The Time Press
Opinion

A common admission test could worsen higher education access


The academic year for most school children in India has just begun. After a pandemic-induced gap of two years, children are again in classrooms. In the meantime, however, one significant change has been instituted for students in their final year (class 12) of high school. As proposed under the New Education Policy 2020 (NEP), a Common Undergraduate Entrance Test (CUET), a single-window opportunity for admission to 53 central universities, is now in operation.

The objective is to provide an equal chance to all children for entry to higher education, irrespective of the school system or higher secondary board they would have studied under. While the idea is similar to that of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) taken by high school students in the US, American colleges use SAT test scores alongside high school results and other criteria for making admission decisions. Under the NEP, the CUET results alone will decide college admissions. In this situation, the quality of schooling and efforts taken by parents to prepare children for the entrance exam would be vital for a good CUET score.

What does the current evidence suggest in terms of the quality of school education in India and the requirement for additional academic help by way of private tuition? We address these questions using data from the National Sample Survey’s 75th round on Household Social Consumption: Education, which covered 109,595 school-going children in the age group of 6-18 years in 2017-18.

In line with what is already known, we find that only 35% of children were studying in government schools in urban India in 2017-18, but in rural areas that proportion was around 72%. Around 32% of parents who had enrolled children in a private school listed the inferior quality of education in government schools as the top reason for their decision and another 5% listed it as the second most important reason. Clearly, unless the revised school curriculum and its delivery in government schools improve, the CUET may lead to a further exodus of students away from state-run schools.

In addition to school fees and other related expenditure, parents also pay for ‘shadow schooling’ or private tutoring, either to ensure children don’t lag behind or that they gain a competitive edge over peers. We consider expenditure incurred on private tuition to include private coaching, courses for higher/additional studies, and programmes other than the basic course of education. We find that around 31% of 15-18-year-olds in government schools were enrolled for private tutoring, while this figure was around 24.5% of children from private schools in 2017-18. This is the age when, typically, the preparation for competitive and board exams for entry to higher educational institutions begins.

One of the critical factors which determine if parents invest in private tutoring is their socio-economic background. Parents with higher income levels can better afford to invest in their children’s education, but may also have a higher ability to help their children with school work, thanks to their own higher education levels.

We find an inverted U curve for the proportion of children enrolled in private tuition and their mothers’ education levels, peaking for children whose mothers are educated up to the upper primary level. Among children (15-18 years) in private schools, the least proportion (13%) enrolled in private tutoring are those whose mothers had completed at least a higher secondary school education or above. This is suggestive of educated mothers being able to help their children with school work.

In the case of children in government schools as well, while an inverted U relationship exists between mothers’ education and enrolment in private tuition, affordability seems to be a major driving factor, as children with mothers who have not completed primary school were found to have the least enrolment in private tutoring. It may also be that even when mothers have completed higher secondary education, a higher proportion of children attending government schools are from poorer backgrounds, requiring mothers to be in paid work, thus leaving them less time for taking care of their children’s studies. Also, mothers themselves may have studied in government schools and could lack the quality education needed to help their children.

As for expenses on private tutoring, considering only the sample of children who went for private tuition, the average annual expenditure of a child studying in a government school in the age group of 15-18 years was just over 10,000, which is less than one-third of the average expenditure for children in private schools. However, this amount is more than half the annual education expenditure for children in government schools. While government education is subsidized, its poor quality or the perception of it means what parents save on school fees is spent on private tuition.

In the case of students in private schools, the average expenditure on private tuition comprised around a third of total education expenditure. In absolute terms, however, parents of children in private schools spend around 40% more on private tuition. Overall, both in terms of the spending and the quality of schooling and private tutoring, children who are enrolled in private schools have an advantage over those who attend government schools when it comes to preparation for competitive exams.

Given the above situation, the key question for Indian policymakers is how to ensure that a new CUET tuition industry of coaching centres, like in existence for the Joint Entrance Examination for engineering and National Eligibility Entrance Test for medicine, does not mushroom all over India, undermining the core schooling system, and that students from poorer backgrounds and lower quality schools are not adversely affected. They suffer significant disadvantages already.

(Vidya Mahambare & Sowmya Dhanaraj are, respectively, professor of economics, Great Lakes Institute of Management, Chennai, and senior research fellow at Good Business Lab)

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