, when Rahul Bharadwaj graduated from a college in Meerut with a degree in commerce, he went straight for an MBA. “I didn’t have another option because everyone had a craze of doing MBA,” said Bharadwaj who grew up in a family where men traditionally worked for the government. But like every family in his neighbourhood, his too wanted him to get a professional degree. “And MBA was on boom.”
In a country where the gap between the number of jobs and the number of job seekers makes headlines every day, a professional degree is what university education used to be in a previous era: the differentiator. The perception may or may not actually drive recruitments, but it continues to drive enrolments in thousands of private institutes offering professional degrees across India.
By official estimates, the country has more than 6,000 technical institutes and 5,500 MBA institutes; one doesn’t have to travel far to get a degree in hospitality or communication, either.
The explosion has created its own problems. If everyone entering the job market at a certain level is armed with a professional degree, then only a fraction will end up filling the positions. The usual rules of selection apply here, too, from the quality of training to the ranking of the institute. What happens to the leftovers?
After spending two years and ₹1,50,000 at Deewan’s Institute of Management Studies on the Delhi-Meerut highway, Bharadwaj was one of the leftovers. With no job, he put his MBA degree to the only use he could think of. He joined another MBA institute as a teacher. He didn’t like his job at Ghaziabad’s Modern Institute of Technology and Management—“I was not getting what I deserved”—but he didn’t know what else to do.
From the time he got an MBA degree, Bharadwaj has repeatedly tried his luck at government openings. “I gave more than 20 exams of different departments. Banking, first for PO (probationary officer) then clerk. Electricity department. Staff Service Commission—starting with office assistant.” None worked out.
Placements are a matter of pride for Deewan’s Institute of Management Studies, says Dr Satish Kumar, who is in charge of operations. The institute promises white-collar jobs in respectable companies to its 120 new management students every year, who come not just from Meerut but Jammu and Kashmir, Bihar, Punjab and Haryana.
However, the country’s respectable companies are hiring fewer people every year. India’s largest creator of private-sector jobs, the $150 billion Information Technology (IT) industry is struggling to maintain idle employee pools—or “bench”— or invest in training them in emerging skills. Three of the biggest IT firms—TCS, Tech Mahindra and Infosys—registered a decline in their workforce in the quarter that ended on 30 June.
Set off by the 2008 worldwide financial crisis and made worse by every local and global factor impacting the job market — from automation to demonetisation — the country’s private sector hiring is on a downswing that appears irreversible in the near future.
Ultimately, Kumar says, it’s a student’s “skill set” that will see him/her through. Some of those who don’t end up at a multinational company work in the city’s local industries—automobile, textile—or make do with a call centre job in Delhi or Gurgaon. Almost all of them, he said, try their luck at government jobs. “Job security. Perks. Salaries. A government peon makes ₹25,000 a month. It’s the starting salary for a corporate job.”
The government, it turns out, is the most common Plan B for students streaming out of India’s professional institutes with a degree in hand. As a Central Pay Commission report recently noted, salaries for a government job are higher than a private sector job for every single level of education. Even the advantages of having a public-sector job have increased over the years, leaving only the “highly skilled” to prefer a private-sector job. But if one doesn’t need a professional degree to apply for a government job, then why is every young man and woman in Meerut headed to a professional institute?
Just to have an edge, says Ankur Raghuvanshi, who left Meerut Institute of Engineering and Technology, on the same highway, in 2013 with a degree in Masters of Computers Application (MCA). Raghuvanshi, who comes from a farming background in Muzaffarnagar, says the investment in a professional degree—it cost him more than ₹3 lakh over three years—is a gamble. “If you get a job after it, then it’s profit. If you don’t, it’s loss,” Raghuvanshi said. His own investment turned into a loss.
“Everyone is leaving these institutes with an MBA or MCA degree. The competition has become tough. Earlier, there used to be one MBA or MCA in a village, now every second person is.”
Just out of the institute, he took a data-entry job at an IT company in Noida, but left in months because there was “no satisfaction.” Jobless since, Raghuvanshi has moved back to Muzaffarnagar and hopes to crack the entrance to the sub inspector’s position in Uttar Pradesh police one day. “What else can you do?”