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Want to climb the social ladder? Study hard
Nitin Desai |
July 22, 2005
The secondary school examination results in places like Maharashtra are front-page news. In fact this year's coverage was quite extensive, with the toppers being interviewed and comparative performance analysed over several pages.
A country and a people who take education so seriously cannot go wrong. But the results showed much more. They reflected the role that education is playing in increasing social mobility.
In my time, which was of course more than 40 years ago, you could assume that the toppers would come from Bombay's English medium schools.
Most of them would be middle or upper-middle class in origin with parents in business, or professions, or gazetted government jobs. This has changed dramatically.
Moffusil scores over metros
This year the Mumbai division, which usually has the highest pass percentage, has given way to Latur, a district way in the interior of Maharashtra.
The topper is from the Pune division and hails from a rural area and never went to coaching classes. The Mumbai division topper is not from a city school but from a Marathi-medium school in Badlapur.
Within the city, the much-maligned municipal schools did better than several top-flight schools.
But, more than geography, it is the class background that is most interesting and encouraging. The boy who topped in the state is the son of a teacher in a zilla parishad school, while his father is a state service officer.
The two who jointly topped the backward class group did practically as well as the general candidates. Both of them are the first in their family to get this far.
Perhaps the most heart-warming stories are from the night-school students, most of them from lower-middle class families.
The girl who topped the night school list is the daughter of a ticket collector; the boy who came second helps his father to run a back-lane laundry, and the one who came third is the son of a fruit stall owner.
Passport to mobility
Higher education has been the passport to mobility in modern India. It was true more than a century ago, when the upper castes in the three Presidencies (Bengal, Madras, and Bombay) used it to break into law, medicine, and the civil service.
Many who are part of today's elite are the beneficiaries of the investment their parents and grandparents made in educating themselves and their children.
But, for a long time, the passport was available mainly to upper-caste, middle class, and urbanised Indians living in or near metropolitan towns. This is changing fast.
The new entrants to the educated elite now include larger numbers from backward castes and from smaller towns. They may well be the children of working class or lower-middle class parents.
They are as likely to have studied in the regional language as in English. They are often the first in their families to have reached the higher levels of education.
The evidence of social mobility is not limited to the school-leaving examinations. It can be seen in the outcome of the entrance tests for higher professional institutions like the IITs and the IIMs and in the induction into the central and state civil services.
It can be seen even in the new economy of BPOs and the Infotech sector. A relative told me about a recruitment to an MNC that he was involved in, where the chosen candidate was the son of a bus conductor and quite proud about admitting it.
Why things change
The reasons for the change lie in some things that today's elite often complains about. One reason is the rapid spread of high schools in rural areas and colleges in moffusil towns.
The charge is that these schools and colleges are set up by political bigwigs without due regard to needs or standards. But it is this widening access to higher education that is at the root of the mobility.
And if standards have declined, then why have these upcountry schools and colleges done so well in terms of academic performance, as the recent Maharashtra SSC results referred to above indicate?
Another reason for the change is the availability of discretionary income in working class and lower middle class households.
A ticket collector or a bus conductor today has the surplus that allows him or her to finance his children's education. And there is a strong commitment on the part of such parents to help their children to break out of the shackles of the family's background.
The complaints about the impact of Pay Commissions and of Trade Union protected wages have to be seen in this light.
Entrance exams work!
The examination and test system for access to higher education, run more or less honestly, is another reason why those without power have been able to move up.
This system has been criticised for the pressure it puts on students and for the fact that it discriminates against the student who is able but somehow not good at exams.
But the fact is that in our society a more discretionary system of access would inevitably favour the privileged. It is good that even a rich man's son has to go to coaching classes to pass the entrance exams rather than being able to buy his way in.
Finally, the issue of reservations, which also is much criticised. But the performance gap of the toppers from the reserved and the general category does not seem to be that substantial.
This could be used to argue against the need for the system. But it is necessary to persuade poorer backward class families to invest in their children's education by assuring the prospects for access and for jobs later.
Higher education is the key to greater gender equality and the breaking of caste barriers. Every child should be brought to the threshold of higher education as a matter of right.
No child who is able and willing should miss out on higher education for lack of money. Above all, let us not do anything that compromises the meritocratic basis of higher education, which is the only hope for millions of the underprivileged.The author is Honorary Professor at the Indian Council for Research in International Economic Relations.