Greater social diversity in higher education is serving India well

Enrolment proportions for the SC, ST and OBC communities in 2021-22 are close to their population composition.
Enrolment proportions for the SC, ST and OBC communities in 2021-22 are close to their population composition.


  • Various social groups have shown encouraging enrolment rates, thanks partly to reservation policies, but we must expand capacity vastly to fulfil aspirations. Let's think of expanding the pie instead of slicing it into thinner slices.

The Indian higher education system is, by far, among the largest in the world today. Latest available data from the All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE) under the ministry of education from academic year 2021-22 shows that 43.2 million students are enrolled in the system, having grown at 4.1% compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) over nine years from 30 million in 2012-13.

Towards the objectives of inclusive enrolment and coverage, the country’s reservation policy has undoubtedly yielded results. Between 2012-13 and 2021-22, enrolment among various social groups, shown alongside, has increased at impressive 9-year CAGRs.

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Scheduled Caste (SC) enrolment has increased by 6.2% CAGR, from 3.84 million in 2012-13 to 6.6 million in 2021-22. Over the same period, Scheduled Tribe (ST) enrolment has increased by a significant 8.3% CAGR, from 1.32 million to 2.71 million. Other Backward Classes (OBC) enrolment is also moving at an impressive 6.3%, having increased from 9.4 million to 16.3 million.

Enrolment of the country’s Muslim community has increased from 1.25 million to 2.1 million at 6% CAGR, and that of other minorities from about 560,000 to 900,000 at 5.4% CAGR. ‘General merit’ enrolment, calculated by authors from total enrolment minus other listed groups, is stagnating at 0.7%. The government’s focus on inclusion in higher education has clearly enabled rapid development of classes deemed as disadvantaged.

Comparing the enrolment proportion of various groups with their population compositions is revealing. Enrolment proportions for the SC, ST and OBC communities in 2021-22 are close to their population composition.

For the SC community, it is 15.3% enrolment against 16.6% of the population; remarkably close.

For the ST community, 6.3% enrolment against 8.6% of the population; this, too, is quite close.

For the OBC community, 37.8% enrolment against 40.9% of the population; close, as well.

Also read: Mint Explainer: Why Indian schools continue to fail rural teens

The same progress, however, is not seen among minority groups. Minorities constitute approximately one-fifth of India’s population (as per Census 2011; no recent census data is available), but only about 7% of enrolment in higher education. Within minorities, only information of the Muslim community is available. The community constitutes 4.9% of total enrolment, versus 14.2% of India’s population (as per Census 2011). However, the 9-year enrolment CAGR of 6% is impressive and can be utilized to drive enrolment up. Clearly, aspirations exist and can be encouraged.

Gender parity in Indian higher education drew level in 2019-20 and remains equal. Women are increasingly joining higher education with higher aspirations. The 10-year enrolment CAGR of women is 4.7% compared to 3.4% for men. Women are 48% of total enrolment in 2021-22, up from 44.6% ten years earlier. Women’s gross enrolment ratio (GER) at 28.5 is higher than men’s at 28.3.

It has grown faster, from 19.4 in 2011-12 compared to 22.1 for men, indicating that more women in the 18-23-aged population view higher education as a gateway to a higher-quality life. For the nation, this is an encouraging trend that will vastly increase its qualified workforce. To fully capitalize on this, quality employment prospects must be grown all over the country that would help educated women join the workforce in locations close to their homes and towns.

Also read: The path towards a better gender ratio in higher education is clear

Disaggregating the social groups’ enrolment data by gender reveals Indian women’s aspirations. As the accompanying data shows, across groups, the women’s enrolment CAGR is ahead of men’s. It is 7% for women versus 5.6% for men within the SC community, 9.6% versus 7.2% among people of the ST community and 6.8% versus 5.9% among OBCs.

Though the Muslim community’s representation in higher education is far less than its population composition, here too, women’s enrolment CAGR at 6.6% is far higher than men’s at 5.4%. The ‘other minorities’ group is the only one where this score is reversed: it is 4.9% for women versus 6% for men. In the general merit category, men’s enrolment has stagnated at zero as enrolment in years 2012-13 and 2021-22 is very similar. Women’s enrolment in this group is 1.5%, higher than men’s here as well.

Also read: Class affects school enrolment more than caste

Overall, the country’s various social groups are faring well in higher education. Driving enrolment up in key groups and regions across India remains an important national goal and can be facilitated by expanding the capacity of existing institutions and setting up greenfield institutions in regions with low institutional capacity. Distance education can also be utilized to drive enrolment.

The key point here is that increasing the size of the country’s cake will enable more people to partake of it, rather than slicing the existing cake into thinner and thinner slices.

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