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India’s education system is staggeringly huge. Its 300 million students and 6.5 million teachers could make up the world’s fourth largest country. In this otherwise sleepy behemoth, far-reaching changes have been taking place in recent years.
Enrolment in primary classes is touching 100%. Over 120 million kids are getting free mid-day meals at school. The literacy rate has increased to almost 75%. The right to education has been enshrined as a law. There has been a surge of interest and attention towards education, largely because people no longer are willing to let their children stagnate in backwardness. Education is increasingly being seen as the door to a better life.
This momentum and the accompanying euphoria, however, hide a stark truth that many are unable to see: that the education system continues to suffer from four great divides. These are — ruralurban, men-women, rich-poor and between castes. These divides are built into the system. As a result, vast millions on the wrong side of these divides are denied the benefits of modern education, their dream of prosperity crushed.
DALITS AND TRIBALS
Take the case of scheduled castes and tribes. They account for about a quarter of the population. Recent years have seen an intense urge in them to get educated. At the elementary (Class VIII) level, gross
enrolment ratios, that is, the ratio of those enrolled to the total number of children in the 6-14 year age group, have increased at a faster rate for dalits and tribals than for other sections.
But look beyond the elementary level and you see a grim picture. The drop-out rate for dalits is about 53% and for tribals a staggering 63%. This is way above the average for the country, which is 43%, in itself a pretty high figure. In some large states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Rajasthan, over 50% of dalit children do not go beyond Class V. In other words, vulnerable sections like dalits and tribals, who are also among the poorest, are not able to continue educating their children.
We are talking about dropouts and not children who haven’t ever been to school. Estimates of out-of-school-children are shrouded in mystery. There were about 3 crore in 2001-02. According to the government, this had dropped to just 28.7 lakh in 2009. But an independent survey by the Indian Market Research Bureau in 2009 found that over 81 lakh were out of school.
THE GENDER DIVIDE
The gender divide is starkly brought out by the fact that in the age group 5-29 years, about 57% of males were enrolled in educational institutions as opposed to 50% females. Even among those enrolled, only 48% females were attending classes as opposed to 51% males. These are results of an NSSO study in 2007-08.
The legacy of past discrimination against women remains visible in today’s numbers. According to Census 2011 data, among those above 7 years of age, there are 17.6 crore illiterate women in the country compared to about 9.7 crore men.
RICH-POOR AND RURAL-URBAN
In rural areas, over 51% of the poorest are illiterate and a minuscule 0.4% have gone beyond higher secondary. Among the richest, about 23% are illiterate but nearly 9% have completed post-school studies.
In the urban areas, the situation is dramatically different. Though 42% of the poorest are illiterate, the proportion of illiterates among the richest is only 7%. Just 1.5% of the poorest have completed higher studies but 42% of the richest have done so.
Even geography seems to be against the poor. In rural areas, almost all people — rich and pooralike — have a primary school within 2 km of their residence. But secondary schools are in a different league. While 59% of the richest have a secondary school within 2 km, only 39% of the poorest do.
It would be logical for policymakers to believe that providing technical and vocational education to the poor would lift them out of poverty, with subsequent help. But the state of technical education in the country causes dismay.
Just 1.9% of all students enrolled in the country get technical education, while those receiving vocational education are a mere 0.3%. In all, just about 2% of the country’s population has ever received technical training of any kind. Besides the paucity of technical institutions like ITIs and polytechnics, the high fees in technical and professional institutions is surely a cause for this abysmal state of affairs.
According to the NSSO report of 2007-08, the average annual spending by a family on technical education for their son or daughter is Rs 19,989 in case of government institutions and a back-breaking Rs 38,675 for those studying in a private unaided institution. Who among the poorer can afford this kind of expenditure?
These averages are much higher in urban areas where most technical education institutions are located. Studying in a private unaided institution in an urban area means spending Rs 43,058 on average. This average hides the range between top-class institutions and lesser ones.
The rush by the government to churn out numbers has hit the quality of education hard. A recent survey of learning outcomes of school children reported in the Annual Survey of Education-Rural revealed that about half of those in Class V could read only Class II texts and the proportion of kids who could solve a simple division sum in Class V had declined. In short, the standard of learning is low and dipping further.
Although a new national curricular framework was adopted in 2005, only lip service is being paid to its approach. Untrained and demotivated teachers are ignoring it, as are text book publishers and syllabus makers. The number of teachers needed for unrolling the RTE is estimated at 20 lakh and the standards of teacher education are being lowered to hastily fill the gap. A study by the National University of Educational Planning & Administration found that of the 47 lakh elementary school teachers, nearly 25% have not studied beyond the secondary level. Another quarter have just completed their higher/senior secondary level.
THE FUNDING DEFICIT
There is a view that at last the government has realized the importance of education and is channeling huge amounts of money into the sector. This is far from the truth. The latest Economic Survey notes that the combined spending on education by the central and state governments is projected at just short of 3% of the gross domestic product (GDP) for 2010-11. It is about 11% of all government spending. This spend is nothing spectacular — way back in 1991-92, education spending had inched up to 3.8% of GDP and over 13% of public spending.
What this means is that despite the high growth trajectory of the Indian economy, essential problems like providing quality education for all are not receiving adequate resources. Not only does this restrict the opportunity of education, it also affects quality.
With people thirsting for better education, there is only one way this plays out — higher costs for better education. As a recent NSSO study revealed, the average cost for general education (not technical) has increased by 176% in rural areas and 204% in urban areas between 1995-96 and 2007-08. This increase has the net effect of preventing large sections of people from joining the educational mainstream.