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In an attempt to make up for the significant challenges in education due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on Tuesday proposed to set up a digital university to provide education that will be built on a hub and spoke model.

The Finance Minister also said that the 1-Class-1-TV channel will be implemented to provide supplementary education to children to make up for the loss of formal education due to the Covid pandemic.

Additionally, FM Sitharaman said, “one class, one TV channel' program of PM eVIDYA will be expanded from 12 to 200 TV channels. This will enable all states to provide supplementary education in regional languages for classes 1 to 12."

This is a welcome announcement as the Economic Survey 2021-22 shared that the Covid-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the Indian education system and there has been a decline in the enrolment of rural children in the age group of 6-14 years in schools.

It also said that the shift towards online education during the pandemic led to the increased digital divide between the haves and have-nots.

Due to the limitation of non-availability of official data, the survey was based on alternate sources of smaller studies by the government and citizen-led non-government agencies like the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER).

"...ASER (Rural) report also found that during the pandemic, children (age 6-14 years) ‘not currently enrolled in schools’ increased from 2.5 per cent in 2018 to 4.6 per cent in 2021," said the survey tabled in Parliament on Monday by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman.

While the enrolment decline was relatively large among the younger age group (7-10 years), the drop in enrolment for younger boys was higher than girls, it said, adding that "the drop in enrolment happened in 2020, although it has remained stable in 2021."

The ASER report also found that during the pandemic, children in rural areas have moved out of private to government schools in all age groups. This was because of the shutdown of low-cost private schools, financial distress of parents, free facilities in government schools, and families migrating back to the village.

Disproportionately high fees in private schools could also be stimulating this shift, it added.

"If the trend holds, public schools need to be equipped with additional support, in terms of teacher-pupil ratio, classroom space and teaching-learning materials to absorb students migrating from private schools and from urban to rural areas," it said.

Moreover, with schools and educational institutions shifting towards online learning during the pandemic, the existing digital divide in the country "exacerbated" the equity in access to education, it added.

Children from poorer sections faced issues such as non-availability of smartphones, non-availability of a phone for children to use and network or connectivity issues.

Access to education, school dropouts and learning gaps, especially for children from marginalised communities, have always remained major challenges in education.

"Although the availability of smartphones has increased from 36.5 per cent in 2018 to 67.6 per cent in 2021, students in lower grade found it difficult to do online activities compared to higher-grade students. Non-availability of smartphones, non-availability of a phone for the child to use, and network or connectivity issues were the challenges faced by children," it said.

"The pandemic has had a significant impact on the education system affecting lakhs of schools and colleges across India," the survey noted.

The survey said data from the Ministry of Education is only available up to 2019-20, hence the impact of the pandemic on enrolment and dropout rates during pandemic years 2020 and 2021 could not be assessed through comprehensive official data while acknowledging the data limitations.

The government has taken steps to minimise the adverse impact of the pandemic on the education system to address the concerns raised through private studies undertaken during the pandemic period.

Now, 91.9 per cent of the total number of enrolled children have textbooks for their current grade.

"Further, to overcome the challenge of the digital divide and to continue learning during the pandemic, the government took measures such as distribution of textbooks at homes, telephonic guidance by teachers, online and digital content through TV and radio, TARA interactive Chatbot, activity-based learning through the Alternate Academic Calendar released by NCERT," it said.

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