The population of India in 2020 was 1.39 billion people.
In one of the most populous countries in the world, up to 50% of its teenagers could not graduate from high school, according to the Rapid Survey on Children conducted by the Ministry of Woman and Child Development in 2013-2014. Furthermore, over 20 million Indian children did not even have a chance to enter kindergarten.
What this shocking number shows is inequality in India’s education system has long been rampant. Currently, there’s still no surveys comprehensive enough to reveal exactly how many more students in the country might have fallen out of school during the COVID-19 pandemic. There, the disparity in life opportunity and economic stature remains a great obstacle to secondary education.
The scale of disproportionality makes clear that the problem is still far from being resolved. The NSS 75th round survey in 2017-2018 noted that the literacy rate among Indian females age 7 and above in rural areas was 65%, up to 16.5% less than the rate among the males, which was 81.5%.
When including the population in the urban areas, the number of illiterate Indian women was 14.4% higher than men, or as many as 187.2 million women based on the population size of those years. Considering that India budgeted up to 50.1 million rupee for education in 2018, this statistic was quite telling.
Not only is the gap of literacy rates by gender huge, but also the highest level of education by area. The same report surveying people aged 15 and above found only 15% of those in rural areas could complete high school. The ratio of university graduates was down to just 5.7%, compared to 21.7% in urban areas.
For the whole country, only 16.6% of the people graduated from high school, while 10.6% completed a university degree. Those who were not literate at all were the biggest group, or 26.1% of the population.
The Senses Intelligent Interactive Panel, an organization advocating educational development in pan India, said one core problem in the country’s system is that a lot of Indian youths would never be qualified to go to university, while those who can complete a degree would be more likely to choose to work abroad for a better income.
As to why so many high school students are unable to get into university, Senses said it is due to India’s method of academic evaluation that encourages disparity.
The structural violence in education
Senses said India values academic achievement largely on grades. Students who score more than 90% would be classified as “genius,” while those who score less, even if they pass the standard, would be lacking. The habit to only seek for “geniuses” came from the time when the country was being colonized, which has become a great wall cutting a large number of students off access to higher education.
Chandra Prakash Verma, an education expert of New Delhi’s Greenway Modern School, said in 2017 that there were three main flaws in India’s education system.
First, the Indian people have difficulties accessing school due to the impoverished infrastructure, ranging from classrooms being poor, to the lack of clean water to drink, and an unsafe journey to school especially for girls. In some areas, rivers or highways became an obstruction to students’ path to school.
Second is the inadequate attention. Verma said the blame is not on students. It’s about the inability to foster passion for learning in young people. For example, the majority of teachers feel they only have to teach students to get good test results, rather than trying to make the students enjoy learning and let them take it from there. With the country’s high income inequality, a lot of young people cannot commit all of their time to studying as they have to work to help their family, and many subjects in the curriculum don’t make them feel worth the time as they don’t look to be any practical for real life.
Last is the problem about the purpose of education. This notion is supported by what Senses said about the troubling legacy from the colonization period. The system wanted only people for dull desk jobs running the country rather than people who are inherently curious. The preference of quantity over quality becomes problematic when a lot of young people are falling under the poverty line, and cannot afford to buy books or tutoring courses. At the same time, their homes also don’t have the environment that supports learning.
One of the most critical issues according to Verma is that India’s education system is a pyramid-like structure that constantly looks to eliminate students as shown in the graph below.
The graph here shows that in every step to a higher level of education, the number of institutions would decrease by almost half of those in the level below. It means that in every transition, at least 100,000 students could be pushed out of the system, which only increases the likelihood of them continuing to be trapped below the poverty line.
The pandemic complications, and prospect for solutions
Clearly, COVID-19 has aggravated the problem. India TODAY’s report “Challenges in Indian education system due to Covid-19 pandemic” said the push for online-based learning in India’s attempt to “new normal” wouldn’t be practical in the long run. Students in each area of the country are far too diverse and different. Oxfam’s research in 2020 found nearly 74% of India’s wealth was held by the richest 10% of the country. More than 320 million youths cannot access digital learning tools the same as those who are from the top 10% wealthiest families of the nation.
A way out of the worsening disparity due to COVID-19 therefore should be trying to get students back into classrooms as soon as possible. It might be necessary to have the pupils take turns to go to school to observe social distancing measures, but simultaneously the resources to online-based education must be more widely distributed. To be able to do that, local administrations and independent organizations must be allowed to take more part in fixing the problem collectively.
The biggest problem of India’s inequality in education is the sluggish development. The whole system needs to be adjusted to fit the context of present times, and students must be placed at the center of the progress. The local authorities must also work harder to expand access to education for students, especially in rural areas, as COVID-19 continues to ravage the country.
Solving the issue persistent for decades cannot easily be done by increasing the budget for education every year, as the India’s government is currently doing. The money must be distributed more suitably for the country to be able to address problems that are more urgent and serious. The government also should grant more participation from local communities to be able to change the system both locally and nationally. When all parties can work together, that’s when the country would be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel for its education system that has one of the biggest numbers of students in the world to support.
- National Statistical Office. (2019). Household Social Consumption on Education in India, NSS 75th Round 2017-2018. Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, From http://mospi.nic.in/sites/default/files/publication_reports/KI_Education_75th_Final.pdf