Higher education faces structural inequality across gender, caste, region
The ministry of education released the findings of the All-India Survey of Higher Education (AISHE) for 2019-20 on June 10.
The good news is that women have surpassed men in enrolling in higher education for the second consecutive year. However, the report also contains enough evidence to suggest that India’s higher education sector confronts serious issues of inequality across the gender, caste, and regional axis.
Here are six charts which show this.
Headline improvement in enrolment numbers hides access to professionally rewarding courses
There is a direct link between employability, income and the pursuit of higher education in India. Information from the latest Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) shows that workers with a post-graduate degree earned twice as much as their peers with higher-secondary education in 2018-19.
But when it comes to accessing professionally rewarding education, caste and gender seem to be major determinants. The Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) of women is higher than that of men in the 2019-20 report. GER is defined as the share of population of the 18-23 age group enrolled in higher education. But headline numbers hide more than they reveal.
The relative share of women — enrolment adjusted for their population share among bachelor’s or master’s level students — is greater than one in courses such as BA, MA and MSc. But it falls below one when it comes to professional courses such as engineering, medicine or management. The only professional courses — among the top 10 most pursued programmes at bachelor’s and master’s level — where women do better than men are BEd and MEd, which are usually pursued by aspiring school-teachers. By and large, the same trend of a mismatch in population and access to professional courses holds for students from Other Backward Classes (OBCs), Scheduled Caste (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST).
Multi-layered social inequality among teachers
More than 40% of the teachers in India’s higher educational institutions are non-SC-ST-OBC Hindus. Their population share, as per the findings of the 2015-16 National Family and Health Survey (NFHS), is just 17.6%.
Government universities and their affiliated colleges don’t necessarily do better than private ones. For example, in Institutes of National Importance, which include institutes such as IITs, NITs, AIIMS, and IIMs, the share of non-SC-ST-OBC Hindu teachers is more than 70%.
Caste and religious background is not the only the driver of inequality when it comes to India’s higher education faculty. Women are at an equal disadvantage and this increases as one goes up the academic hierarchy. The share of women at the demonstrator/tutor position in educational institutions is 65.5%, but it falls to 27.5% at the level of associate professor/professor.
Geography matters as much as sociology
Access to higher education varies significantly across states. GER is 15.8% and 13.1% for men and women in Bihar and 44.9% and 51.8% in Delhi. An ST student in Jharkhand or Chhattisgarh, for instance, is at a relative disadvantage in accessing higher education than his peer in Assam.
Public versus private could be a red-herring
Only 8,565 of 39,955 colleges in India or about a fifth (21.4%) were government colleges in 2019-20. But there is wide regional variation in the share of government colleges across different states.
In poorer states in the east, government colleges make up a third to half of educational institutions, while in southern and western states government colleges are less than a fifth of all colleges. There are exceptions though. Government colleges are almost as big a chunk of total colleges in Delhi (55.7%) as they are in Bihar (59.8%). This should make it clear that the public sector footprint is hardly an indicator of quality of education.
Uttar Pradesh, Bihar’s neighbour, on the other hand has just 12% government colleges, the second-lowest share among all states and union territories (UTs) after Maharashtra (11.9%).
To be sure, not all private colleges are the same. For example, although the total share of private colleges is the same in Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra, their nature is very different in the two states. A quarter (25.8%) of all colleges in Maharashtra are private aided colleges, while their share in Uttar Pradesh is just 9.5%. Private aided colleges – for example the Hindu College in Delhi – receive regular maintenance grants from a government or local body while private unaided colleges, at most, might receive a one-time or ad-hoc grant for a specific purpose such as building construction or strengthening of a library.
This has an impact on the nature of enrolment, with the distribution of students among different types of colleges in a state correlated with the distribution of types of colleges in the state. However, there is a slightly bigger burden of students on government colleges. The share of total students enrolled in government colleges is generally higher than the share of government colleges among total colleges in the state (except in Kerala, Maharashtra, and Chandigarh, where it is lower). For example, 66.6% of all students were enrolled in government colleges in Delhi, while government colleges make up only 55.7% of all colleges in the state.