The COVID-19 pandemic has caused mass school closures around the world. UNSECO counts more than 1.5 billion children in 188 countries being affected. This is unprecedented. At the same time, the pandemic exacerbates already existing inequalities, not only between countries, but also within them.
This article will cover three broad themes: the digital divide, the infrastructure divide, and the funding divide. It will focus on India in general and the state of Bihar in particular.
According to the ASER 2018 report, around half of Bihar’s schools might have a working electricity connection on any given day. According to the 2011 Census, around 15% of the population in Bihar have a TV, around 7% have a computer and a bit over 50% have a mobile phone (a simple one or a smartphone). While one might argue that the last nine years have changed this, these numbers are averages. Government school students’ households are, on average, poorer.
The ASER 2017 report provides some further information. In Muzaffarpur district in Bihar, around 85% of youth (14-18 years) had used a mobile in the last week, while internet was only available to 26.3%. There is a stark difference between males (39.2%) and females (14.9%), indicating inequity along gender lines when it comes to intra-household distributions. A computer was available to 20.4% in the last week, again showing a massive gender imbalance (male 28.9%, female 12.9%) with 72.7% of sampled youth claiming they had never used a computer.
Hence, any tech-intensive bridging solutions have highly limited reach, especially among government school students, with numbers possibly being even lower for elementary school students. The reach of Ed-Tech solutions might further decline if the health pandemic is accompanied by an economic shock, especially in the informal sector, as internet packages might be discontinued due to a lack of disposable income.
In contrast, most children have access to radio. Radio programs can be accompanied by offline efforts, e.g. with worksheets being distributed together with mid-day meals or food rations. Such worksheets could be printed by newspaper press which could secure employment and ensure rapid distribution.
Furthermore, SMS and Interactive Voice Response Systems (IVRS) can allow for a low-tech user interface accessible to the majority, even though not all. Special arrangements should be made for those left out of ICT-based systems, many of which will belong to tribal communities or other vulnerable groups.
Some states have started to acknowledge this fact, including Bihar which has announced radio programs. This is a welcome step given that the political incentives are often times skewed in favour of apps and shiny tech gadgets that gain attention in the English-speaking press and among vocal middle-class voters.
At the same time, many states have followed these perverse incentives and developed apps and online-learning environments that lock out vast numbers of students. This increases learning inequalities and diverts scarce public funds away to cater to (relatively) privileged minorities.
In addition, big Ed-Tech companies have for long seen India as a major market for their “solutions”. A 2016 report by the Boston Consulting Group already saw India as the third biggest Ed-Tech market (measured by the share in total private investment). They have now re-adjusted their networks in an attempt to capitalize on disaster. This is also possible because no adequate and smart regulation is in place.
Even after schools reopen, existing inequalities will continue to increase. With infrastructure in government schools catering to the poor being strikingly insufficient, the affluent will benefit from their gated school campuses with lavish classrooms and plenty of space with small class sizes, allowing for regular classes to resume quickly.
In contrast, government schools often lack basic, legally mandatory amenities such as working toilets, running water or a sufficient number of classrooms. This differs substantially from state to state, putting Bihar into an extremely disadvantageous position.
According to reliable estimates, Bihar needs 75% more classrooms than it has and around double the number of teachers. Although information on what measures (apart from school closures, but even this is contested) are effective to curb transmission, a lack of basic infrastructure and overcrowded classrooms mean additional challenges.
It might well be that schools have to resume under an odd-even scheme with classes being taught on alternating days, to avoid overcrowding. At the same time, the state will have to ensure the availability of masks, soap, but also nutritious meals, possibly even ramping up the provision by adding a breakfast to the midday meal. As many families will or have already plummeted into absolute poverty, malnutrition risk will exacerbate and needs to be attacked with full force. This challenge will be much more severe in states like Bihar where a high share of the population lived under multi-dimensional poverty already before the pandemic hit.
Adding to these challenges, ensuring that children return to school at all will be a major challenge. Studies indicate that the longer schools remain closed, the lower the chance of children returning once they reopen. While some southern states might have functional parents’ groups in place, Bihar’s School Management Committees largely exist only on paper. In addition, the frontline bureaucracy is heavily understaffed and lacks basic equipment, making it almost impossible for Block or District officials to enforce compulsory education rules. This shall not serve as an excuse, but underlines the need for additional staff and resources to ensure that millions of children return to schools instead of brick factories and fields, severely harming their capabilities and freedom.
With many migrant workers returning to Bihar, additional enrolments seem likely. Current planning procedures with pre-fixed annual workplans and budget allocations often falling short of State demands can hardly accommodate for the requirements to respond to the pandemic. Making things worse, money often moves very slow (if at all) from the Center to the states to then trickle down to schools. For instance, by December, only around 57% of funds (the Financial Year in India ends in March) had been released by the Central government, the first element in a long chain of administrative units through which the funds are supposed to move. A business-as-usual attitude for fund-releases will make it impossible to meet the challenges posed by COVID-19.
Overall, per-student spending across states is highly unequal. For instance, a PAISA 2014 analysis found that while Bihar spends around ₹4,500 rupees, Kerala spent around ₹40,000 per student. This illustrates an enormous inter-state divide, even for government school students.
It is important for governments to equalize public funds across the country, at least to some extent. Bihar has a high share of overcrowded classrooms, unqualified teachers and poor students. To ensure equity and unity across the country, it is crucial that the Central government puts a special emphasis on supporting states like Bihar. The pandemic might serve as a new impetus for a general restructuring of Center-State transfers and Centrally Sponsored Schemes which are important source of funds for education expenditures.
Making things worse, the pandemic had severe macroeconomic implications and will inevitably lead to a fall in revenue while expenditures, e.g. for health and nutrition support, will have to increase if deaths are to be avoided. While health and nutrition are crucial, efforts must be made to safeguard and increase education expenditure to meet the challenges outlined above. Fiscal prudence regulations must not come in the way of crucial expenditure on children.
Private school operators have approached the government asking for financial support by providing money to parents so that these can continue paying fees to them. This must be avoided. There is no public interest in maintaining segregation. Claims that “budget” private schools provide better education than government schools are a myth debunked by large-scale, independent learning assessments. Fee-charging schools, if they go bankrupt, might push vocal and quality-aware students and parents back into the public system, thus having a positive long-term effect on bottom-up accountability. It is, however, important that government schools get the resources required to deal with the increased enrolment numbers.
The pandemic exacerbates the stark segregation in India’s schools. It puts a renewed focus on a long-existing divide that was never sustainable. In that sense, the pandemic can be a chance to realize collectively that promises around privatisation, small administration and austerity have never been met during non-pandemic times, let alone during a health emergency. When push comes to shove, it is the government schools that ensure nutrition, education and a crucial safety net.
Governments need to prioritize spending on government schools that provide free education to all children. They must consider increasing nutrition programs to avoid long-term negative impacts on children’s health. During a moment of national crisis, demands by special interest groups to sustain their unsustainable business models must not be entertained. Instead, children must be safeguarded by investing in free government schools for all.
Martin Haus is an alumnus of the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and advisory board member at the Education Policy Institute of Bihar (EPIB). Abhishek Anand is currently pursuing his PhD at the Centre for South Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and is a project manager at EPIB.