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Higher education faces structural inequality across genders, castes and regions


The education ministry released the findings of the All India Higher Education Survey (AISHE) for 2019-20 on June 10.

The good news is that women have outpaced men in higher education enrollment for the second year in a row. However, the report also contains enough evidence to suggest that India’s higher education sector faces serious problems of inequality on regional, gender and caste axes.

Here are six charts that show this.

Enrollment headline improvement hides access to professionally rewarding courses

There is a direct link between employability, income and pursuit of higher education in India. Information from the latest Periodic Labor Force Survey (PLFS) shows that workers with a graduate degree earned twice as much as their peers with upper secondary education in 2018-19.

But when it comes to accessing a professionally rewarding education, caste and gender seem to be the main determinants. The Gross Enrollment Rate (GER) for women is higher than that of men in the 2019-20 report. The GER is defined as the proportion of the population in the 18-23 age group enrolled in higher education. But the headline figures hide more than they reveal.

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The relative proportion of women (enrollment adjusted for their population share among undergraduate or master’s students) is greater than one in courses such as BA, MA, and MSc. But it falls below one when it comes to professional courses like engineering, medicine, or management. The only professional courses, among the 10 most sought after programs at the bachelor’s and master’s level, where women perform better than men are BEd and MEd, which are generally taken by aspiring school teachers. In general, the same trend of mismatch in population and access to professional courses applies to students from Other Backward Classes (OBC), Scheduled Castes (SC), and Scheduled Tribes (ST).

Multilayer social inequality among teachers

More than 40% of teachers in higher education institutions in India are non-SC-ST-OBC Hindus. Their participation in the population, according to the findings of the 2015-16 National Health and Family Survey (NFHS), is only 17.6%.

Government universities and their affiliated universities do not necessarily perform better than private ones. For example, in Institutes of National Importance, which include institutes like IIT, NIT, AIIMS and IIM, the proportion of non-SC-ST-OBC Hindu teachers is more than 70%.

Caste and religious background are not the only factor driving inequality when it comes to higher education in India. Women are equally disadvantaged and this increases as they move up the academic hierarchy. The proportion of women in the position of demonstrator / tutor in educational institutions is 65.5%, but falls to 27.5% at the level of teacher / associate professor.

Geography matters as much as sociology

Access to higher education varies significantly between states. The 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 example, 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 out of 39,955 universities in India or about a fifth (21.4%) were government universities in 2019-20. But there is wide regional variation in the proportion of government universities in different states.

In the poorer eastern states, government universities account for between one-third and one-half of educational institutions, while in the southern and western states, government universities account for less than one-fifth of all universities. However, there are exceptions. Government universities are almost as large a part of the total number of universities in Delhi (55.7%) as they are in Bihar (59.8%). This should make it clear that the footprint of the public sector is hardly an indicator of the quality of education.

Bihar’s neighbor Uttar Pradesh, on the other hand, has only 12% government universities, the second lowest proportion among all states and union territories (UT) after Maharashtra (11.9%).

Certainly not all private universities are the same. For example, although the total proportion of private universities is the same in Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra, their nature is very different in the two states. A quarter (25.8%) of all universities in Maharashtra are privately attended universities, while their share in Uttar Pradesh is only 9.5%. Aided private universities, for example Hindu College in Delhi, receive regular maintenance grants from a local government or body, while unaided private universities can, at most, receive a one-time or ad-hoc grant for a specific purpose such as building construction strengthening a library.

This has an impact on the nature of enrollment, 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 higher student load at government universities. The proportion of total students enrolled in public universities is generally higher than the proportion of public universities in total state universities (except in Kerala, Maharashtra and Chandigarh, where it is lower). For example, 66.6% of all students were enrolled in government universities in Delhi, while government universities represent only 55.7% of all universities in the state.

Higher education faces structural inequality across genders, castes and regions

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