By Dr. John Kurrien
Indian Muslims have the lowest enrolment rates in schools and higher education institutions.
These include abysmally poor participation in prestigious school networks like the Jawaharlal Nehru Navodaya Vidyalayas and Kendri Vidyalayas/ Central Schools, and the nations’ best higher education bodies like the 149 Institutions of National Importance, which include all the IITs and IIMs.
In these elite educational institutions, there are far fewer Muslims than even SCs and STs – the traditionally disadvantaged groups of India. An analysis of 2020-21 data and reports reveals these striking disparities.
Admission to prestigious government schools like Jawaharlal Nehru Navodaya Vidyalayas (JNVs) and Kendri Vidyalayas (KVs) is greatly prized as they offer free or highly subsidised, good quality all-round education, and their students’ superior academic performance enables entry to prestigious higher education institutions. A special feature of JNVs is that more than 80% of its student body is rural.
Though SCs and STs form 16.6 % and 8.6% of the Indian population, in 20-21 their share of the total JNV student enrolment of 2.9 lakhs was much higher at 25% and 20% respectively. Though Muslims constitute 14.2% of India’s population, their share of JNV student enrolment was far lower at 4%.
The same raw 20-21 UDISE data has also revealed that Muslim enrolment continues to be significantly under-represented in other exclusive schools like the Kendri Vidyalayas. Of the total enrolment of 13.9 lakhs in 20-21, Muslim students composed 4% of the student body. The proportion of SC and ST enrolment was far higher in KVs at 20% and 6%.
Equally abysmal is the higher education enrolment of Muslims in India’s prestigious Institutions of National Importance, which include all the IITs, IIMs and All India Institutes of Medical Sciences, Indian Statistical Institute, National Institutes of Design, Delhi and Aligarh Universities.
The 20-21 All India Survey of Higher Education (AISHE) revealed that in all these 149 Institutions of National Importance, the share of SC and ST students was 13.1% and 6.1%. At a mere 1.9%, Muslims were at the bottom by a long margin.
Muslim enrolment in all higher education institutions is equally dismal. While in 2015-16, Muslim students constituted 4.7% of the total higher education enrolment, in 20-21 their participation slightly dipped to 4.6%. SC and ST students had far higher rates of enrolment for both time-periods. In this dismal situation, the unexpected enrolment rates of Muslim girls in schools and colleges has been a rare success story. More Muslim girls than Muslim boys are studying in upper primary, secondary and higher secondary stages covering Classes 6-12. And the 20-21 AISHE report indicated that there are now marginally more Muslim females enrolled in higher education than Muslim males.
What measures can significantly improve Muslim enrolment in general and in prestigious institutions of school and higher education? Since Muslim enrolment in Classes 6-12 in 20-21 continues to be the lowest – far lower than SCs and STs – the most effective educational reform would be to focus on two major institutional initiatives to strengthen these unacceptably weak school foundations.
Therefore, providing 12 years of quality schooling and two years of pre-primary education for all Muslims – also a goal of the NEP – should focus predominantly on prioritising the enrolment of the vast poor and lower middle class, and disadvantaged, Muslim majority. This will not only significantly improve their overall enrolment in both general and prestigious institutions of school and higher education, but also benefit Muslim communities in other important ways.
Implementation of this ambitious goal of educating crores of Muslim school-going-age children, whose numbers exceed the population of most countries, cannot even begin to be planned for, without comprehensive statistics on Muslims in school and higher education. Much of this information has already been collected by various government bodies, but not published.
The unpublished data includes the UDISE reports of MOE, learning levels of Muslim students in National Achievement Surveys (NAS) of the NCERT. Data on the selection and enrolment of Muslim students is also missing. This should also be published on the websites of the prestigious JNV and KV school networks, and each of the 166 Institutions of National Importance.
The entire range of unpublished Muslim data relating to candidates, students and teachers needs to be unearthed and made public, and national, state and district-level reports on the status of Muslims in school and higher education should be compiled and disseminated regularly. For both these tasks, institutions like Aligarh University and the Jamia, and other bodies which have strong education departments, should take the lead. A regular ongoing flow of reliable information and reports can provide a much needed knowledge base and catalyse informed discussions.
Constructive action towards realising the new goal of 14 years of universal quality schooling for all Muslims also requires implementing another complementary institutional initiative. A national body with strong state and local chapters needs to be formed that can monitor and evaluate educational schemes, discuss pressing issues and provide policy and community inputs.
No such forum exists at present to act on important Muslim concerns. We need to learn from the experience of the Muslim Education Conference in colonial India which for decades mobilised effective reforms through large-scale educational meetings in different regions of India.
Mere wailing and gnashing of teeth over significant issues like the neglect of Muslims in the 2019 NEP, and the abolition of the Maulana Azad scholarships, will only reinforce corroding pessimism that the time is out of joint. Constructive institutional initiatives are now needed to be publicised and implemented to bring hope to despairing Muslim communities that a better and more inclusive India is possible – Seize the Day!
(The writer is currently revising his online report, A New Agenda for the Education of Indian Muslims in the 21st Century, and can be contacted at email@example.com)