The Struggle for Affordable Public-funded Education for Young India

The Struggle for Affordable Public-funded Education for Young India

Tertiary or higher education remains an unattainable dream for most sections of India’s one billion strong population, with the gross enrolment ratio (GER) hovering around 26.3% in the year 2018-19, as per the data provided by the All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE).[i] It has been pointed out that this number remains considerably low in comparison to other emerging market economies such as China (around 48%) and Brazil (around 50%), let alone advanced economies like the USA (87%). A low GER, however, is only the tip of the iceberg — the AISHE collects no data on the ratio of dropouts in tertiary education, leaving us to wonder what the numbers might look like. To offer some perspective, the highest dropouts in school education are in the secondary level, with the adivasi-dominated state of Jharkhand topping the list with only 30 students out of 100 enrolled finishing school in 2018-19.

To offer some more perspective, also drawn from the AISHE reports (2017-18 and 2018-19): the data comprehensively highlights that there has been a considerable rise in private colleges and universities in both percentage and absolute numbers, with a corresponding rise in enrolment in the same. On the other hand, the public universities — besieged by a series of ‘reforms’, latest being the Choice Based Credits System (CBCS) and its one size fits all curriculum — have seen a marginal drop in student enrolments across disciplines, which perhaps does not deliver a stellar report on the validity of said ‘reforms’.[ii] The powers that be, of course, show little interest in slowing down to take account of the same, and have promised — especially courtesy the proposed National Education Policy (NEP) 2019 — ‘radical’ restructuring, a veritable ‘reform’ extravaganza, if you will. After all, there must be no roadblocks to the path of the inevitable transformation of the ‘offer’ made to the World Trade Organization (WTO) back in 2005, that of making higher education available for global trade as a commodity, into an iron-clad ‘commitment’.

Where does all of this leave our public universities, which, given the reputation many of them uphold as well as the considerably lower fees that they charge, remain one of the only available avenues for upward mobility in India’s caste-ridden society? What does it mean that the series of ‘reforms’, increasingly rammed in with scant public discussion or regard for material conditions in different parts of the country, mandate ‘financial autonomy’ and a reduction of the number of higher education institutions, even as it proposes pushing up the GER? And how do we reconcile with the push for fee hikes and ‘need-based’ financial support (read: loans), even as data published by Indian Banks’ Association (IBA) displays that the proportion of education loans being declared non-performing assets (NPAs) has jumped to 9%, in diverse programs ranging from medicine to business administration?[iii]

If you have spent at least some time in or around a central or a state-run university in India, you must have sensed one thing — these are spaces filled to the brim with an acute sense of financial distress.

Allow me to speak of my own experiences: I joined Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in 2006 as a student of MA English. I came from economic privilege, to say nothing of the social and caste privilege that my Bengali Brahmin origins offered me. I had two working parents who did not require any financial assistance from me, even though I had turned 20 at the time. I could spend up to 5,000 rupees per month on my mother’s debit card, since I did not have one of my own at the time.

This was not true for a large number of my friends, who had to offer tuitions to children on campus or in the Munirka/Vasant Kunj area in order to survive and to send money back home to their families. To put things in perspective, again: the Merit-Cum-Means scholarship for BA/MA students, back then, was 1,000 rupees. The mess bills in various hostels ranged between 700-1,000 rupees. Students ran back from the academic complex to their hostels for lunch and from the library for dinner. It took me a few months to understand why some students did not opt to eat the subsidized canteen food for lunch or casually pick up a cup of cold coffee, or why some (such as my roommate in 2007, an adivasi girl from Rajasthan who was the first woman in her family to enrol for a Masters’ degree) chose to wait for the evening tea to be prepared in the hostel instead of joining us at one of the dhabas. At the time, there was a facility called ‘late lunch’/ ‘late dinner’, where a plate of food could be kept for you if you were going to be late and had informed the mess authorities beforehand. Very often, this food was eaten by the hostel cats. Eventually, the administration shut down this option, and students who chose to study late or work in the labs had to make do with maggi or paratha from Ganga Dhaba. On the days we felt particularly rich, we headed to Kiechha’s or Mughal Durbar on campus, and fought over small change.

Research in Indian public universities is subsidized, not funded. My Junior Research Fellowship (JRF) amount[iv], as a research scholar, was 12,000 rupees — a princely sum at the time. My friends who did not have the JRF were recipients of something called the UGC Non-NET Fellowship[v], which offered the magnificent sum of 3,000 rupees to M.Phil scholars and 5,000 rupees to Ph.D.. scholars. The scholarship money arrived once in four or five months, leaving us with little option but to look for work. This had to be done with care, since the university administration did not approve of research scholars working but also offered no opportunity for work as Research or Teaching Assistants. I had become so desperate that I went to a random job interview for a company whose name I cannot remember all the way to Pitam Pura. My friends worked for KPOs in Okhla where they wrote rich people’s SOPs for universities abroad. I worked as a copy editor in a publishing house, I freelanced, picked up the strangest gigs even before I knew what the ‘gig economy’ was (someone for instance wanted me to write their wife’s PhD — I convinced them both that it was a bad idea and tutored her instead), just to keep some money coming in. Eventually, I took up an ad-hoc job at the University of Delhi and stopped withdrawing my JRF, which lapsed after a semester. Very conscientious, I stopped asking the university for research contingency funds as well.

Our hostels had khatmals and power cuts. There was frequently no water — in fact, having running water was a rare surprise. Once, there was no water in the women’s wing in Chadrabhaga Hostel for 14 days, so we had to go downstairs and fill our buckets with water from a tanker that was stationed outside. In summer, sometimes, my room in Ganga Hostel (I lived in three different hostels over the years) was so hot that I would wet the floor and lie down on it.

Again, I had a financial security net — in the months I had nothing, I could ask my family for help. In the months I had money, I blew it completely on indulgences. This was not true for most people on campus, including my closest friends, who simply did not have that option, who had families depending on them. My friends at the university, meanwhile, came from the furthest parts of the country, from diverse caste and community backgrounds, and they all wanted one thing — to study. To survive. To leave the university with their heads held high.

I am a taxpayer now, and so are my friends. Whatever we received, we give back. We are grateful for it. But those years as beneficiaries of the public education system instilled some important values within most of us, such as the firm belief that education at all levels must be understood as a public good, not a commodity to be sold at will among the highest bidders. Students are not ‘consumers’ or ‘users’, but the very future of our great nation.

In the past few years, a vast majority of student agitations across India’s campuses have been on the issues of fee hike and scholarship denial, on library access and hostel hours, on social justice and gender justice. It would not, in fact, be an exaggeration to state that young India — at least, those sections of it fortunate to have had access to tertiary education — is hungry for greater access to quality and affordable education, something that the ever-expanding number of private-run universities are ill-equipped to and disinterested in offering. It is important to listen to these student voices, from places as disparate as Manipur University and IIT Delhi, Hidayatullah National Law University and Punjab University. It is important to recognize the precarity that is built into the very structure of higher education in India, which remains deeply Brahminical in how it envisions ‘access’ and ‘merit’.

It is this precarity that student voices have been articulating from different corners of India, even as education policy pushes them towards further precarity — towards fee hikes, towards the world of ‘financial autonomy’ and ‘need-based’ education loans. The casual statement of absurdities such as differential fee structures within our public universities, or said public universities competing with each other in the marketplace of education — as though higher education is equivalent to car models, measurable in the same manner! — in the public sphere suggests how truly out of touch most of India’s educated elite is with the aspirations and material needs of India’s youth. In fact, the endless litany about ratings and rankings and Indian universities ‘falling behind’ in the global ‘race’ highlights a curious fallacy: we appear to truly believe that quality research and education can somehow be produced with consistency in an atmosphere of such constant financial distress, or that somehow we can ‘get ahead’ even without systematic investment in human capital, by the way of some miraculous, magical jugaad.

The promise of spending 6% of India’s GDP towards education has grown so old that policymakers themselves appear to have forgotten it. It is time they — and we, the society at large — took account of the disparity between the promise of ‘radical reforms’ and the material concerns of India’s youth, and made concrete attempts to bridge that gap.

[i] “All India Survey on Higher Education 2018-19” (Key Results of the AISHE 2018-19, Department of Higher Education, Delhi, 2019), p.II

[ii] “Minimum Course Curriculum for Undergraduate Courses Under Choice Based Credit System”, UGC, Delhi, (URL: › pdfnews › 8023719_Guidelines-for-CBCS)

[iii] Akanksha Soni, “Education Loan NPAs on the Rise”, The Hindu, January 14, 2019.

[iv] “Junior Research Fellowship in Sciences, Humanities and Social Sciences”, XIth Plan Guidelines, UGC, Delhi, page 2/15

[v] India Today Web Desk New Delhi, February 3, 2017 UPDATED: February 3, and 2017 17:00 Ist, “No Fellowship to Non-NET Candidates: UGC,” India Today, accessed December 17, 2019,

Download White Paper

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Related Articles

India has successfully improved school enrolment in recent decades yet failed to deliver actual learning. The ASER Survey by NGO Pratham (2020) spotlights large learning deficits in students’ foundational learning. For instance, only 50% of Class V students can read texts of Class II level. More than half the students in Class VIII struggle to do simple division. The pandemic has deepened this crisis, especially because of the physical closure of 15.5 lakh schools that has affected more than 248 million students for over a year. These learning gaps are becoming critical with the emergence of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which is emphasising digital technology, artificial intelligence and other allied technologies. Thus, it is integral to redefine education and structure it to suit the evolving technological transformation.

In response to this situation, the National Education Policy 2020 sounds like a clarion call to integrate technology at every level of education. It envisions the establishment of the National Education Technology Forum (NETF) to spearhead efforts towards the use of education technology. It recommended employing EdTech through app-based learning, online student communities, and lesson delivery beyond ‘chalk and talk’. By envisioning schools as nodal agencies, through which the underserved can access internet-powered devices, the NEP recognizes artificial intelligence (AI), virtual reality (VR), and blockchain as requisites in India’s education ecosystem. Thus, EdTech becomes a crucial link between enrolment and enhanced learning outcomes


The Indian EdTech ecosystem has a lot of potential for innovation. With over 4,500 start-ups and a current valuation of around $700 million, the market is geared for exponential growth — estimates project an astounding market size of $30 billion in the next 10 years. Eg. Byju’s, Unacademy. Despite the early implementation of technologies in the education system, India still faces teething problems.

Firstly, there are institutional obstacles. The lack of a dedicated unit to coordinate digital infrastructure, content and capacity building within the Education Ministry to look after the online learning needs of both school and higher education. Institutions need to be strengthened and made responsive to the evolving trends to ensure the dissemination of quality education.

Secondly, gender bias needs to be addressed as the gendered availability and access to technology and tools such as smartphones, laptops and internet connection is very common, especially in rural areas. Girls often face suspicion if they are demanding a phone. Education technology may not reach half of the population. A ‘Gender-Inclusion Fund’ should be set up to build the country’s capacity to provide equitable quality education to all girls and transgender students.

Thirdly, a wide digital divide. In India, the biggest obstacle to education technology integration is the prevalent digital divide and associated challenges of equity. Many view technology and associated opportunities as contradictory to equity and inclusion. Only 32% of the rural population are internet users. A national study carried out at the National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration showed the gaps in inclusive learning mediated by technology. A high level of urban-rural disparity in online classes was found. Not everyone who can afford to go to school can afford to have phones, computers, or even a quality internet connection for attending classes online. NSS data for 2017-18 showed that only 42% of urban and 15% of rural households had internet access. Thus, planning for education technology integration needs a broader lens of student diversity in contemporary campuses where a large share of students are from lower social strata (Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes and from poor households). Many are from government schools, under-developed regions, remote villages and urban margins. Bharat Net Project to connect all the 2,50,000 Gram panchayats in the country and provide 100 Mbps connectivity to all gram panchayats should be implemented. Opportunities provided by education technology can promote egalitarianism if access to technology is democratised and inclusion is institutionalised.

Fourthly, the pace of change & increasing cost makes it tough for marginalised communities to keep up with the rapidly changing technology. Even for private schools upgrading technology presents a major financial challenge, let alone government schools that are usually frequented by such groups. For harnessing full potential, the education curriculum and mode of instruction need to be aligned with technology tools. This requires increased governmental budgeting, planning, design thinking and improving teacher training.

Next, the resistance to change and low professional development hampering success. The lack of adequate professional development for teachers, who are required to integrate new technologies into their classrooms, are unprepared or unable to understand new technologies. Teachers and school leaders are comfortable with the status quo and often see technological experimentation as outside the scope of their job descriptions. School schedules often don’t have time for projects involving the use of technologies. Rigid learning and testing models are failing to challenge students to experiment and engage in informal learning. Integration of technology-based non-traditional classroom models, such as flipped classrooms and self-paced MOOC (massive open online course) are integral (suggested in NEP 2020).

Lastly, a very significant concern comes from the privacy risks associated with EdTechs. Since the pandemic hit, online education has replaced conventional classroom instruction. For learning customisation, apps collect large quantities of data from the learners (minor students). Private data collected can be misused or sold to other companies with no legal oversight or protection. It is necessary to formulate an ethics policy for EdTech companies. Issues of safety, confidentiality and anonymity of the user would be central to building a healthier learning ecosystem and ensuring the privacy of students.


The true potential of EdTech will require collaborative efforts between the government, private sector, and NGOs. There is a need to realise that public educational institutions play an important role in social cohesion and building relations. Therefore, technology cannot substitute schools or replace teachers. Thus, it should not be “teachers versus technology” rather “teachers and technology”. 

Thorough mapping of the EdTech arena (scale, reach, and impact) is needed to bridge the digital divide at two levels – access and skills – is required to effectively use EdTech. Moreover, EdTech policy formulation and planning must align with other schemes (education, skills, digital governance, and finance). Fostering integration through public-private partnerships, factoring in voices of all stakeholders, and bolstering cooperative federalism across all levels of government is integral. The NITI Aayog’s India Knowledge Hub, Digital India Program, Government of India’s Aspirational Districts Programme on tech-enabled monitoring and implementation and the Ministry of Education’s DIKSHA and ShaGun platforms are great steps in the promotion of EdTech to transform India into a digitally empowered society and knowledge economy.

Learning from successful models as a repository of the best-in-class technology solutions, good practices and lessons from successful implementation must be curated. Some examples are:

  1. Grassroots innovation in EdTech –
    1. The Hamara Vidhyalaya in Namsai district, Arunachal Pradesh, is fostering tech-based performance assessments;
    2. Assam’s online career guidance portal is strengthening school-to-work and higher-education transition for students in grades 9 to 12;
    3. Samarth in Gujarat is facilitating the online professional development of lakhs of teachers in collaboration with IIM-Ahmedabad;
  2. International Cases –
    1. Mindspark, a computer-assisted learning software, delivers lessons through videos, games and questions on computers and tablets. The software analyses each student’s learning level, pitches content suitable for their level and adjusts the difficulty according to the student’s progress.
    2. Kenya’s literacy program Tusome, uses coaches equipped with tablets who visit classrooms, evaluate student reading skills, provide tailored advice to teachers and upload assessment data to administrators.

Author Bio:

Himanshi Bahl is a Political Science Graduate from the University of Delhi. Her research interests include emerging technologies and foreign policy.


Kant, A. (2021, June 30). The future of learning in India is ed-tech. The Indian Express.

Malish, C. M. (2020, August 21). Technology as an enabler. The Hindu.

Mohammad Naciri & Atsuko Okuda. (2021, June 24). The gender technology gap has to end. The Hindu.

Vincent, V. (2021, May 13). EdTech needs an ethics policy. The Hindu.

June 4, 2020
The current crisis has necessitated school closures, the impact of which is being felt by millions of school-going children across India. The risks associated with the same for girls, however, are likely to be heightened, especially for girls from low-income and disadvantaged backgrounds. In this conversation with noted educationist Vimala Ramachandran, Shreeradha Mishra explores the nuances of the disproportionate impact of school closures on girls and discusses the role of effective policy-making and implementation to address the disruption caused by COVID-19 to the lives of school-going girls.

India’s struggle to make schools accessible to girls, and to ensure they stay in school, has been a long and uphill journey. Enshrining the right to education as a fundamental right for all children between 6 and 14 years of age through the Right to Education (RTE) Act in 2008, and the National Education Policy (currently being revisited as the draft New Education Policy), coupled with campaigning efforts on the necessity of educating the girl child have all been pivotal in earning some amount of success in bringing girls to schools. However, reducing drop-out rates among girls has continued to be a challenge. The burden of domestic chores, responsibilities in looking after younger siblings, early marriage practices and social attitudes that dictate the preference to educate the boys in the household instead of the girls have been significant roadblocks in ensuring access to education for the girl child. The COVID-19 pandemic threatens to undo years of advocacy and policy efforts aimed at increasing enrolment and literacy rates among girls. The current crisis has necessitated school closures, the impact of which is being felt by millions of school-going children across India. The risks associated with the same for girls, however, are likely to be heightened, especially for girls from low-income and disadvantaged backgrounds.

Dr. Vimala Ramachandran has worked and published extensively on education, health, gender issues and women’s empowerment and has been engaged in advocacy for universal quality education and girls’ education. She co-founded Mahila Samakhya – a Government of India programme on women’s education – and served as the first National Project Director from 1988 to 1993. She is currently on the Research Council of Azim Premji University, Bangalore, and is the Managing Director at the Educational Resource Unit (now known as ERU Consultants Private Limited), which is a network of researchers and practitioners working on education. Most recently, she is engaged in researching educational needs of out of school youth, especially girls.

In this conversation with her, Shreeradha Mishra explores the nuances of the disproportionate impact of school closures on girls and discusses the role of effective policymaking and implementation to address the disruption caused by COVID-19 to the lives of school-going girls.

SM: The school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic have forced millions of school-goers all over the world and in India to stay home. This is likely to have impacted girls in different and disproportionate ways as compared to boys. Could you highlight some of these impacts and the underlying reasons?

VR: The impact on girls, especially from poor and middle class families is expected to be far more severe for a wide range of reasons – girls end up sharing a greater load of housework / farm work / animal-related work than their brothers; girls have less access to mobile phones, as we saw in the recent studies co-authored by me.1

In both these studies we found secondary school girls did not have any access to smartphones or simple mobile phones. Boys have mobile phones, even smart phones – but most girls in rural Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh in the sample villages said they do not have access to phones. Even when families have phones, they are not encouraged to use it. So online learning is practically impossible. Besides, informal tuitions are fairly common in both rural and urban areas. It is a common observation that parents readily spend on sons’ and not on daughters’ tuitions. When schools are shut down, tuitions are perhaps the only informal learning space. This would be far more acute for girls in high schools and higher secondary schools.

SM: The 1986 National Policy on Education for the first time recognised the need for girl-child specific policy to address the gender gap in education in India. This policy also saw the establishment of the grassroots initiative Mahila Samakhya, of which you were the first National Programme Director. This initiative has been evaluated to have significantly increased demand for rural girls’ education, and consequently an increase in female literacy rates in rural India. A crucial aspect of this initiative was the ability of the programme to reach out to out-of-school girls and create learning opportunities for them in alternative centres and residential camps. In the wake of the pandemic, there is a need to re-think and re-invent more of such innovative solutions albeit in the context of a completely uncharted territory. How do we bring girls back to school, and keep them in schools, when the definition of a school and a classroom is currently going through a shift?

VR: The irony is that when the BJP came to power in 2014, Mahila Samakhya was shut down as a centrally sponsored scheme. Most states were not ready to continue the programme and the states that continued it linked it to the Department of Women and Child Development’s ICDS (Integrated Child Development Scheme) / Stree Shakti / Nari Adalat and child helplines. The original idea of the programme was pushed aside and today it is seen as a delivery programme for women and girls. The education and awareness dimension is practically non-existent now.

SM: A lack of access to nutrition for girls, especially in rural households, has been a significant contributor to the existing practices of gender discrimination. The mid-day meal scheme ensured they received at least one meal a day at schools. Under the prevailing circumstances of indefinite school closures and accentuated poverty due to the extended lockdown, what can the government do to alleviate this risk?

VR: When families go through a food crisis, we know that women and girls not only eat last, but they get the leftovers. They may also not get adequate nutrition when all they eat with rice or roti is watery vegetables, dal or meat dishes. Even when schools are closed, the government should restart the mid-day meal programme so that all children have access to at least one nutritious meal a day. Equally, in the post Covid-19 period, where poverty and hunger has become more pronounced, schools need to consider providing breakfast to all children.

SM: According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), in 94.6% of cases of child sexual abuse, the perpetrator is known to the child, and is often times a parent, relative or school teacher. How does the lockdown exacerbate the risk of abuse for children, especially for girls, and what can be done to address the issue?

VR: During lockdown, when families are huddled in small spaces, the chances of domestic violence against women and children, and sexual abuse by family members of both girls and boys, is known to have increased. Newspapers report more distress calls in urban areas. Equally important is the fact that in rural areas when girls go out to graze cattle or to bring fuel or fodder, they are vulnerable to sexual abuse / violence / harassment. When men and boys have little to do and are ‘hanging around’, they are also more prone to frustration, anger and violent behaviour. This could also aggravate the situation. The only way out of this is a vibrant and strong women’s group and also a Nari Adalat in every village and urban ward that is girl-friendly and has women who would be willing to listen to girls, support them and bring the perpetrators to be booked through the Panchayat. We also need to create greater awareness at every Panchayat level to the vulnerability of women and children (both girls and boys) to violence and abuse and the importance of a safe space where they feel comfortable sharing their fears and bringing issues to the notice of persons in positions of responsibility.  We also need to become more alert to trafficking – especially of older children as labourers.

SM: What are some of the immediate challenges that the government needs to address in order to realise last-mile and equitable delivery of education in a post-COVID India?

VR: The government needs to consider the following –
(a) Sensitise all teachers to the issue of trauma and fear that COVID-19 has generated among the people and especially among children;
(b) Ascertain learning levels of children, organise them in small groups and impart teaching at the right level to each group – for instance, what good bridge programmes used to do in the mid-1990s and the kind of work we did in Mahila Shikshan Kendras. A two-three-month programme should be aimed at enabling children to reach their grade-specific level. Teachers need to be trained for this and where feasible, possible local NGOs could be involved in this process;
(c) Make story reading/ reading aloud an integral part of daily language-related school work. There is overwhelming evidence to suggest that children who are able to read with comprehension and read well have the potential to become self-learners and do better in all subjects. Ensuring all children have access to grade or level-specific story books in their own language or medium of instruction is essential;
(d) Make games, sports, art and craft an integral part of the curriculum alongside fun ways of explaining the pandemic and why children need not fear if they adopt the requisite practices to stay safe. This could be incorporated as part of the morning assembly or before or after lunch and could be a valuable addition to the curriculum.

SM: How do you see the public vs private debate playing out in the education space post the pandemic? Are we likely to see more collaboration between the public and the private education systems?

VR: I do not see it as a black and white scenario. Public education is absolutely essential for poor children and also middle-class children. We have to focus on strengthening the public education system, improving quality and bringing it at par with the high-end government schools like Kendriya Vidyalayas and Navodaya Vidyalayas. That should be the benchmark. My own work in the health sector has shown that it is the public system that sets the benchmark – low-cost and other forms of private schools will always compare themselves to the public or government schools to reach out to the poor and middle classes. If we push the quality of our government schools, this will have a ripple effect on the private sector.

Works referred to:
[1] (2019 Draft). Ramachandran, Vimala, Nagpal, Nagendra. Secondary Education in Rajasthan – quality and systemic functioning explored. Project supported by AJWS. New Delhi

(2018). Ramachandran, Vimala, Saxena, Niti. Quality and Systemic Functioning in Secondary Education in India – A study in Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand. Research commissioned by The World Bank, New Delhi.

Note from the editor: Special thanks to Nivruti Tagotra, staff writer at the ISPP Policy Review, for her inputs.

April 9, 2020
“Through a promise of holistic education at the school level, Section 12(1)(c) could provide for a way to uplift the underprivileged sections of society." Ananya Dixit in her article explores the inadequacies of the policy which has the potential to transform the lives of millions of children in India.


When the British relinquished power and India became independent, the constitution-makers envisioned the country to foster social justice and equality1. Social justice is not limited to the distribution of rights; it requires active participation by the State to bring parity in development by orienting policies towards it2. ​A serious impediment to achieving this vision of India has been the difference in educational opportunities offered to children from disadvantaged and economically weaker sections of society. ​According to the Annual State of Education Report (ASER) published by NGO Pratham in 2013, the gap between private and public-school children’s learning outcomes has been widening. 3 As a result, the number of rural students in private schools has increased steadily over the past decade, and now, more than a fourth of rural students are choosing to enroll in private schools for better education.​4 The deteriorating quality of education in government schools may have a strong correlation with the falling number of students in government schools.

As illustrated in Figure 1, private schools have been consistently performing better than government schools to improve learning outcomes. In contrast, the learning outcomes of government schools have been declining since the year 2010. A Centre for Policy Report suggests that despite their economic background, parents desire to send their wards to schools providing good quality education.6 Therefore, through the Section ​12(1)(c)​ of the RTE Act, the Government of India is providing parents with the choice to enrol their children in private schools.7 Before this provision was inserted, the choice of school was primarily governed by a family’s financial ability to pay rather than the learning outcomes. This resulted in the systematic exclusion of children from the disadvantaged sections of society to receive a good quality education. ​In light of this, Section 12(1)(c) of the RTE Act was introduced as an instrument to create a level playing field by offering equality of opportunity in education. Providing good quality education to children from the disadvantaged section provides for a way for the state to mitigate the impact of differences arising out of the socio-economic background of students. ​

According to 2014-15 data,  private schools only managed to fill 6,762 of the 96,870 reserved seats in the state of Gujarat, which accounts for 6.98% of the total reserved seats.8 With the national average of 15.2 %, the difference between the State and the National average is significant.9

Lack of Political Will

Gujarat initially implemented the policy as a pilot,  when awareness about the policy and its provisions was relatively low.10  Consequentially, this reflected in low enrolment rates during its initial phase of implementation. Apart from the mandatory advertisements before the start of the admission process each year, the State Government did not take any initiative to inform the people about this policy.11 ​In 2017, advertisements were published by the State Government only a day before the commencement of the admission process. Such short notice does not leave time for applicants to obtain necessary documents and thus may lead to students losing a year. Various NGOs and civil societies took the onus upon themselves of disseminating information and creating awareness about this policy and its provisions among beneficiaries and stakeholders through targeted information campaigns.12

Additionally, the information given by the government circulars and the website has several inconsistencies. According to the government notification, General category households who did not have Below Poverty Line cards would be eligible if their annual income was less than Rs. 68,000, and Rs. 47,000 in urban and rural areas, respectively. 13  However, the online application form did not provide for such applicants to apply. After the application process was already halfway through, with just ten days to go, the Government published a notice that rectified this but did not publicize it as much. Many potential applicants would not have applied because they thought they were ineligible.14

Another problem that surfaced was the language of communication. Even though a large number of households eligible for this policy do not speak Gujarati or English, the advertisements were widely published, and the web portal for application only supports English or Gujarati. As a result, advertisements do not reach linguistic minority groups (Hindi and Marathi). Moreover, the absence of a functional helpline number required people from disadvantaged sections of society to physically go to either the Zila Panchayat or the District Education Office (DEO) to register their grievances.15 The travel time added to the delay in the admission process. Furthermore, the timing of board examinations coinciding with the admission process led to the unavailability of most officials to address the issue of the applicants.16 Therefore, the lack of a functional and efficient grievance redressal helpline to answer the queries of applicants only exacerbates the problem.17

What about pre-primary education?

Unlike other states such as Karnataka, Gujarat implemented Section 12(1)(c) beginning with primary school.18 Students from underprivileged sections, therefore, miss out on the crucial pre-primary and kindergarten years of education, which lays the foundation for further studies. As mentioned by the director of a private school, students of the first standard learn words in private schools; however, the ones admitted under Section 12(1)(c) barely know how to write alphabets correctly.19 The ASER report bolsters the claim about learning gaps by highlighting the constantly widening inequality in learning outcomes as students advance to higher classes.20

 Complications with the Online System

Till 2017, the state had an offline procedure, the paper-based process for admission.21 Applicants were to collect forms from help centres in a government school and submit it along with other documents certifying eligibility to officers at these centres. Applicants were informed about the admission decision through SMS or via post. ​This changed after 2017 when Gujarat adopted a new procedure for filing applications on an online portal.22Applicants now have to submit their printed forms along with eligibility documents to a receiving centre. Currently, applicants check the status of their application online, reducing delays in transmission of information and declaration of results. While this was a step that helped increased transparency in the application process, the shift for the beneficiaries came with a lot of challenges. The target population of this policy is by and large, not computer literate.

For a policy directed at the disadvantaged sections, such an online application system only adds additional steps and costs in the process. Internet cafes often overcharge applicants for printouts and access to the internet.23 Most of the receiving centres that were to help digitally illiterate applicants to fill the online applications were reported to be non-functional. ​Furthermore, since the server was ill-equipped to handle heavy traffic, it crashed multiple times during the first week.24 It resulted in increased costs as applicants had to make numerous visits to internet cafes to get their application form filled up. With only allowing online applications to be accepted for consideration of seat allotment, there is a possibility of exclusion of applicants who don’t have the means to apply online.[25]

With the new system, applicants are supposed to enter their postal address, pin code, after which the system automatically drops a location pin on the map. To improve the accuracy of this service, the location pin can only be moved to a maximum of 1 km range from what the GPS picks up. However, given the large ward size, the location pin, even after adjustment, remains far from the address of many applicants. Since schools are allocated based on the distance, incorrect locations lead to allotment of schools that are far away from the applicant’s address. All this resulted in schools allotted being more than 6 km away from the house of many of the allottees26


Section 12(1)(c) of the Right to Education Act is a step in the right direction. However, on the ground, it is fraught with implementation challenges. There is ambiguity surrounding admissions, school choices, and eligibility requirements.27 The State government has done little to make people aware of the legislation beyond issuing the mandatory advertisements a few days before the commencement of the admission cycle. Gujarat has only managed to fill 6.98% of the total reserved seats.28 The need is for the State government to take a more active role in making people aware of this legislation. To reduce exclusions arising out of digital illiteracy, Gujarat should enable an offline application process. In Rajasthan, which currently accepts offline and online applications, an overwhelming majority of applicants choose to apply offline.29 This may also help resolve technical problems emanating from the exclusivity of the online application process like frequent server crashes and reduce application costs for beneficiaries. Finally, establishing a sound grievance redressal system could also ease the process of application.

Poor quality of education early on in life translates into low wages later in life.30 As a result, the second generation may be unable to afford good quality education for their children. By mandating the inclusion of underprivileged children in private unaided schools, this provision of the RTE Act makes schooling in India more integrated and inclusive while improving learning outcomes for children from disadvantaged sections as well.31 ​Through a promise of holistic education at the school level, it provides for a way to uplift the underprivileged sections of society. However, as highlighted above, the policy suffers from several inadequacies in the implementation phase. ​A good education is the cornerstone of any country’s development story. ​Section 12(1)(c), if implemented earnestly, has the potential to transform the lives of millions of children in India.


[1]“Constituent Assembly Debates.” Constitution of India. Accessed March 12, 2020.

[2] Ibid

[3] “Annual Status of Education Report 2013.” Assessment Survey Evaluation Research, (ASER), Centre/Pratham, 2013

[4] Ibid

[5] Private Schools. Central Square Foundation. Accessed March 28, 2020.

[6] “State of the Nation: RTE Section 12 (1) (C) 2017 | Centre for Policy Research.” Accessed April 1, 2020.

[7] Ibid

[8] State of the Nation: RTE Section 12 (1) (C) 2017. Sarin, Ankur, Ankur Sarin, Ambrish Dongre, and Srikant Wad. “Centre for Policy Research.” | Centre for Policy Research, September 15, 2017.

[9] Ibid

[10] Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education act 2009 § Education Department, Government of Gujarat

[11] State of the Nation: RTE Section 12 (1) (C) 2017. Sarin, Ankur, Ankur Sarin, Ambrish Dongre, and Srikant Wad. “Centre for Policy Research.” | Centre for Policy Research, September 15, 2017.

[12] Ibid

[13] Ibid

[14] Ibid

[15] India, Ideas For. “Http://” Ideas For India. Accessed March 29, 2020.

[16] Ibid

[17] State of the Nation: RTE Section 12 (1) (C) 2017. Sarin, Ankur, Ankur Sarin, Ambrish Dongre, and Srikant Wad. “Centre for Policy Research.” | Centre for Policy Research, September 15, 2017.

[18] “Guj Govt Avoids RTE for Pre-School Kids” Dave, Harita. Ahmedabad Mirror, January 20, 2017.

[19] Ibid

[20] “Annual Status of Education Report 2013.” Assessment Survey Evaluation Research, (ASER), Centre/Pratham, 2013

[21] State of the Nation: RTE Section 12 (1) (C) 2017. Sarin, Ankur, Ankur Sarin, Ambrish Dongre, and Srikant Wad. “Centre for Policy Research.” | Centre for Policy Research, September 15, 2017.

[22] Ibid

[23] Ibid

[24] Ibid

[25] Ibid

[26] Ibid

[27] Ibid

[28] Ibid

[29] Ibid

[30] “Education Quality & Economic Growth,” Hanushek , Eric A., and Ludger Wößmann. 2007.

[31] “For More Inclusive Private Schools.” Narayanan, ‘Americai’ V., and Kavya Narayanan. The Hindu, June 4, 2019.