The State of Education in South Asia

Education is widely believed to have the ability to stave off illiteracy, produce a generation of skilled workers, stimulate the economy, and reduce incidences of child labour and child marriage. This view is echoed in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG 4), which calls for inclusive and equitable quality education and the promotion of lifelong learning opportunities for all. It is important to note that SDG 4 emphasizes the need for quality education and lifelong learning; this means that not just any education will do. Proper education must utilize quality resources, effective teachers, and smaller class sizes, while continuing far beyond just primary-level education.

While the importance of education for all is relatively uncontested, we should remember that education is not a “silver bullet” that will magically solve all development problems across the board. There is no governmental or non-governmental intervention that will, on its own, remedy the systemic problems of underdevelopment. That being said, education is a good of a place as any to begin.

Considerable attention has been given in the last several decades to improving education in South Asia. Recent World Bank data shows that enrollment in primary education has increased dramatically over the last few decades, with 91% of children of primary-school age in South Asia receiving formal education. So, what’s the problem?

“Getting Low”: Enrollment Rates

The problem with education in South Asia, and the developing world more broadly, becomes clearer when we look at secondary and tertiary education. World Bank data suggests that a large number of students who enrol in primary education in developing countries do not continue on to pursue secondary or tertiary education.

Why aren’t children and adolescents continuing their education in high schools or universities? It is likely that there is no singular cause that created such a systemic problem in South Asia. Although, one trend that is exhibited across virtually all developing countries that could begin to explain students’ lack of educational endurance is the phenomenon that academic circles refer to as the “tertiary tilt”. Education systems displaying a tertiary tilt essentially show that greater investment in higher education facilitates higher inequality across society.

This means that the gap between the haves and have-nots is continually widening, making higher education less attainable for a large majority of the population. Additionally, with more funds going towards secondary and tertiary education, less resources and money are available for primary education. This negatively effects both the capacity and quality of primary education, and without solid primary education it is even less likely that students will be capable or interested in pursuing further education.

What Can We Do About It?

One non-governmental organization in India may have an answer for us. Shanti Bhavan Children’s Project selects one child per family from Bangalore and the surrounding area and educates them free of charge from early childhood through university. The average child that attends Shanti Bhavan is from a low-caste family in a rural village or urban slum and receives 17 years of formal education. Shanti Bhavan students live at the school for majority of the school career, are held to incredibly high standards, and are given a well-rounded education supplemented with a variety of extra-curriculars.

By offering continuous support and funding through each stage of their education, the Shanti Bhavan Children’s Project has incredibly high rates of success. 98% of Shanti Bhavan students graduate from university and 97% of those individuals are employed in full-time jobs after graduation. The Shanti Bhavan approach works and the benefits of the program consistently extend beyond the individual student, improving the quality of life of their families and villages as well.

The Shanti Bhavan model is holistic and there is evidence that it works within India. When it comes to successful development, context is key. It is possible that the educational model created by Shanti Bhavan’s founders could be adapted and applied to other countries in South Asia, to suit their unique needs and social environments. For instance, Shanti Bhavan takes into account the social stratification and inequality entrenched in Indian society by the caste system; this would not be necessary in other countries, but other societies may have different needs that the model could be adapted to consider or address.


Karly Hurlock is an MA candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, where she specializes in International Development Policy. She completed her BA in History and Political Science at the University of Guelph, followed by an MA in History at Carleton University. Her previous research focused on the effects of Indian nuclear policy on Canadian development assistance to India. Her research interests include: Canadian relations with South Asia, migration and remittances, and the history of Canadian aid. Karly can be reached at

Image courtesy of MaxPixel

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