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Putting Underprivileged Students Into College Classrooms: A Market Approach

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By Waled Aadnan:

Children, they say, are the future of a nation. If that be true, India’s potential is unmatched across the world. We have one of the largest and at the same time youngest population. So is the future one happy story for India? Err, not really. Poverty is widespread in our country despite the gains made through six decades of planning. Although the Government would tell us that one in three persons is poor, this figure isn’t a reliable estimate of the number of Indians who will grow up without access to what modern civilization considers basic needs: health care, sanitation and education. The World Bank figure of more than one in two Indians suffering from multidimensional poverty tells a more accurate story of the structural constraints facing children in India today.

With more than half of our population poor, and relatively high birth rates among the poor in India, nearly three-fifths of India’s children are born in underprivileged households. And their chances to lead an educated, dignified life with economic and social freedom are stunted to say the least. As a nation, it is imperative upon us to allow all our children to access basic social infrastructure like good education and gain the capabilities that will arm them enough to contribute positively towards the development of themselves, their society and the country. As of today, this aim is just that: an aim. Nearly 60 per cent of children hailing from underprivileged backgrounds drop out of school and have very little chances of going to college, forget completing a course there. Poverty, which ushers in the necessity to work and earn a living from a very early age, is the predominant factor behind this state of affairs.

This leads us to the question as to what we can do to change the ground realities. What indeed are the stumbling blocks that contribute to our abysmally low percentage of college graduates and what steps need be taken to address the problem? The approach I’ll be taking is one that attempts to enhance the freedom of people, including poor people, enjoy rather than restrict their options in order to achieve the same goal.

Firstly, looking at the education market as a student of economics, it is clear that neither is the necessary supply of quality higher education in place, and nor is there growth in effective demand for higher education (in the form of growth in new skilled jobs at the same rate as growth in the number of students). The idea is simple. If there are enough new jobs created every year that require a certain level of skills, or in other words, a college education, over time, individuals will respond to this demand for educated individuals by spending more years getting educated than they do now. This is a demand side analysis. On the supply side, we can argue that if high quality educational infrastructure were put in place which includes more accessible higher education (closer to people’s homes), higher standards and quality of such education and more interesting content in syllabi, then demand for such education will correspondingly rise i.e. more and more students would be willing to spend that few more extra years in school and college than they were willing to otherwise. In other words, supply will create its own demand. Let us examine these two broad aspects in more detail.

India has been growing at a reasonably fast rate of 6-8 per cent in terms of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). However, as our economy grows the importance of different sectors changes. On the one hand, agriculture contributes less and less every year while the contribution of industries and services increases. But employment patterns haven’t changed drastically since Independence. Approximately two-fifths of our working force produces five-sixths of the value of our goods and services. This shows that the growth of our economy doesn’t correspond to number of jobs. Instead, we have a labour saving growth. The first step to rectify our educational imbalance is to adopt policies that create more jobs and more skilled jobs in particular. This will not only help to decrease our unemployment rate but in the medium to long term, will give more incentives to people to get more educated.

On the other hand, the government can put in place policies and direct efforts too can be made to improve the quality of higher education that is already available today and establish more centres of excellence that may will break down the monotony of our education system and provide a structure of learning that will appeal to people belonging to different sections of society and possessing different tastes, interests and skills.

In the entire analysis above, I could have spoken of the need for more subsidised education or something on the lines of a midday meal scheme, this time for colleges. But it has to be appreciated that policies are already present on paper that should address the problem we discuss here. It is the implementation that has lagged behind. So no matter how noble and ideal our socialist endeavours may be, it may well be time to allow the market to try and turn things around in our higher education system. Besides, considering the fiscal strain that even the Right to Education Act is going to impose on the public exchequer, we need to look for not only the correct solutions, but also the feasible ones.

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