Is the new generation in India better educated?

Intergenerational educational mobility continues to be low in India


Photo: Hindustan Times
Photo: Hindustan Times

All of us love stories of the son or daughter of an uneducated daily wage labourer or farmer cracking civil service or Indian Institute of Technology entrance exams. The real question, however, is whether such success stories, constituting inter-generational upward mobility in education, are becoming more common or do they constitute pleasant aberrations? Recent economic research suggests that the latter situation is more likely.

A December 2015 research paper by Mehtabul Azam and Vipul Bhatt, economists at Oklahoma State University and James Madison University, used the data provided by India Human Development Survey (IHDS) to look at this question. Mint has replicated the methodology used by Azam and Bhatt to establish a relation between educational attainment levels of fathers and sons. Necessary clarification: the survey data does not allow for a similar comparison involving mothers or daughters. The comparison looks at two sets of individuals: those born in the 1950s and those born in the 1980s. The results are not encouraging. Only around one in five sons born in the 1980s, whose fathers had no formal education, could pass standard 10th or its equivalent level. To be sure, there has been a slight improvement on this count over time. For those born in the 1950s, the figure was a little over one in 10. On the other hand, 9 out of 10 sons whose fathers are graduates finish standard 10th.

These figures suggest that educational attainment of children is crucially dependent on that of their fathers. This is borne out by an almost constant positive correlation between education levels of fathers and sons from 1950s to 1980s in India.

There is a silver lining here. Social group wise analysis of data by Azam and Bhatt shows that scheduled castes (SC) and scheduled tribes (ST)—historically socially deprived communities—have done much better than others in attaining inter-generational educational mobility. Of the SC/ST males who were born to fathers with no formal education, the proportion of those who cleared secondary school rose from 8% to 20% in between the two generations. In other words, SC/ST males from less educated families witnessed a 12 percentage point rise in their upward mobility. The corresponding increase in mobility for non-SC/ST males was only 4 percentage points.

How does India do on this count in comparison to other countries? Clubbing the IHDS data with the figures given in a 2007 paper by Tom Hertz of American University and others shows that India fares badly in comparison to not just advanced countries like Norway and the US, but also to its South Asian peers like Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. The paper ranks countries by average parent-child schooling correlation, for cases wherein the “children” are in the age group of 20 to 69 years, with higher values suggesting that educational attainment of children are more dependent on that of their parents.

The inability of children born in less educated families to study further seems to be a vicious circle of sorts. As has been written in these pages, access to education is an important determinant of incomes. (see here ) This is bound to influence the ability of parents to provide education to their children, given the rapid increase in costs of providing education. (see here ) The causation also works in the opposite direction. Bulk of those who drop out from educational institutions cite the need to augment family incomes or attending to domestic chores as the reason for dropping out. (see here ) Such pressure to drop out from school are more intense for first-generation learners, who often hail from economically weaker and under-privileged sections of the society, says Shefali Gupta of Maitri, a Delhi-based NGO which works in the field of education for learners from such backgrounds. IHDS data further corroborates these findings by showing that drop outs are higher in families where the fathers’ education level is lower.

The analysis should have a caveat. It might not have captured the recent increase in educational enrolment levels, especially at the school level in India. However, the persistence of high drop out among first-generation learners for those born between 1992 and 1996 shows that we would do well not to be complacent on this count.