Monday, August 13, 2012

Sigur Center Grant for Field Research Summer 2012: Girls' Education in Rural India

In the months leading to my departure for India, I was frequently asked about my research plans and my motivation for pursuing my topic. In most instances, these discussions provided interesting insight into how the Indian education system is perceived by those who work outside of the international education field. Most people fell into two groups:

1. Those who view the American education system as superior, for no reason other than a strong sense of patriotism.

2. Those who understand India’s emerging economic status and imagine, based on the stereotypes projected in the media, that India’s education system prepares every child for a successful career in science, technology, and business.

            Of course, neither of these perceptions is accurate. The deficiencies within the American education system are widely reported, particularly during the release of scores from international standardized tests like PISA and TIMSS where the U.S. routinely ranks far below the top 5 countries. 

             In India, while there have been significant improvements to health and welfare indicators of the population, the education system continues to suffer from deep problems in quality, equity, and access. The literacy rate hovers around 74%, with significantly lower rates for women, Muslims, and members of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. In addition, India’s Tamil Nadu and Himatchal-Pradesh states participated in the country’s first PISA examination in 2010 and ranked as numbers 72 and 73 out of 74 economies. Clearly, every Indian child is not given equal opportunity for quality education and employment in professional careers.

This reality may soon be altered, however, by India’s Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, which guarantees basic education for children ages 6-14. This act was passed in 2009, but various elements of the act provoked opposition from the general public and educational bodies, and implementation was delayed until the start of the 2012-2013 school year. In Karnataka state, this meant that the changes were implemented in May, just before my arrival. As you can imagine, this is a hot topic in the Indian education community, as it introduces several new regulations and drastically alters the provision of private education.

I studied this act as part of a research project last semester but did not fully grasp its implications on the non-formal sector until I arrived. Most of the non-formal education centers that I visited are managed by NGO’s and are unaided and unrecognized by the government. According to my discussions with school directors, recognition requires large amounts of paperwork, years spent wading through the bureaucracy, and more than Rs. 100,000 in fees and bribes. Students can still obtain the credentials necessary to move to higher education, so for many school administrators, recognition doesn’t seem worth the trouble. However, with the Right to Education Act, these unaided, unrecognized schools are considered illegal, and the threat of enforcement is pervasive. Indeed, several institutions have already closed in the past few years within Karnataka state due to legal and financial issues, but thus far, the government has not formally enforced the act with any of the schools I have visited.

I cannot help but wonder whether these institutions will still exist when I return to India in the future, and if so, what alterations will be made to the programs to accommodate government desires for national cohesion within the education system. My strong belief in the benefits of non-formal education leads me to hope that the government will find a way for these institutions to continue to offer alternatives for children who need them the most.  In the meantime, however, my visits to the schools are somewhat bittersweet, knowing that I am perhaps witnessing a dying element of education in India.

Nora Shetty
M.A. International Education, 2013
Sigur Center 2012 Field Research Fellow
Karnataka, India

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