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February 22, 2015

Responding To: Week 5: Inequality and Inequity

Fair Access to Post Secondary Education Can Reduce Inequality

Ravi Subramanian

Increasing access to education is a policy tool for reducing inequality. Universal primary education was a central UN millennium development goal (MDG), with a focus on net enrollment ratio. A post secondary education has far greater potential to enhance individual productivity and national economic value. It offers numerous benefits to the individual and society in terms of higher lifetime earnings, increased tax base, and reduced inequality.

Inequality presents barriers to post secondary education 

Access to education beyond higher secondary schooling is a mere 10 percent among India’s university-age population (“Intergenerational and Regional Differentials in Higher Education in India” released by the Washington based US India Policy Institute). Similar numbers apply elsewhere in Asia and Africa. This is in stark comparison with China and USA which stand at 22 and 28 percent respectively.

Access to high quality institutions of higher learning in developing nations is via academic placement tests. With students having to “make the bar” to get into such institutions, such tests can be a huge deterrent. Intensive academic preparation and effort are needed to succeed. For example, India’s key competitive examinations which form the basis of admissions into top universities have led to mushrooming of a tutoring industry (estimated > $10 billion). This tutoring is expensive and its cost is far above the average income levels of a poor family.

Post secondary education enrollment and success are also linked to factors like quality of parental education, behavior, and attitudinal factors early in life. Poor and deprived students, no matter how bright, often do not make it to and through institutes and are trapped in low quality education that is not valued in the labor market. Thus, the positive cascading impact on inequality reduction is lost.

Reducing barriers 

Short term measures include low cost high quality tutoring (the Super 30, a free coaching centre in Bihar, India for example – 85 percent of its students pass the highly competitive IIT-JEE test). Such entrepreneurial effort need encouragement by appropriate policy measures and access to funding. Appropriate mentoring attacks attitudinal factors challenging students from disadvantaged socio economic backgrounds to aspire with confidence.

In the long term, mainstreaming high quality primary and secondary education to make tutoring redundant will be the key for bringing students from all strata to a level where they can aim and aspire with confidence for quality post secondary education. Increasing the number of quality post secondary institutions will be the next step.

Ravi Subramanian currently runs Siemens’s Low Voltage Converters Business Segment in India. He was selected as a Global Shaper in the Mumbai Hub of the World Economic Forum in 2011.

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