How unequal is access to education?


Education has for long been the key to moving up the economic and social ladder. There can be no equality of opportunity without access to quality education. Have inequalities in educational access in India diminished in recent times? The National Sample Survey Organisation’s (NSSO) most recent survey on education (71st round) conducted during January to July 2014, offers some clues.

One key indicator of the current state of access to education is the net attendance ratio (NAR). This is the number of students attending a particular section, divided by the total number of kids of that age group. For example, for Classes I to V, NAR is the number of children aged 6-10 years currently attending Classes I-V, divided by estimated population in the age group 6-10 years. The result is expressed as a percentage.

Chart 1 shows that 89% of kids of primary school going age of the richest fifth of the population attend school both in the rural and urban areas, while that proportion drops to 79% for kids in the poorest fifth of the population in rural areas and 78% in urban areas. That isn’t too bad. But, as the chart shows, NAR drops sharply when it comes to secondary school and becomes worse at the higher secondary level. Also, the difference between the richest fifth and the poorest fifth in enrolment widens sharply from the primary section to the secondary and higher educational levels.
The implication is simple: while basic literacy is increasingly available to all, the gulf between the poor and the rich widens as you go up the educational ladder. Only 6% of young people from the bottom fifth of the population attend educational levels above higher secondary in urban India, but that proportion is five times higher, at 31%, for young people from the richest fifth of the population. Note that NAR for urban kids studying above higher secondary levels for quintile 3, which is the middle fifth of the population, is 15%—half that of the top fifth. So the real middle class (as against the top 10% of the population usually referred to as the so-called “middle-class”) is also substantially disadvantaged when it comes to higher education. The situation, as the chart shows, is substantially worse in rural India. The upshot: well-off kids have much better opportunities for higher education, essential for getting good jobs in the cities and, increasingly, abroad as well, while their poorer cousins are doomed to scratch out a precarious living in the informal sector.

The good news is that at the all-India level, there isn’t much of a difference between enrolment of girls and boys, particularly at the primary level. But several states have wide gender differences in NAR at the secondary levels. For instance, NAR at the secondary level in Gujarat is 63% for boys and 43% for girls.

What about inequalities of access for castes? Once again, the difference in enrolment at the primary levels is not much. But the difference between scheduled castes and tribes and other categories widens at higher levels of education. It is particularly large for urban girls belonging to scheduled tribes at the secondary and higher secondary levels.

Among religious identities, enrolment of Muslims is lower compared to those of other religions at every level, both for males and females. In urban India, while enrolment for Muslim boys in primary schools is only marginally lower, the proportion at the higher educational levels is substantially lower. For urban Muslim girls, NAR is substantially lower than for those professing other faiths.

What about the quality of education? One way to gauge that, albeit rather imperfectly, is to compare the amounts spent on education, in the belief that more spending equals better quality. Average expenditure per student in the primary section in urban India for the top fifth of the population is more than eight times that for the kid from the poorest fifth of the population. In fact, the average expenditure in the primary section for the top quintile is almost double that of the next quintile (the top 20-40% of the population). A substantial difference exists between the amount spent by the top quintile and the others in higher education as well. The rich can buy quality education. Will more government spending on education help? According to the World Bank indicators, government expenditure on education as a percentage of gross domestic product was 3.8% for India in 2012. There’s no reason why it can’t be increased, particularly since the figure is 6.3% for Vietnam, 4.3% for Mali, 4.7% for Nepal and 5% for Rwanda, all of them poor countries.

But much also has to be done to improve the quality of government schools. Even in the lowest quintile or poorest fifth of the population, as many as 28.9% of urban students and 17.2% of rural students take private tuitions. This figure is 38.1% and 24.7%, respectively for students among the richest 20% of the population. It shows that the poor too want to give their children the advantage of a good education but it is also a massive vote of no-confidence in the government school system.

The conclusion: while access to education at the primary level has become widespread, glaring inequalities in enrolment exist at the secondary and higher levels. As Reserve Bank of India governor Raghuram Rajan said in a recent speech, “skills and capabilities have become much more important in well-paid jobs, and those born in good circumstances have a much better chance at acquiring these.”

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