COVID-19: South Asia graduates face bleak job prospects

This year’s cohort graduating from universities in several Asian countries – India, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan – like others elsewhere, are facing a bleak jobs environment due to the coronavirus crisis, which has closed universities, disrupted exams, cancelled job interviews amid travel bans in many regions and caused economic havoc which will see many graduate-recruiting companies go to the wall.

Governments have responded in various ways – in richer countries in Asia such as Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan universities themselves are creating jobs and internships backed by government funds. But in South Asia with its predominantly younger demographic and already high youth unemployment rates, government stimulus packages to keep their economies from crashing and bailouts for particular economic sectors or industries may not go far enough to help new graduates.


Students in India are already staring at a difficult year ahead as many firms have deferred graduate recruitment drives. Many are re-evaluating their hiring plans and shelving or even revoking job offers because of the current situation.

All educational institutions in India have been shut since 16 March due to the lockdown, which has been extended until 31 May. On 19 May, India’s coronavirus cases crossed the 100,000 mark with 101,139 confirmed cases, according to India’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, while 3,163 had succumbed to the deadly virus by that date.

The academic year for students entering higher education is likely to be delayed by months, as the new session is scheduled to begin from September instead of July.

Naveen Krishna Rai, business development manager at the Indian Institute of Management Indore, said: “In the present scenario, we don’t expect aggressive recruitment drives like previous years; and delays in graduation and the ongoing COVID-19 restrictions have led to job offers being withdrawn and job interviews getting delayed or cancelled.”

Rai added that the types of skills in demand would certainly change, and not just due to the pandemic, though it would have a catalyst effect.

Yogesh Saxena, a final-year engineering student in Delhi, said: “We’re witnessing layoffs while the lockdown continues. The lockdown and related uncertainties and the delay in exams and graduation are going to adversely affect our job prospects.”

A recent report by education counselling portal Shiksha released on 15 May noted that a leading United States-based consultancy rescinded its job offers to a batch of students from leading engineering and business institutions – 11 students of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Delhi, IIT Kanpur and IIT Madras and six from the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Calcutta.

IITs and IIMs fear the pandemic and the lockdown could force many more companies to reconsider their placement offers.

IIT Delhi Director V Ramgopal Rao called on recruiters not to withdraw placement offers. “We all understand these are difficult times. But please be considerate to keep your promise. Please do not complicate the lives of these brightest children in an already complex environment. If at all, they are capable of getting you out of this recession faster than you think,” he said in a Tweet.

The Ministry of Human Resource Development has told the 23 IITs to conduct a special recruitment campaign for those students who may have lost or may lose their job offers because of the virus outbreak. This will be provisionally scheduled for August 2020, according to the Shiksha report.

The university regulatory body, the University Grants Commission (UGC), issued fresh guidelines for universities to permit students to take up work from home, including internships, and to provide proper guidance for those opting for online internships. The UGC said this would help students boost their skills and gain some experience in the field of their choice so that they are ready for the jobs market once the lockdown ends.

India entered its lockdown – declared on 25 March – with a high unemployment level at 8.7%, but India’s Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy said total unemployment was at a record high of 27% in early May. Around 10-12 million young Indians and graduates enter the workforce each year.

Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka the education sector has been badly hit by the COVID-19 outbreak. All schools, universities, higher education institutions and tuition classes have been closed since 12 March. The university admissions process for the new academic year and final exams at schools and universities have been postponed.

Sri Lanka has had some 1,371 cases and 10 deaths to date, according to the health ministry, with a sharp rise in the number of cases since mid-May. Experts say more than a million Sri Lankans are likely to become unemployed or underemployed due to the economic effects of the pandemic, though most government jobs are secure. Around three-quarters of the country’s graduates are recruited into the public sector each year.

“Earlier I saw a lot of training and job opportunities, but now when we take the newspaper, there are only very few vacancies. Even recruitment websites are running low with vacancies,” said a female final-year undergraduate student who is seeking an internship. “A lot of my friends are also struggling to find a place to get training.”

Most of the country’s economic activities have been at a standstill from March. Many businesses cut jobs and salaries as cash flow was hit by the lockdown.

The Central Bank of Sri Lanka says the economy is likely to be impacted severely and GDP growth could decline to 1.5% in 2020, compared with 2.3% growth in 2019. The International Monetary Fund is predicting negative growth.

The government has tried to repurpose a government graduate employment scheme set up in advance of elections earlier this year, using money under its pandemic relief package to pay unemployed graduates for March while training them for COVID-19 control and tracking work. But the graduate scheme only applies to those who graduated before the end of last year. This year’s graduating cohort does not qualify.

In early March, the Sri Lankan government recruited around 45,000 unemployed graduates and sent them appointment letters for the training programme. However, the programme was suspended by the Election Commission on the grounds that it was being implemented at a time when parliamentary elections had been called for 25 April – and the election has now been postponed to 20 June due to the COVID-19 outbreak and could be postponed further.

The convener of the Combined Association of Unemployed Graduates, Venerable Thenne Gnanananda Thero, said: “The government promised to give jobs to all unemployed graduates, but there are still graduates who have not received the appointment letter.”

Thero told University World News the government promised to provide training and a monthly salary of INR20,000 (US$264) but some graduates had not received their salaries yet. Protests are being voiced through social media as protests are banned during the COVID-19 lockdown, he said.

The government has said it will reopen universities in stages with strict health guidelines in place. Medical faculties of all state universities for final-year students will reopen from 15 June under the first stage. Under the second stage, universities will be opened for final-year students of other faculties depending on the success of the medical faculty reopening. First-, second- and third-year students will be allowed under the third stage.


The higher education ministry in Afghanistan had already reshaped the curriculum for some key subjects in a bid to make it more market-oriented for young graduates and the new curriculum was due to be implemented in the new academic year beginning from March. However, universities did not reopen amid lockdown extensions.

According to the ministry, the trend of the “old style of chapter learning” at the different faculties, particularly engineering, international affairs, law, agriculture and education, would be discouraged and students would be educated and encouraged towards more modern methods and studies in their respective fields.

It said in a statement on its website that these changes are pivotal to make the young Afghan graduates fit well in the rapidly progressing and changing job market.

Even before COVID-19, Afghanistan’s labour market was in a poor state, but it has been made worse since the travel restrictions and lockdowns in different areas in the third week of March. The country has seen 13,016 cases – more than a quarter of them in the capital Kabul – and a total of 227 deaths as of 28 May, since the first case was confirmed in February. The number of cases has risen sharply since mid-May.

According to the Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce and Industries, up to 40% of factories and industrial units have been closed since the outbreak of the virus in February.

Among the architects of the new syllabus is Aref Naimzad, dean of the faculty of engineering at Kabul University (KU). He told a KU seminar that some 17 representatives of public and private employment agencies were also involved during the preparation of the new syllabus in order to align it with the labour market.

“The gap between the labour market and the education system is common in other countries as well. But in Afghanistan, it is much deeper,” he was quoted by the local Etilat-e-Roz daily as saying.

However, young graduates say the problem lies elsewhere. Bakhthar Ali graduated in business administration from India two years ago but continues to struggle to find a job in Afghanistan, even after working as an unpaid intern at public and private companies.

“If it was only the matter of the syllabus, why are qualified graduates like me who have studied abroad and are well-versed with modern trends, knowledge and techniques in their field, still jobless?” he asked.

A KU graduate and civil engineer, Asif Saify, who has been struggling to find a job for several years, blamed the corrupt political system. “First of all, there are few jobs in the government and private sectors compared to the [size of the] workforce, and the available ones are hard to get for a person even with suitable qualifications if he or she does not have strong political backing or cannot afford to pay bribes to get it,” he said.

In Afghanistan the unemployment rate measures the number of people actively looking for a job as a percentage of the labour force. The World Bank estimates unemployment is currently over 11%, but it is believed to be much higher. According to the government’s own estimates some 42% of the entire population lives below the national poverty line.