Education and Equity: Challenges of post primary education in India – CBPS Discussion Paper for CBPS Annual Seminar, March 14, 2018

Post-primary education in India: The context and need

‘Quality Education’ has been recognised as one of the foundational conditions for achieving sustainable development. Goal 4 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) state that quality education consists of ensuring equitable opportunities to access and complete education at all levels, including opportunities to access good quality technical, vocational, tertiary and university education (United Nations, n.d.).

India has made considerable progress with respect to primary and upper primary education, which can partly be attributed to the long and continued interventions made by the state since the late 1980s-1990s. Large investments in infrastructure and provisioning, curricular reforms, culminating in the passage of the Right to Education Act (RTE, 2009), guaranteeing the right to free and compulsory education for all children between 6-14 years, have succeeded in increasing the Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) in elementary education to 97 per cent (in 2014-15; MHRD, 2016).

While RTE and the other provisions made for guaranteeing elementary education have given much cause to celebrate, post-primary levels of education have suffered a state of benign neglect. The RTE itself is a grim reminder of this, with no provisions within the Act that guarantees opportunities for the vast majority of students, especially those from disadvantaged and marginalised communities, to continue with education beyond elementary levels.

In most other countries completion of lower secondary schooling – that is up to Class 10 – is guaranteed, as lower secondary education, following the frameworks laid down by Education for All (EFA) and Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have come to be accepted as part of basic education. Thus, lower secondary schooling has been included within policies and commitments made by several countries to universalise education (Lewin, 2011).  In the Indian context, however, RTE (as well as other policies) have limited the concept of basic education to elementary education up to 14 years (i.e., equivalent to completion of Class 8). Thus, as Tilak (2004) argues post-primary levels of education have come to be seen as non-merit goods – that is, as goods not eligible for subsidies or welfare investments. Costs of secondary education in India are also thus very high. Along with this, only 31 per cent of the lower secondary schools and 36 per cent upper secondary schools in India are currently state-owned, while a majority of secondary schools in India are in fact privately owned (with unregulated fee structures; Lewin, 2011). The situation is worse for higher education where access is severely compromised by the acute shortage of and high fee structures of private institutions. This has again created a scenario wherein costs of participation in secondary and higher education are very high, and affordable only by those within the highest quintiles of income distribution (Lewin, 2011). Not just costs, but also opportunity costs of participating in secondary and higher education are high, owing to expectations for care work placed on girls and the need to support family incomes with children’s labour.

It is then perhaps not surprising to find that in India high school completion rate still remains an abysmal 42 per cent (Sahni, 2015). India’s secondary education participation rates are only comparable to sub-Saharan Africa, and its enrolment rates in secondary education are way below other BRIC countries like Brazil, Russia and China (Lewin, 2008; 2011). Moreover, access, participation and completion of secondary as well as tertiary education is significantly marked by caste, class, gender, religious and regional inequalities. GER in secondary education is the poorest among Scheduled Tribes (STs) at 38.7 per cent (while Scheduled Castes, interestingly, have a higher GER [51.9] when compared to the overall GER [49.3]). Gender inequalities in secondary education are also evident with GER for girls being 45.7, while it is 52.4 for boys (Planning Commission, 2013). These inequalities in the access to secondary schooling gets further exacerbated at tertiary level, especially when it comes to dealing with the social capital deficit, which becomes more critical at that stage.

This has several consequences. As Biswal (2011) points out, secondary education is the stage at which the two functions of education – that is individual as well as social development and progress converge. Biswal (2011, p.3) states that

…secondary education empowers and prepares youth for life in respects such as, personal development, preparation for the labour market, training for higher cognitive functioning; and as part of its social function, advances ‘human and social capital’ for nation building, redistributes income and wealth and alleviates income poverty.

Rose and Dyer (2008) have also pointed out that social mobility out of inter-generational poverty is unlikely without secondary education. Further, as Lewin (2011, p.382) has pointed out, poor opportunities available for post-primary education is also most likely to affect primary school completion rates, as “Universal completion of the elementary school cycle (Grades I–VIII) is unlikely unless transition rates into secondary are sufficient to provide opportunities for the majority of primary school completers.” As he further adds, “Where few go to secondary school many will lack the motivation to persist to Grade VIII, and may judge the costs greater than the benefits.” Complementing these viewpoints, Tilak (2004) has further argued that the benefits of having a population with higher education go beyond simple calculations of increase in Gross National Product (GNP) or individual well-being, and produce a combination of externalities including improvements in health, reduction in population growth, reduction in poverty, improvements in income distribution, reduction in crime, rapid adoption of new technologies, strengthening of democracy, assurance of civil liberties, and even dynamic externalities, such as arresting diminishing marginal returns.

It is perhaps recognising this that the 11th Plan of the Government of India focused on inclusive growth through education and skill development, along with employment generation. An outcome of the 11thFive Year Plan’s (2007-2012) focus on education was the introduction of the Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyaan programme (RMSA), with a view to raise the minimum level of education to class 10 and establish a norm of having a secondary school within a radius of 5 kms of every habitation, and a higher secondary school within 7-8 kms of every habitation. The GER for secondary education was sought to be increased to 75 per cent by the end of the plan period, (which was revised to a GER of 90 per cent at lower secondary level and 65 per cent at higher secondary level in the 12th Plan). Along with this an entire chapter of the 11th plan was dedicated to skill development and training, indicating the huge emphasis placed on providing appropriate skills to youth for the labour market (King, 2012). While several initiatives were launched as part of this ‘Skills Development Mission’, one of the most significant changes brought about was the introduction of vocational education (until then introduced at the post-secondary schooling level and as a separate track) through the regular schooling stream, from class 9, in select government and government-aided schools itself (Maithreyi et al, 2017).

Challenges and limitation of Post-primary education policies and plans

Despite these ambitious programmes launched by the Government of India, there is still much to be achieved and much to be desired with respect to improving the status and access to secondary education in India. GER in secondary education still remains low at 67 per cent, while Net Enrolment Ratio (NER) is at 42 per cent. Quality of secondary education also remains a concern with just 70 per cent boys and 80 per cent of girls having passed Class 10 exams in 2012 (Centre for Policy Research, 2014).

These poor outcomes need to be seen in relation to the provisions that have been made for secondary education since it was made an area of concern, following the 11th Plan. In the eight years of the existence of the scheme allocations for RMSA have only modestly increased by two-fold, from Rs. 5,757 crores in 2009 to Rs.11,847 crores in 2014-15,  (Centre for Policy Research, 2014). Total public expenditure by centre and state, between 2007-08 and 2011-12 has gone up from 0.78 per cent of GDP to just 1.05 per cent of GDP (ibid). In order to even achieve a GER of 75 per cent within secondary education as projected in the 11th plan, Lewin (2011) has argued that an investment of 4.5 per cent of the GDP would be required, which is way higher than what is currently being spent on secondary education.

Not only are budgetary allocations for expansion of secondary and higher secondary education insufficient but plans to add additional classrooms and teachers are also inadequate, as shown by Lewin (2011). Arguing that the provision made for 150,000 additional classrooms would be sufficient only to enrol 6 million new students, he argues that provisions to accommodate an additional 15.5 million students at the lower secondary level and 8 million students at the upper secondary level would be required,  just to reach the earlier projected GER of 75 per cent. The importance of this cannot be underestimated, as our own UNICEF funded study on  Reducing Child Marriage in India – A Model to Scale Up Results (Jha et al, 2016) has shown that provisioning is critical to continuation of education; and in states such as Gujarat, which has a poor elementary to secondary school ratio, and only five per cent schools with secondary and/or higher secondary sections, dropout post-primary education is high. Similarly, provisions for an addition 750,000 teachers would also have to be made to maintain targeted pupil teacher ratios of 30:1.

While allocations and provisions made are not enough on the one hand, even these modest targets have failed to be achieved. Of a total of 11,188 new schools and 88,500 new classrooms that were sought to be added during the 11th Plan period, only 9,636 schools and 49,356 classrooms were added by the end of the plan period (Planning Commission, 2013). Of 179,000 additional teachers targeted, only 59,000 were added (ibid).

More importantly, with delivery of secondary education being a state responsibility, and budget sharing for RMSA planned as 75:25, achieving the projected targets in reality becomes a matter of individual states’ capacities to invest in secondary and higher secondary education (Lewin, 2011). This again raises certain challenges, as poorer states (e.g., Bihar, Madhya Pradesh), which also have much lower enrolments in secondary education compared to the Southern states, and other richer states such as Himachal Pradesh and Punjab (Centre for Policy research, 2014; Lewin, 2011), will be required to spend over 2 per cent of the State GDP on secondary and higher secondary education, in order to achieve the targeted national GER (Lewin, 2011) – a  burden that these poorer states can perhaps ill afford.

While this puts state resources to test, individual resources are also put to test in the current scenario wherein costs of secondary education remain very high. According to the 12th Five Year Plan (2012-2017) of the Government of India the average individual expenditure on secondary education in private schools is as high as Rs. 893 per month as compared to only Rs. 275 per month in government schools (Planning Commission, 2013). In this context, as Lewin (2011) notes, even if 10 per cent of household incomes were to be budgeted for secondary education, just the top two urban quintiles and highest rural quintile would be able to participate in secondary education. It is then perhaps not surprising to note that dropout from secondary education is disproportionately higher for students from lower quintiles of household income.

These observations are in fact also supported by our ongoing study on A Critical Sociological Analysis of the Skills Development Initiative in India, funded by Azim Premji Foundation,[1] which, shows  that students’ and parents’ aspirations for higher education and ‘good jobs’ (‘voLLekelasa’ – i.e., jobs that do not require manual labour and preferably within government sectors), are met with the grim realities of high costs of secondary education. These high costs of education are not just direct costs (e.g., tuition fees) but also indirect costs, such as on transportation, a critical factor predicting continuation, and a finding that emerged from our above-mentioned study on child marriages in India, as well as another study to Review Status of Education in Tribal Areas in Maharashtra (CBPS 2017), funded by UNICEF. Findings from these studies also show that schemes such as providing bicycles, available across many states, or other means of affordable transportation can help in ensuring continuation of schooling up to secondary levels.

However, for most such provisions may just be equivalent to addressing the tip of the iceberg.  With the overall costs and payoffs of accessing secondary education being high, what we are beginning to observe through the ongoing skills education study is also how parents select from amongst their many off-springs to ‘invest’ in, so that they may be able to continue further education, while others are pulled out for different forms of gendered work. Both our studies on Mahila Samakhya, funded by IDRC (Together We Can: Assessing the Impact of Women’s Action Groups on Social Change in India), and Open and Distance Learning as a Cost-effective Option for Secondary Level Schooling in India: Potential and Prerequisites (Jha, Jyotsna et al, 2017) (funded by McArthur Foundation) show that boys drop out for paid work, while girls drop out for care work.

Naturally additional factors are also seen to affect parental decisions regarding continuation of post-primary schooling for girls, and these are largely guided by social norms and taboos. The studies on Mahila Samakhya and Child Marriages show that post-puberty, protecting girls’ ‘honour’ by restricting their mobility and early marriages critically affect girls’ opportunities to participate in post-primary education. On the other hand, the Child Marriages study also showed that having access to post-primary education was able to delay the age of marriage to after 18 years. Even when families were supportive of their daughters’ education, the Mahila Samakhya study showed that parents strategised around using limited resources for dowry or wedding expenses as opposed to using the money for higher education. In such cases conditional cash transfers linked to  girls’ continuation up to secondary education (though highly limited in its outcomes compared to more holistically planned programmes for empowerment, such as the Mahila Samakhya programme) have found to be beneficial (as seen from our study on Child Marriages). However, such measures do not of course address the underlying patriarchal norms of society that see early marriages as more important compared to individual aspirations for higher education.Our ODL study also showed that even these alternatives have greater representation of male population from urban and semi-urban areas and the representation of female is not only low, it is also likely to be guided by wrong reasons of confining them to the home. Also, access to technology for girls to transact the ODL system is severely limited and gender disparity is sharp.

What is seen to have much deeper impacts though, are  provisions for hostels or residential facilities. As our study on Residential Schooling Strategies: Impact on Girls’ Education and Empowerment (CBPS, 2015) shfowed availability of residential schooling facilities such as Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalayas (KGBV) up to secondary levels in Jharkhand (unlike in most other states) had an impact on retaining girls within secondary education. Residential schools not only contributed through retention of girls, but also provided them opportunities to develop additional skills and develop confidence. Residential schools, or Ashramshalas, were also similarly found to have an impact on retaining tribal students with parents having more confidence in sending their children to school if there were facilities for them to stay at school.

Thus, taken together, several of our studies have indicated the need for better provisioning to improve access, participation and equity within secondary education. But provisioning is just part of the story and other studies have shown that the nature and structure of provisioning within secondary education can be equally disabling, and can contribute to growing inequities. For example, two avenues have been provided within policy currently for those for whom continuing higher education becomes a challenge. The first of these options is the Open and Distance Education and Learning (ODL) Systems, specially designed for those who drop-out of education due to economic and social constraints. For such populations, the ODL system was designed to offer flexible opportunities to pursue education with work, and allow for learning at one’s own pace. However, findings from our ongoing study on ODL show that these systems have largely become avenues to gain additional certification rather than learning. Lacking the crucial atmosphere of learning and interactions available within schools, graduates from ODL systems are perceived to be of lesser quality by employers. Further, the lack of an interactive structure has given rise to the phenomenon of ‘middle men’ who charge a high fee to help students transact the system. Thus, what was created as an avenue for further and continued learning for disadvantaged groups has once again become an avenue available to more elite groups who can afford these fees charged by middle men. In certain ways, it has also contributed to intensifying certain inequalities, such as restrictions laid on mobility for girls, with families largely managing all the contact with the ODL system, while the certification is being sought mainly to improve girls’ prospects for marriage.

Similarly with vocational education and training (VET) – the other avenue opened for those who were unable to continue education, to gain relevant skills in trades, what we are seeing is a streamlining of certain students to lower job roles within industry (e.g., as fitters, carpenters, electricians, mechanics, etc.) which are clearly not aspirational. Krishna Kumar (2011), pointing to the lacunae of VET in India has argued that these forms of education and employment often conjure up memories of older caste-based occupational streaming practices, as they are narrow in training and offer little mobility beyond the shop-floor. This analysis has also been borne out through our study on skills education, where we are increasingly seeing parents and students aspiring towards pre-university education and ‘company jobs’. In this context, the introduction of vocational education within mainstream schooling (up to class 12) may perhaps be seen as a welcome move, for it offers both opportunities to pursue general education as well as a vocational skill. However, as even our preliminary findings seem to be showing, the introduction and completion of vocational education at secondary school levels neither serve in providing students an edge within the job market, nor do they offer them opportunities for future mobility. With respect to the former, discussions with employers show that students are being trained for roles that previously required no training (e.g., general duty assistants within hospitals), but lack the technical skills required for specific professional roles, such as that of a nurse or service technician (in the case of the automobile industry). With respect to the latter point, despite the National Skills Qualification Framework (NSQF) providing students within VET systems routes to pursue higher education, what we are seeing is that not only are these routes circuitous to pursue, but the vocational tracks prepare students for a completely different set of job roles, than what can be accessed by pursuing general streams of education.

Thus, in summarising the structural and design related issues with the secondary education we see that avenues created by the state, in the absence of investments made to ensure mainstream educational opportunities for all, only contribute to further enhancing the inequities within the education system, rather than alleviating them.

Growing commercialisation of education at both secondary and higher levels is creating new markers of inequality in education. The mushrooming of high revenue generating mono-discipline universities in the areas of engineering, medicine, management is now being followed by public institutions, leading to the abandonment of the idea of ‘university’ itself. The word university derives its root from ‘universe’, referring to the presence of a wide range of subjects and disciplines, and the possibility of pursuing specialized or one discipline-based study in a multi-disciplinary environment; something that is considered essential for fostering knowledge. In this context, certain disciplines that are viewed as ‘employment-oriented’ are being privileged at the cost of others such as humanities and social sciences, and at times basic sciences as well (Jha, 2016).


With almost a decade gone by, since the passage of the RTE, the Indian education system is at a crucial juncture again. More students than ever before are now completing elementary education. However these achievements have little meaning if opportunities to continue further are not available for all. Our review of secondary literature and insights from our own studies show that the challenges are both structural and social. Further, currently limitations faced by students are not just related to a lack of provisions or opportunities, but are also related to systemic issues with policies, plans and designs developed for secondary and higher education in the country, which clearly seem to benefit more advantaged groups while streaming out those who cannot afford the costs of unsubsidised (and largely privatised options) for higher education, to inferior quality VET. What these observations together show is a need not just for greater investments in secondary and higher education, but more importantly the political will to correct the systemic inequalities that have already been instituted. It is important to realise that different levels of education are inter-linked and public policy has to respond to them all at once, and not one by one. We hope that this space can become one avenue to discuss, debate and offer possible solutions to improve access and ensure equity within secondary and higher education in the country.


Biswal, K. (2011). Secondary Education in India: Development Policies, Programmes and Challenges. CREATE Pathways to Access Research Monograph No. 63. Falmer: Consortium for Research on Educational Access, Transitions and Equity, University of Sussex.

Centre for Budget and Policy Studies (CBPS). (2015) Residential Schooling Strategies: Impact on Girls’ Education and Empowerment, Knowledge Partnership Programme (DFID and IPE Global India), New Delhi, 2015.

Centre for Policy Research. (2014). RMSA, GOI 2014-15. Budget Briefs. New Delhi: Accountability Initiative, Centre for Policy Research

Jha, Jyotsna (2016). Education India Private Limited, IIC Quarterly Education at the Crossroads, Winter 2015-Spring 2016, India International Centre

Jha, J., Minni, P., Shanmuga Priya, T., Chatterjee, D. (2016) Reducing Child Marriage in India: A Model to Scale Up Results., Centre for Budget and Policy Studies and United Nations Children’s Fund, New Delhi, 2016

Jha, J., Ghatak, N., Mahendiran, S., Pancharatnam, P., Minni, P. (2017). Schooling for Education or Mere Certification: Examining the Experiences of Open and Distance Learning at Secondary Level in India, 5th Conference of the Regulating for Decent Work Network at the International Labour Office Geneva, Switzerland, 3-5 July 2017

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Maithreyi, R., Padhmanbhan, S., Menon, N., and Jha, J. (2017).Skills Development, Social Mobility and Educational Change: A Sociological Analysis of the Effects of the National Policy on Skills Development in India. (Unpublished Report submitted to AzimPremji Foundation).

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Rose, Pauline M. and Dyer, Caroline, Chronic Poverty and Education: A Review of Literature (December 2008). Chronic Poverty Research Centre Working Paper No. 131. Retrieved from or

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[1] The study is slated to be completed by December 2018, and a report on the same will be published on the CBPS website thereafter.

Authored by Maithreyi R along with contributions from the CBPS Education Team

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