As part of the 2022-23 state budget, Tamil Nadu Finance Minister Dr Palanivel Thiaga Rajan announced a monthly assistance of Rs 1,000 for girls in classes 6 to 12 in government schools.

Girl students in uniform walking towards school building Image for representation | Picxy
Voices EDUCATION Sunday, March 20, 2022 - 13:15

MSNBC host Chris Hayes famously wrote in 2018: “Nothing bends towards justice without us bending it.” Tamil Nadu Finance Minister Dr Palanivel Thiaga Rajan’s budget speech on Friday, March 18 gave new meaning to this remark, when he made a significant announcement about providing direct financial assistance to teenage girls, thus encouraging them to enter higher education. The measure, in a way, tries to correct an aberration in Tamil Nadu’s otherwise presentable record in higher education.

The state has an enviable density of institutions per 1 lakh population in arts, science, engineering, medicine or polytechnic education. This has led to TN having one of the highest gross enrolment rates (GER) for higher education among all states in the country. GER denotes the ratio of young men and women in the age group of 17 – 24 attending college, as against the overall population of the age group. Tamil Nadu’s GER is 51, nearly double the national index of 27, according to data from the All India Survey of Higher Education. TN’s index is comparable to some of the most advanced nations.

While the overall numbers look good for TN, the data for 2019-20 showed that while 52% of boys attended college, only 49% girls entered higher education. And this disparity was pronounced among poorer sections.

While explaining the broad focal points of the 2022-23 budget, PTR highlighted the need to strengthen the social safety net and the empowerment of women through education and better livelihood opportunities. This was followed by two specific announcements.

The first one recognises that “the enrolment ratio of girl students from government schools in higher education is very low”. All girl students studying in classes 6 to 12 in government schools will be provided Rs 1,000 per month, paid directly into their bank accounts till the uninterrupted completion of their undergraduate degree, diploma and ITI courses, the Minister announced. The programme is likely to benefit 6 lakh girl students and has an allotment of Rs 698 crore this year.

The second announcement recognises the overall GER scenario and highlights the need to improve infrastructure in government colleges and polytechnics. Over the next five years, a special scheme will be implemented to create new classrooms, hostels, laboratories and smart classrooms at a total cost of Rs 1,000 crore. For this purpose, Rs 250 crore has been provided in this budget.

Pandemic induced dropout among girls

According to KR Renuka from the Centre for Women’s Development and Research, which works among girls and women in poorer sections in urban Chennai, the disparity in higher education attendance became sharper in the pandemic. “We saw dozens of girls who could not attend schools due to the lockdown being pushed into marriage, because the parents saw them as a burden amid job and livelihood loss.”

In many cases, parents had to leave their lower income tenements to seek temporary jobs in far away places forcing their girl children to stay at home. Fearing sexual harassment and other safety issues, the parents pushed such vulnerable girls also into marriage.

“This announcement will bring a positive change. Parents will now realise that they can actually get money to send their girls to school,” Renuka said. The direct subsidy will have a good impact on the lives of the girls – more education and less threat of getting married off, she added.

“I only hope that along with the money transfer, the girls also get personality and language development programmes. Because I see women from poorer households enter college with a negative mindset because they don’t have the social or personal skills to walk as equals among their peers from more affluent families,” Renuka said.

Competencies for a future workplace

The state’s GER rate has also spawned some interesting debates. In fact, in a recent conference, Minister PTR expressed concern that while lakhs of young persons were attending college, a crucial question was whether they were getting the required skills and competencies for a future workplace; and whether there were enough teachers to provide quality education.

It is precisely this part of the question that has been answered by another announcement in the budget. The ‘Naan Mudhalvan’ programme, the dream project of Chief Minister MK Stalin, has been allotted Rs 50 crore this year to offer enhanced education, knowledge, motivation and skills to 5 lakh youth. Special training would be imparted for students to acquire skill sets as per industry requirements, thus enhancing their employability.

These targeted announcements are in line with what global organisations have been saying for years: removing poverty and gender-related barriers for women’s education can raise the overall economy significantly and have a major social impact.

Ramachandran Krish heads Strategy for 361 Degree Minds, a digital education company. Views expressed are the author’s own.

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