Generational shift in Indian students’ higher education goals

Universities in India and abroad need to change their mindset when seeking to attract Indian students, as a major survey has shown a shift in perspectives among ‘Generation Z’ youths towards life goals and jobs and what influences them.

The survey by international education consultancy Sannam S4 of some 10,000 Gen Z Indian students – one of the biggest surveys of its kind across India – has found changing sentiments among young people aged 18 to 23 towards education and life goals, and a clear difference compared to people a decade or so older.

“Representing around one-fifth of the entire world’s youth population, how Indian students make decisions about their education will profoundly dictate future global mobility,” said Adrian Mutton, CEO of Sannam S4, which carried out the survey in several stages during 2020 and 2021.

The students were from all parts of India and included current undergraduate and graduate students as well as those who graduated in the past three years.

Most notable is a change in priorities from job opportunities to personal fulfilment. “While the desire to study at a branded university that results in promising professional prospects remains firmly in place, a keen awareness of global challenges with regard to hunger and poverty has emerged, along with the role youth can play to help address them,” notes the survey report, 10K Indian Voices, released on 1 November 2021*.

In mapping Gen Z academic and professional aspirations, the survey also looks at the influences of social media, social activism and sustainability, and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Ten years ago, the Indian student I was familiar with wasn’t really concerned with anything beyond the end of their nose. They were only aware of their immediate surroundings, and they were not very socially conscious,” Lakshmi Iyer, executive director of education at Sannam S4, told University World News.

“What our 10K Indian Voices survey has shown us is that a shift has occurred. Today’s Indian Gen Z student is very much aware and concerned about what’s going on in the world. They are global citizens. They all have distinct personalities; they take pride in being unique.

“Unlike in the past, these students are not moulded by parents who demand they become engineers or doctors. That kind of thinking seems to have gone out the window,” she added, referring to well-worn stereotypes of students in the country.

According to the survey, 60% of respondents indicated that it was “absolutely critical” to pursue a career of choice – more than those who prioritised a high salary or networking opportunities as a reason for choosing a particular course of studies.

Making a difference in the world

Making a difference in the world was important for 56% of students, rather than return on investment and higher salaries, as a reason for higher education choices.

Gen Z also have a strong social conscience, with 93% of those surveyed saying they thought about sustainability daily. Quality Education, Zero Hunger and No Poverty are seen as the most important of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

“Probably this has to do with the context these students come from – there is a lot of poverty around them. Hunger is very big. Perhaps in another market, some [other] of the SDGs will be at the top of their concerns,” Iyer explained.

“The impact of not meeting the SDGs is acutely felt in India. The SDGs actually resonate with students.”

The survey report noted that to attract Gen Z students, “universities need to integrate these higher order outcomes in the course curriculum. They need to highlight the relevance of their course in creating social impact.”

Pervasive internet and influence of social media

Iyer believes the generational change is in part due to “the pervasive influence of the internet. The concerns of students, globally, are starting to converge – they are all thinking about global issues and a youth population is emerging that is concerned about the larger good, not just their individual betterment”.

She added that Gen Z was “better equipped to take decisions than the generations ahead of them, because they have more tools at their disposal that can inform their decision-making process. Universities need to be more aware of that.”

Around 87% of Gen Z’s information comes from social media, with around 44% also reading newspapers.

They are also way ahead of their parents in finding information. “Parents are probably not as savvy with social media as this generation is,” said Iyer. “Gen Z use social media to consume everything from news to activisms and catching up with friends.

“It empowers them to take some of this decision-making into their own hands and enables them to amplify their voices, without needing anything more than a few thousand followers.”

This has also meant a move away from parents and family as primary influencers. The survey shows that the deepest influences for three-quarters of the sample are personal experiences followed by peer groups at 62% and family at 61%. Hence, higher education institutions “need to tap into personal networks, family and friends to spread the word”, the report said.

Careers are still very important. Iyer noted that with the background of the pandemic, which hit India particularly hard in April and May this year, Gen Z had been “worried sick” about their careers and whether they would even have a career. Around 40% of respondents talked of career growth being their key concern, followed by mental health.

“Everything else was secondary,” Iyer said. “This survey has taken place during a very traumatic period for everyone, not just in India but the entire world. And for this generation, it has been particularly hard.”

Around 60% of young people reported a negative impact of COVID-19 on their studies. Many did not leave their rooms, and missed out on key milestones in life such as graduation ceremonies, according to Iyer. Mental health concerned one in five of the respondents.

But the changes appear to go beyond COVID-19 and the experiences of the past two years, representing a longer term shift.

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