Why India’s Education System Falls Behind Other Countries which shared similar histories?

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NEW DELHI : According to a recent research conducted by Lee and Lee (2016), it was found that the years and the average person in India of working age (15-64 years) spent in school increased from 0.03 years in 1870 to 0.88 in 1940. But when compared to other parts of the world this performance is dismal. In other parts of the world, people started attending schools in rapidly increasing numbers in the late 19 th and early 20 th century.

From the graph, we can see that the gap between India and the early leaders in years of schooling like US and Germany increased from less than 2 years in 1870 to 7.8 years in 1950. Though it is not fair to compare India with these 2 countries as India was subjugated to British rule for a very long time.

But even if we compare with countries who were a colony of one or the other power at that time the Indian growth story in the years of schooling and education as a whole is not very impressive. India falls behind China and Latin America by 1950, even though in 1870 very few people attended schools in any of these places. The comparison with China is more relevant as the two countries got independent almost at the same time, had similar levels of per capita income in the late 19 th century, followed almost similar trajectories of development but with markedly different results.

Chinese school enrolments remained relatively low in the early 20 th century, but then pulled ahead of India in the 1930s and 1940s. In 1930, as China’s primary school enrolment ratio was about to overtake India’s, its secondary school enrolment ratio was one-fifth of the Indian ratio. Same was the case between India and Latin America.

Does Colonial policy has a role to play in this?
British colonial policy in India massively underfunded Indian education. Public spending on human capital in British India was among the lowest in the world between 1860 and 1912 (Davis and Huttenback, 1986). Per capita, government expenditures in other dependent British colonies were 16% of the budget and in India, it was just 4%. This was because the British followed the “Trickle down Approach”, where the motive was to educate few Indians and then slowly benefits would trickle down to masses at large. However, this could not be achieved as Indian elites did not view this policy favorably (Chaudhary, 2009; Chaudhary et al. 2012). So, when in the world public spending on primary education was increasing, India was an outlier.

Long Running Effects of Colonial Policy:

Even after independence India’s first Prime Minister favored British thought process and focused on developing a technical workforce that can contribute to developing the strong industrial economy. So, higher education dominated the policy agenda in the 1950s and 1960s. Policymakers did not turn to basic education until the National Education Policy of 1968, which recommended increasing public expenditures to 6% of GNP, and free and compulsory education. But 6% goal remains elusive until now. Though public spending increased from less than 1% of GNP under colonial rule to 4% in 1990 (Chaudhary and Garg, 2014) but expansion of public schools occurred only in the 1970s, after another National Education Policy, in 1986, that recommended equal access to school-especially for women and marginalized groups (SCs/STs).

Were these policies effective?
At the very least, these policies improved access in previously underserved areas and reversed some legacy of the colonial era. But, still, India is struggling to improve public education.

1. Lee, J-W and H Lee (2016), “Human Capital in the Long Run”, Journal of Development Economics122: 147-69.

2. Davis, L E., and R A. Huttenback (1986). Mammon and the Pursuit of Empire: The Political Economy of British Imperialism, 1860–1912, New York: Cambridge University Press. https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/abs/10.1086/468366

3. Chaudhary, L (2009), “Determinants of Primary Schooling in British India”, Journal of Economic History 6 (1): 269302.https://www.researchgate.net/publication/231178962_Determinants_of_Primary_Schoolin g_in_British_India

4. Chaudhary, L, A Musacchio, S Nafziger and Se Yan (2012), “Big BRICs, Weak Foundations: The Beginning of Public Elementary Education in Brazil, Russia, India, and China, 1880- 1930”, Explorations in Economic History 49 (2): 221-40. http://www.eh.net/eha/wp- content/uploads/2013/11/Nafziger.pdf

5. Chaudhary, L and M Garg (2015), “Does History Matter? Colonial Education Investments in India”, Economic History Review 68 (3): 937-961.

6. Chaudhary, L (2016), “Caste, Colonialism and Schooling: Education in British India”, in L Chaudhary, B Gupta, T Roy and A V Swamy (eds), A New Economic History of India, New York: Routledge, pp. 161-178.

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