If one were to ask, what is the purpose of education, there would not be one straightforward answer. If we were to get philosophical and idealistic at this juncture, education is about enhancing the understanding of the world, to learn, to think differently, unleash creativity and become a better person. Yet, unfortunately, given the competitive world we live in, education is a means to an end, the end being a better life largely in economic terms. For many, it is an aspiration for mobility, for getting better jobs and a path to their dreams.
As per the Human Capital Theory, an individual’s investment in education depends on their expectations of returns on the same, therefore only those individuals would invest in education who expect to get higher earnings in the future. This investment is not just monetary but also an investment of time. There is an opportunity cost incurred in terms of earnings foregone in choosing to be in school as opposed to doing unskilled work. So, the social rate of return is much lower than private return even when education is subsidized or provided for free.
Education has been a central policy issue in India from independence, having found a place in every five-year plan of the former Planning Commission, right up to the recent New Education Policy of the government signaling a break from the past and with a heavy emphasis on making education universal. But, what do we mean when we say universal? More importantly, what are the external factors, that may act as a hindrance to attaining such universalization? Also, why are the returns of this investment, which is surely going up, not turning out to be as high as one may expect for certain groups of people?
Shadow Education in India
In 2009, the Government of India passed The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act which provided for compulsory education for children between the ages of 6 to 14 and made it a Fundamental Right under Article 21(a) of the Constitution requiring all private schools to reserve 25% of seats for students belonging to “weaker sections and disadvantaged groups”. This was not without resistance from private school associations that took the issue to the Supreme Court of India which however upheld the validity of the reservation. The Act and the Judgement were no doubt commendable steps, yet the Act did not account for the cost implications.
As per the 71st Round Survey on Education of the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) of Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, Government of India, the major reason for never attending school for people between the ages of 5 to 29 was the lack of interest in education, followed by financial constraints, engagement in domestic activities and engagement in economic activities.
One of the ways to ensure enrolment is to look at ways in which there can be a higher return on investment. Shadow education had been aptly defined by Claudia Buchmann and Vincent Roscigno from Ohio State University and Dennis Condron from Emory University as “educational activities such as tutoring and extra classes occurring outside of formal channels of an educational system that are designed to improve a student’s chance of successfully moving through the allocation process.”
In India, the highest paying jobs are usually reserved from those attending the prestigious engineering, medical, law or management colleges or through earning prestige by clearing top government exams such as the one for the civil services conducted by the Union Public Service Commission. There is a thriving private coaching industry for these examinations. The competition is naturally very high for these examinations. And thus, there is the booming coaching industry in India which helps students prepare for these examinations, a classic example of shadow education. The fees of these institutes can go up to lakhs of rupees for some of the best well-known institutes (one lakh Indian rupee= 100,000 rupees = approximately 1400 dollars).
The Associated Chamber of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM), in 2013 had released a survey on “Business of private coaching centres in India”, private tuition is a multi-billion-rupee industry. A majority of middle-class parents spend as much as a third of their income at coaching institutes. Beyond this, another trend is of well-trained and qualified educators leaving the formal education system, to teach at these institutes because they receive much higher remuneration than they would at formal institutes. In this context, the then General Secretary of ASSOCHAM had commented that children should be able to gain quality education which is their entitlement and not merely that which they can afford.
A Story of Inequality
Given, as mentioned, that this is largely a middle-class phenomenon, those from lower-income groups tend to miss out on a certain kind of education. An analysis by Mark Bray and Ora Kwo from the University of Hong Kong highlights how shadow education leaves education out to market forces, where as much as the State tries to make it free and universal, quality education becomes a commodity and out of reach of many.
Though lower-income households, too, have attempted to provide private tuitions and coaching to their children, as can be expected, the absolute income spent by them is much lower than high and middle-income groups, therefore again, not being able to match up to the same quality. Like the ASSOCHAM report, they too write that there is a loss of talent from the formal sector to the shadow industry and the quality in the formal sector particularly the public education system is again lowered and made more impoverished.
The question that arises after this is that, what do we essentially mean by universalisation of education? Is it merely an access to the school infrastructure reflecting in the Gross Enrolment Ratio of the country which has no doubt been doing well since the RTE was introduced, or does it also include a certain standard of education with certain content and quality which should not come at a cost but as a public good?
I believe, it is the latter. Universalization is no doubt a utopian ideal of an egalitarian world, but the existence of utopia is for the reason that we try to move towards it in our practice. With the general belief being that one needs coaching institutes to clear competitive exams, there is likely to be a lower expectation of return on investment and thus a demotivation towards studying acting as another barrier towards the attainment of education for all.
The Way Forward
At the same time, it is essential to acknowledge that the picture is not completely pessimistic and gloomy.
In recent years, a sizable number of candidates have been clearing entrance examinations through self-study. There are plenty of scholarships available to meritorious students from lower-income groups and the governments of many states have been running programs to help the underprivileged students crack entrance examinations and get a similar kind of education required as their peers.
For example, the government of the Union Territory of Delhi has started a monthly initiative where serving officials interact with underprivileged students who aspire to become civil servants related to their experience and strategies regarding the examination. The Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment of the Government of India has launched the scheme for Free Coaching for the Scheduled Castes and Other Backward Classes, providing good quality education to students belonging to these groups. Besides, the system has been beneficial in various ways for imparting knowledge to those who can access it.
However, these are all baby steps. The fact remains that huge chunks of students are still shut out from both quality education as well as education that will bring about gains in the future. The urgency is to retain talent in the formal schooling system so that a high quality of education could be imparted in schools themselves. This requires a huge injection of funds into the public education sector along with continuing reservations in private schools per the RTE.
A reconsideration of the college entrance examination procedure would also do good with the syllabus being more in sync with what is taught in schools or looking at better aptitude-based systems of evaluation. This would also help release some of the high mental stress that aspirants go through which has led to a chilling number of suicides in the past, often due to fear of the huge financial investments going to waste.
This is not to say that providing similar quality of education is all that is needed to revolutionize the education sector nor is it the only deterrent for those outside the education system for nothing could be further from the truth. There are a huge number of other related structural, financial, social and political issues involved. Further, it is not right to say that the shadow education system is a villain in this story, it is only a product of the social structure that we have created.
On the contrary, through this article, I hope to have provided a case for looking at the idea of universalization from a different perspective and for considering an ignored variable in the formulation of educational policy.