Inequality in educational access in India is not a new phenomenon

Annesha Mukherjee & Satyaki Dasgupta

One section of the Indian society is comfortably put up in their own air-conditioned homes, with definite access to internet to keep themselves busy, along with a secure job, and a sure source of income. Concurrently, there are thousands who are bereft of any such luxury. This grim picture of sharp contrast is not lockdown specific but a ubiquitous scenario which has always been ignored. An aspect of inequality currently being perceived by many is in the field of education. Discussions and criticism are ongoing regarding how a number of students will be unable to avail the suggested measures of online classes, submission of assignments, and examinations. A pertinent question being posed in these discussions is whether education in our country is only for the privileged. However, it is not sufficient to merely raise this question. What is required, in fact, is to understand the manner in which the prevalent system and its workings have contributed in making education exclusionary over time.

While privatized education is blatantly skewed towards people with sufficient monetary resources, even the esteemed public institutions of the country have been taking steps over the years which benefit mostly the entitled sections of the society. Instances include: gradual shift from offline to online modes of admission examination for post-graduation studies; selected candidates requiring to travel long distances at short notice to appear for interviews; even examination as crucial as the National Eligibility Test (NET) is being held online. With only 34.4 percent of the population having access to internet (World Bank 2017), these measures undertaken for revamping education along the lines of ‘digitalisation’ works to the disadvantage of a large group of students.

All of these coalesce to reinforce the existing inequality with respect to access to higher education. People who have significant social, cultural and economic capital find it easier to deal with the screening processes than those who lack such endowments. Thus, the newly adopted processes of gaining admission even in prestigious public institutions favour the privileged. The Hindu (2020) reports that while 9.1 percent of the PhD scholars admitted in all IITs in last five years were Scheduled Caste (SC), the same for Scheduled Tribe (ST) was a meagre 2.1 percent.

Even during the coursework, the starting points of the elite and the deprived students are significantly dissimilar. The latter have to spend disproportionately more time in acquiring skills like working knowledge of software and conversance in English which are required for achieving upward mobility in the sphere of academics. Students possessing higher social and cultural capital learn these skills relatively faster. According to Sen’s capability approach, they are better positioned than the disadvantaged students, giving them a head start. Instances of this situation are commonly observed in the country. Data on student drop-outs from twenty-three IITs between 2017 and 2019 showed that 1171 out of 2400 belonged to SC, ST and Other Backward Castes (The Print). Similarly, 29 percent of SC and 41 percent of ST students were unable to pass in all three papers in coursework for MA in Economics in Delhi School of Economics in March 2018, with a large percentage of them dropping out after their first year (The Wire).

Furthermore, completion of a PhD degree requires students to submit a thesis. Also, extra points are garnered when their papers are published in recognized journals. Access to academic papers is necessary to achieve these ends. However, ‘non-profit’ online platforms have attained control over these papers and allow only restricted access. Subscription to these platforms is limited to few institutions, most of these being the elite ones. With rigorous screening procedures being followed, these places lack proper representation of students hailing from marginalized sections of the society. As a result, lack of accessibility to requisite articles and papers cause these students to fall behind in reaching the upper echelons of the academic world. Therefore, with every level, clustering of the privileged is ensured. This is ironic in the field of social sciences.

The discussion, so far, elucidates why stark disparity in the field of education during the pandemic should not be mistaken as a one-off event. It is a continuing process where even the knowledge imparted by public institutions is rendered exclusionary. In this context, reference must be made to Paul Romer’s seminal work in 1986. He postulated that knowledge (with its spillover effects), as a public good, plays an important role in furthering the growth of an economy. Thus, it is supposed to be both non-rival and non-excludable. This is not the case with our current educational system, given its exclusionary nature.

In the wake of the educational inequality that ravages through the country, it is imperative to address the issue of digital divide, before the system is further ‘modernised’. Greater efforts need to be made to ensure that all sections of the society have equal access to various resources, both online and offline. Reservation policies need to be strictly adhered to by educational institutions. They should also receive more attention during the coursework. With the shift towards digitization reinforcing the already existing inequality in academics, acknowledging and taking care of the aforementioned issues is the only way to ensure a level playing field.   

Annesha Mukherjee and Satyaki Dasgupta are MPhil Research Scholars at Centre for Development Studies, Kerala.

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Jun 9, 2020

Satyaki Dasgupta

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