Muslims do not detest modern education

The article “Why are Muslims Missing from Higher Education” (The Daily Guardian, 25 May 2023) elicited many valuable questions, comments and insight from the readers. Three of them deserve careful consideration and critical appraisal. First, the suggestion that the 8.53% decline in the enrolment of Muslims in higher education or a reduction in their enrolment by 1.79 lakh in 2020-21 over 2019-20 is due to the aversion of Muslims to send girl children to modern higher educational institutions.
Second, the belief that the lower participation of Muslims in mainstream education is on account of their preference for madrasas over modern education, which, as a consequence, has led to the decline in their enrolment in higher education.
Third, the argument that the decline in the enrolment of Muslims in higher education was due to bottlenecks in the feeder channel and that not enough Muslims go to and complete senior secondary level of education to become eligible to seek admission to higher education.
Coming to the first issue first, the official data, as reported by the All India Survey of Higher Education (AISHE) as brought out annually by the Ministry of Education, Government of India, shows that nothing could be further removed from the truth. The participation of women in higher education compared to their male counterparts has persistently been rising.
Muslim women constituted 46% of the Muslim enrolment in higher education in 2012-13. Since then, their share has gone up to 50.32% in 2020-21. Participation of Muslim women in higher education is quite close to the national average for all sections of society. Clearly, the decline in the enrolment of Muslims in higher education is in no way on account of the withdrawal of women from modern higher education. In fact, in 2020-21, the enrolment of Muslim men declined more sharply than the number of Muslim women.
The UDISE+ data on school education shows that Muslims constitute 13.69% of the total enrolment in primary to senior secondary schools taken together. Indeed, their share is about 10.46% at the senior secondary level due to a wide variety of reasons. Prominent amongst them would be the economic reasons. Notably, at the senior secondary level as well, Muslim women account for about 53.60% of the total enrolment of Muslims.
Obviously, Muslims neither abhor nor avoid sending their girl children to mainstream modern educational institutions. They, like everybody else in the country, however, require a safe and secure environment for their children and expect them to be treated humanely and as equal citizens of our great country.
As regards madrasas, it is a misconception that a predominant section of the Muslim community prefers them over the mainstream modern education. The Sachar Committee had dwelt on the issue in detail way back in 2006 and had highlighted that only 4% of the enrolled and a little over 3% of all Muslim children were studying in madrasas.
It had further explained that the misconception is caused because people often fail to distinguish between madrasas and maktabs. Maktabs are small-sized institutions offering religious education to Muslim children on a part-time basis.
Most of the Maktab-going children are enrolled in mainstream schools. During the past 17 years, the number of madrasa-going children has come down significantly. The misconception, and consequent misapprehension and misgivings about madrasas, however, continue to persist. Take, for example, the most populous state, Uttar Pradesh (UP). India Today reported in 2022 that the number of students attending madrasas in UP had declined from 4.23 lakh in 2016 to only 0.92 lakh in 2022. Importantly, most madrasas students appear in board examinations as well.
According to a New Indian Express story published in 2021, there were 3.71 lakh students enrolled in madrasas in 2017 in UP, of which 3.0 lakh appeared in the board examination. Critically, it mentioned that the number of such students crashed to only 1.62 lakh students in 2021, of which 1.20 lakh appeared in the board examination.
Going by the latest available national-level data, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) reports that the country has a total of 25 crore children aged 6-14 years. Of these, 8.4 crore (or 33.6%) are “out of school”.
It also reports that the number of Muslim children in the same age group at the same time was 3.8 crore out of which 1.1 crore (or 28.9) were “out of school”. NCPCR further informs that only 15 lakh students were enrolled in recognised madrasas. It, however, erroneously assumes that the remaining 95 lakh Muslim children study in unrecognised madrasas.
The bottleneck in the feeder channel appears quite plausible. The UDISE+ data for 2019-20 reveals that Muslims constituted 9.89% of the total enrolment in the higher secondary level. Given that the total enrolment at the higher secondary level was 2.59 crore, the number of Muslim enrolment at that level of education works out to be 25.62 lakh.
In the absence of precise information about Muslims on the dropouts, transition, success, and progression rates from class 11 to 12 and beyond, one can proceed further on the basis of certain assumptions derived from the anecdotal evidence and some generalisations. It is generally known that the dropout rates amongst Muslims are higher than the national average. Thus their transition rates to higher classes are lower. So is the case with their success and progression rates which are significantly lower than the national average.
Taking these into account, it may be assumed that no more than 40% (or 10.25 lakh) of the Muslims in senior secondary schools would be in class 12. Assuming that no more than 80% (about 10% lower than the national average) of them would be appearing in the board examination and that their success rate would be no more than 65% (12% lower than the national average), nearly 5.33 lakh Muslims must have completed the senior secondary examination in 2019-20.
Assuming that only 60% (13% lower than the national average) of them would be seeking admission to higher education programmes, the number of such candidates would be around 3.2 lakh. This would indeed be regarded as very low in comparison to the size of the Muslim population in the country and would indeed be a major barrier to accessing higher education.


Furqan Qamar, former Adviser for Education in the Planning Commission, is a Professor of Management at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. Views expressed are personal.

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