Union minister Prakash Javadekar was asked in the Lok Sabha about the standards, mechanisms, and arrangements put in place for access to online education during the pandemic to which he replied, on the record, “Nobody was deprived of education in India despite the COVID-19 pandemic. Education reached everyone without any advertisement.”
His reply, to say the least, was an obvious contradiction which ended up in the government fact-checking itself on the condition of the Indian education system impacted by the pandemic across the country.
Minister of State for Communications, Education and Electronics & Information and Technology, Sanjay Dhotre told Parliament that 37,439 inhabited villages of the country did not have 3G or 4G mobile connectivity. 79 percent of villages do not have 3G/4G in Andaman and Nicobar Islands and in Ladakh, 66 percent of villages are still without high-speed internet.
Dhotre also submitted before the parliament that 25,067 villages do not have mobile phone coverage, one-fifth of which are in the north-east.
A recent report by Oxfam India on the pandemic and inequality in five states found that by October 2020, the number of students affected by the closure of educational institutions stood at over 32 crores in India.
Digital Divide and Education in India
According to the 75th National Sample Survey conducted between July 2017 and June 2018, only 4.4 rural households have a computer, against 14.4 percent in urban areas, with just 14.9 percent of rural households having access to the internet against 42 percent of households in urban areas.
Similarly, only 13 percent of people over five years of age in rural areas have the ability to use the internet against 37 percent in urban areas.
Education is just one area that has highlighted the digital divide between India’s rural and urban areas during the lockdown. The World Economic Forum reported how the COVID-19 pandemic deepened the digital education divide in India.
-A total of 320 million learners in India have been adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and have transitioned to e-learning;
-With huge regional and household disparities in access to the internet and technology, this transition has not been possible for all students and educators;
-The rapid shift to e-learning prompted by the pandemic has resurfaced long-standing issues of inequality and a digital divide in India that must be addressed by future economic, education and digitization policies.
Online Education far from reality: ASER
Reality stands in stark contrast with the statements of Prakash Javadekar. Annual Status of Education Report, ASER 2020 was conducted in 26 states and 4 Union Territories in September and it reached a total of 52,227 households and 59,251 children in the age group of 5-16 years. The report underlines the digital divide is still wide in the school sector.
Only 11 percent of students from both private and government schools were using online education, and another 21.5% were using videos or recorded classes.
“Among enrolled children, more than 60% live in families with at least one smartphone. This proportion has increased enormously in the last two years, from 36.5% to 61.8% among enrolled children. The percentage point increase is similar in households of children enrolled in government and private schools,” the report stated.
This indicates that while a basic digital backbone is getting ready at household level, the country has not yet developed an environment for pushing digital education in a crisis period.
Education Spending in Budget 2021
The drop in the education spending in the Budget 2021 has also raised concerns over widening of the digital divide in India.
What is in store for schools?
15,000 schools to be ‘qualitatively strengthened’ to imbibe all elements of NEP 2020.
100 new Sainik schools to be established, in partnership with NGOs and states.
New 750 residential schools, following the Eklavya model, in tribal areas.
Why care about the education budget?
The Centre has planned to reduce the education spending by Rs 6.076 crore, from Rs 99,300 crore in 2020 to Rs 93,224 crore in 2021 which will unlikely help the students who could not access education in the pandemic or may have dropped out due to lack of resources, which was only made worse by the economic impact of the pandemic.
Dr Partha Chatterjee HOD, Economics, Shiv Nadar University, finds merit in the opening of new Sainik and Eklavya models schools but wonders how the government would bring back those who have dropped out of schools. “The big challenge for the government would be to ensure that the dropout would be not large and to bring them back to school. I don’t see that happening,” he said to the Quint.
Anjela Taneja, Health and Education Led, Oxfam India, said to the Quint, “The pandemic has shown that teaching and modes of instruction has been exclusionary and what we need is an approach that realises the reality of digital divide.”
Are schools left satisfied with the budget?
Kulbhushan Sharma, President, National Independent Schools Association, says that a financial corporation should have been set up, so that schools looking to upgrade their infrastructure could have secured finances at minimum interest.
Mr. Manit Jain, Co-founder of Heritage Groups of Schools said that to fulfil the objectives of NEP 2020, spending in the education sector needs to go up. He said, “It is high time the central and state governments invite private capital to invest in education.”
What more can the government do?
It has been found that the central government spending on education positively motivates the spending of state governments on education and that there is a difference in the spending of education per child in states. Centrally sponsored schemes can offset the inequities in spending across states.
SSA, a centrally-sponsored scheme, with its elaborate structure has the potential to catalyze the “recovery of schools” and the 2021 budget has increased its allocation by around Rs 3 crores. The ASER report shows different statuses for different states and the SSA will help in privileging the states where the impact of the pandemic has been severe, and whose needs are relatively higher than their revenue.
Strengthening of existing 15,000 schools will not achieve the longstanding objective of universalization of education standards in the country, which the pandemic has rendered more vulnerable. A clear roadmap is required to streamline the prioritization of education in the country, which should be based on the framework of equitable financing to allow public education of equitable quality for everyone.