In the school year 2017-18, Gujarat shifted from a paper-based system at the district level to an online system at the state level, for applications under the Right to Education Act. In this note, researchers at IIM Ahmedabad demonstrate that unless the required technological infrastructure is adequately developed, a complete shift to digitisation adversely affects the most vulnerable populations.
Section 12(1) (c) of the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act (henceforth, RTE) mandates all non-minority private unaided schools to reserve minimum 25% of seats at the entry level (pre-primary or class 1) for children from economically weaker sections and socially disadvantaged groups. This section is regarded as a crucial instrument for inclusive education in the context of a de-facto segregated schooling system in India with all its attendant consequences (Harma 2009, De et al. 2002). Unfortunately, implementation of section 12(1) (c) has remained sketchy with only 11 states and one Union Territory (UT) implementing it, in over five years of its existence.
School applications under RTE: Gujarat goes online
Gujarat has been implementing the policy on a pilot basis since 2013-14, covering selected municipalities and private unaided schools, expanding its scope with each successive year. Between 2013-14 and 2016-17, Gujarat followed, what we call ‘centralised (district) offline’ application system – centralised (at the district level) because the lottery was conducted by the district administration and not by individual schools, and offline because the entire process was manual and paper-based. It essentially meant that applicants had to submit a physical application form collected from designated government help centres, fill in personal details, mention names of up to five schools in the ‘neighbourhood’ where they are seeking admission, attach the documents proving their eligibility, and submit their application at the help centres. The officials at the help centre were supposed to check the form, and issue an acknowledgement receipt. The applicants were to be informed about the allotment decisions through SMS and post. The parents receiving allotment would approach the school along with the acknowledgement receipt and then take admission. This system witnessed a major change in 2017-18. It shifted from centralised (district) offline procedure to a ‘centralised (state) online’ application system through an online portal www.rtegujarat.org.
In this new system, applicants were expected to access the portal (available in English and Gujarati), key in all the details in the application form, and submit it online. Then the applicants were to report to the receiving centre along with print-out of the application form and eligibility documents. These documents were to be checked at the centre. Only the approved applications were to be taken into account for seat allotments. The allotment was carried out through computerised lottery, and applicants were to be informed through SMS and message in their online account. Once informed, they could log into their profile, print out the allotment notice, take it to the allotted school and obtain admission.1
Advantages of online application system
An online application system enhances scale and reduces administrative burden on implementing bodies dramatically. Further, an online system can minimise human discretion, and ensure that guidelines are being followed in practice. It can also be utilised to provide relevant information about schools to parents to help them make better decisions. More importantly, online application systems, when combined with an end-to-end management information system (MIS), which encompasses information on private schools, payments/reimbursements to private schools2, and child-tracking has the potential to aid better-informed policymaking.
Disadvantages of complete shift to online application system
However, a shift to an online system also creates a number of challenges, especially for disadvantaged sections of the society towards whom section 12(1) (c) is targeted.
Issues of access and cost of filing applications
Given that target group consists of potentially the most disadvantaged sections of society, the key concern is of lack of awareness and knowledge, leading to higher cost of applications and at worst, exclusion from application process itself3.
Ideally, the receiving centres should have been upgraded with relevant infrastructure to be utilised to access and submit online applications. In its absence, cyber cafes became the only source for parents to access online applications. It was not uncommon to witness cyber cafes charging much higher amounts for accessing internet, print-outs etc4. Further, unlike previous years, many local voluntary organisations and student groups couldn’t help eligible applicants since not many could afford desktop/laptop and internet connection. Further, the server crashed multiple times in the first week of the application process, which meant the applicants could not submit their applications during that time despite repeated visits to cyber cafes. All this implied that the applicants had to bear much higher costs (direct and indirect) in submitting applications compared to previous years.
Use of GPS
Distance between the residence and the school was an important eligibility condition for application to a specific school. GPS was used to locate both schools and residence of the applicants, and there were problems at both ends.
Applicants were supposed to enter their postal address, pin code, and a landmark. The system would then drop the location pin on the map. In order to increase accuracy, the applicants could move the location pin within a maximum range of 1 km from the location picked up by the GPS. But given the large ward sizes, the location pin so moved by the applicants still remained quite far from the exact residential address of the applicant. Officials at the receiving centre did not accept forms if the address mentioned in the document for address proof did not match the GPS location identified online. Further, since the number of schools available to an applicant would depend on his location, incorrectly placed location pin had implications for availability of schools. On the other hand, the actual school location and GPS location did not match in a number of instances. Oddly, some schools were shown outside Gujarat5. All this resulted in schools allotted being more than 6 kms away from the residence of many of the allotees.
Problems not specific to online application system
Now, we discuss issues and problems that are not specific to the online application system. Some of these arose this year, while some have persisted from previous admission cycles.
Limited awareness activities by administration
The awareness-generation activities on the part of the government have been essentially limited to issuing advertisement through local newspapers once a year, just before the commencement of the 12(1) (c) admission process. In fact, advertisement regarding 2017-18 admission cycle was published a day before the start of the process. Notification at such a short notice does not give potential applicants enough time to obtain the required documents. Some of them then have to resort to middlemen.
Discrepancy in notification and implementation
This year, the advertisement by the government had clearly mentioned that ‘General’ category households without BPL (below poverty line) cards would be eligible to apply if their annual income didn’t exceed Rs. 68,000 (urban) and Rs. 47,000 (rural). However, online application form provided no space for such applicants. Though this was corrected later, the correction was not publicised much. This probably meant that many potential applicants did not apply thinking that they were not eligible.
Difference in age criteria for GSEB (Gujarat Secondary and Higher Secondary Education Board) schools and CBSE (Central Board of Secondary Education) schools was not communicated to the applicant through advertisement or online portal. Further, applicants not fulfilling age requirement were not constrained from applying via online applications. This led to applications being rejected due to ‘not meeting age criteria’ at the receiving centre.
Issues around eligibility documentation
Another major issue for the applicants, especially migrants from other states, is procuring various eligibility documents. Neither the official notification on website nor newspaper advertisements mentioned the information needed (who is the issuing authority, where to apply and obtain cards, etc.) to obtain eligibility documents. Even the list of required documents was not mentioned in any of the notifications. Aadhaar6 card was also made mandatory – at least one family member had to have an Aadhaar card linked to a bank account.
Absence of grievance redressal mechanism
The centralised online application system or its predecessor systems have failed in laying out a clear grievance redressal mechanism. With no functional helpline7, or information centre to go to, applicants struggled to gather basic information. Many had to resort to helpline numbers provided by non-governmental agencies and individuals on their own websites. First round of seat allocations were announced on 15 May 2017. But by then, summer vacation had started which meant that most of the government schools that housed the receiving centres remain closed. These applicants had to travel to either District Education Office or the Zila Panchayat office for registering their grievances. It was difficult to access these officials as the timing coincided with board examinations.
The main concern with exclusive use of online application system is possibility of exclusion of potential applicants. Hence we suggest that applications should be accepted through both offline and online modes. Rajasthan is currently following this practice, and offline applicants constitute a high fraction of total number of applications.
In addition, governments should strive to create more locations and options where potential applicants can access the internet. One way would be to upgrade help centres/receiving centres with adequate appropriate infrastructure so that applicants can access internet in these centres itself.
The other concern has been the problems associated with the use of GPS. Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh seem to have overcome such issues by not relying on GPS and distance-based neighbourhood criterion. Instead, they have opted for entire ward/village being treated as neighbourhood, along with pre-defining neighbouring wards/villages for a given ward/village. This option needs to be studied in detail to assess its suitability and modifications in Gujarat’s context.
Other concerns are equally important, if not more. The government should take awareness activities more seriously. Merely advertising 1-2 days before the beginning of the application window, is certainly not enough. Even the Gujarat High Court had taken a note of this and issued instructions. Early start of awareness activities will enable potential applicants to take a more informed decision, and initiate procuring eligibility documents if need be. In fact, the whole application-admission cycle should also begin earlier than the current practice. This will aid both schools and parents by giving them an opportunity to engage with one another in a constructive manner prior to the start of the school year, which will help the applicants gear up for academic year.
Currently, the help centres/receiving centres are located in government schools. They should be developed as full-fledged resource centers for 12(1) (c) applicants, capable of accepting online and offline applications, answering questions, and resolving problems. They should be staffed and managed by people other than school teachers and headmasters so that their time and attention is not diverted from managing schools. This requires the government to invest in infrastructure and human resources.
Over the last two years many states have shifted towards a systematic online process for admissions under section 12(1) (c). While these tools have helped state governments to establish transparent allocation processes, applicants face several challenges. While we strongly believe in the utility of digital platforms, policymakers and implementers must understand the applicant’s situation and help applicants overcome the technological barrier. Attention also needs to be paid to other challenges faced by the applicants. This calls for more concern, backed by more investments in implementation infrastructure – human, physical, and technological.
- Detailed description of the entire process including eligibility criteria is in Sarin, Dongre and Wad (2017).
- Private unaided schools are to be reimbursed by the government for students admitted through 12(1)(c) in that school as per a specified formula. See Sarin, Dongre and Wad (2017) for details.
- The World Development Report (2016) identifies lack of access and affordability as the key reasons for gains from digital technologies not spreading rapidly.
- According to our observations, at least 30 minutes were needed to fill the form if the applicant has all the information ready. So one would need to spend considerable amount of time to fill the details correctly and submit the form. Many parents also complained of cyber-cafe operators filling incorrect information leading to either applications getting rejected or receiving ‘wrong’ school allotment. Currently, there is no way of editing, deleting or re-entering the details once a form has been submitted.
- A petition was filed in Gujarat High Court regarding this matter. The High Court directed the geographical locations to be updated.
- Aadhaar or Unique Identification number (UID) is a 12-digit individual identification number issued by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) on behalf of the Government of India. It captures the biometric identity – 10 fingerprints, iris and photograph – of every resident, and serves as a proof of identity and address anywhere in India.
- Although the website mentioned a government helpline number but it was non-functional for almost the entire duration of the process.
- De, A, M Majumdar, M Samson and C Noronha (2002), ‘Private schools and universal elementary education’, in R Govinda (ed.), India Education Report: A Profile of Basic Education, Oxford University Press, Oxford and New Delhi.
- Joanna, Härmä (2009), “Can choice promote Education for All? Evidence from growth in private primary schooling in India”, Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education, 39(2):151-165.
- Sarin, A, A Dongre and S Wad (2017), ‘State of the Nation: RTE Section 12(1) (C)’, IIM Ahmedabad, Ahmedabad.
- World Bank (2016), ‘World Development Report 2016: Digital Dividends’, Washington, DC.