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The Challenges for India’s Education


Marie Lall, Chatham House

April 2005


This paper, the first in an occasional series on India’s education system, places the current issues facing education in India in a historical context. Since Independence, successive Indian governments have had to address a number of key challenges with regard to education policy, which has always formed a crucial part of its development agenda. The key challenges are:

improving access and quality at all levels of education;

increasing funding, especially with regard to higher education;

improving literacy rates.

Currently, while Indian institutes of management and technology are world-class,

primary and secondary schools, particularly in rural areas, face severe challenges.

While new governments commonly pledge to increase spending on education and

bring in structural reforms, this has rarely been delivered in practice.

Most of the changes undertaken by the previous BJP-led government were aimed at

reforming the national curricula, and have been criticized for attempting to ‘Hindu-ize’

India’s traditionally secular education system.

Improving the standards of education in India will be a critical test for the current

Congress-led government. It will need to resolve concerns over the content of the

curriculum, as well as tackling the underlying challenges to education.


India’s education system turns out millions of graduates each year, many skilled in IT and engineering. This manpower advantage underpins India’s recent economic advances, but masks deepseated problems within India’s education system. While India’s demographics are generally perceived to give it an edge over other countries’ economies (India will have a youthful population when other countries have ageing populations), if this advantage is restricted to a small, highly educated elite, the domestic political ramifications could be severe.

With 35 per cent of the population under the age of 15, India’s education system faces numerous challenges. Successive governments have pledged to increase spending on education to 6 per cent of GDP, but actual spending has hovered around 4 per cent for the last few years. While, at the top end, India’s business schools, Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) and universities produce globally competitive graduates, primary and secondary schools, particularly in rural areas, struggle to find staff. Indian governments have seen education as a crucial development tool. The first part of this paper provides a historical perspective on the development of the education system in India, highlighting the changing emphases within government policy. Since Independence, the education policies of successive governments have built on the substantial legacies of the Nehruvian period, targeting the core themes of plurality and secularism, with a focus on excellence in higher education, and inclusiveness at all levels. In reaching these goals, the issue of funding has become problematic; governments have promised to increase state spending while realizing the economic potential of bringing in private-sector financial support. The second part of this paper examines how recent governments have responded to these challenges, which have remained largely unchanged since Nehru’s era, despite the efforts of past governments and commissions to reform the Indian education system. Attention will be paid to more recent policy initiatives, both those of the previous BJP-led administration and the proposals of the current Congress-led United Progressive Alliance. It will become clear that the same difficulties that existed nearly sixty years ago remain largely unsolved today – for example, the need to safeguard access to education for the poorest and most disenfranchised communities of India.

To read more: http://www.streetchildren.org.uk/_uploads/Publications/3_challenges_for_indias_education.pdf


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