Since its founding, one of India’s most important development goals has been raising the Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) in higher education. The current administration has set particularly ambitious targets, aiming for a GER of 30 per cent by 2020, a substantial increase from the present GER of slightly less than 20 per cent. These numbers are clearly on the minds of the officials at the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) tasked with revising the National Education Policy. Indeed, laudably, almost all of the themes guiding the consultation process forefront issues of access and equity.
The majority of the over 6,000 young people whose voices are captured in India’s Youth Speak Out About Higher Education, an independent report by UNESCO Mahatma Gandhi Institute for Education for Peace and Sustainable Development, passionately supported expanding access to tertiary education. When asked for a strategy for doing so, their message was clear: If you want to improve the GER, start with primary schools.
Youth felt the effects of poor educational foundations even before they stepped on campus. While their peers often started using computers in primary school, youth from remote areas often did not encounter technology until high school. Consequently, they found it difficult to use the internet to research programmes, fill out applications, and apply for financial aid. Said one woman from the Northeast: “I had no idea how to use internet even when I had passed with good marks in Class 12. When people asked me to (fill an) online application, I freaked out.” Students recommended investing not only in more up-to-date technology in remote areas, but also in training teachers to incorporate technology into their lessons as early as primary school.
Another issue students face is a lack of access to perquisite courses. A psychology student in Delhi, for example, told us that he was unable to apply to medical programmes apply because his rural school does not offer physics and chemistry, two courses that are taken for granted in most schools throughout the country. His experience was echoed by numerous participants who said that in remote areas, course offerings are low quality and inconsistent, and that this should be remedied nationally.
When — and if — students enrol, many struggle due to a lack of preparation. This is particularly pronounced when it comes to language: Students transitioning from vernacular systems repeatedly described their struggles to cope in both Hindi and English medium degree programmes. They said that second language instruction — and, in particular, English — should be offered starting at the primary level. They also recommended incentivising instructors who are fluent in English to teach in remote areas, thus improving upon the current practice of employing underqualified second language teachers in regions like the Northeast.
Some students attempted to mitigate their lack of preparation by attending local colleges before applying for graduate programmes in major metros. However, because colleges in under-resourced regions are frequently staffed by faculty who are forced to cope with a population that arrives on campus woefully behind, these degree programmes remain subpar. Said one student from the Northeast: “Even after studying political science for three years, (my sister) is finding it difficult to cope up with the new course (in Delhi).”
Perhaps the most poignant barrier mentioned is a lack of role models. Students who hail from consistently low performing schools said before they joined their programmes, they had never met anyone with a college education. This made higher education feel unattainable, and discouraged many from applying. A student from a scheduled tribe community in the west put it best when she said: “The people from our villages think that education is something that only rich people can do.” While students said counselling could begin to address this problem, the only way to drastically change mindsets was to push more members of their communities to set examples their juniors could one day follow.
Encouragingly, many students from the least developed communities intended to use their college degrees to strengthen local education systems. Indeed, the purpose of increasing the GER is to make all of India — especially its children — stronger. To truly achieve this mission, we would do well to follow the advice of our youth by starting early.