Chapter 13 School enrollment in South Asia


Countries in South Asia have achieved different levels of progress regarding school enrollment at different educational stages (pre-primary, primary, secondary, and tertiary). We study how school enrollment of school-age children and young adults (age<25) changes over time in each country depending on gender and location (urban/rural). School enrollment over age is flat for children in primary school and resembles a trapezoid in countries that have achieved almost universal primary education such as Maldives, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka. However, school enrollment still has the shape of an inverted U in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Pakistan, where dropout rates are concerning even among primary school children aged 4 to 12 years.

In recent years, South Asian countries have invested in school inputs and directed their efforts towards achieving universal access to primary education. These investments have led to more children retained in primary school. According to Dundar et al. (2014), enrollment in South Asia’s primary schools rose from 75 percent in 2000 to 89 percent in 2010, bringing it closer to enrollment levels in Latin America and the Caribbean (94 percent) and East Asia and the Pacific (94.8 percent). Between 1999 and 2010, the number of out-of-school children ages 8–14 years fell from 35 million to 13 million, and the number of out-of-school girls in the region dropped by 59 percent.

Progress at other educational stages has not been as consistent and is harder to measure. Early childhood education (kindergarden and preschool) provides foundations for young children to develop skills that can help them succeed in school and over the course of their lives. Still, according to UNICEF (2019), more than 35 million children in South Asia are not attending age appropriate pre-primary education. In the area of tertiary or higher education there is a wide difference among countries. According to Tilak (2015), India has one of the largest systems of higher education in the world, with about 21 million students enrolled in nearly 700 universities and 40 thousand colleges. Bangladesh and Pakistan stand at distant second and third positions, with two million and 1.8 million students in higher education respectively. In contrast, student numbers are very small in value in Sri Lanka and Nepal. Bhutan has only one university and Maldives does not have any.

In this analysis, we compare the education levels achieved across countries considering their different education systems. Sustainable Development Goal 4 has ten targets encompassing many different aspects of education. The first target is to ensure that by 2030 all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes. Equality in primary education between girls and boys has improved, but not at all levels of education. Sri Lanka achieved near-universal primary education between girls and boys decades ago, while Afghanistan and Pakistan still lag significantly behind other South Asian countries.

The South Asia Regional Micro Database (SARMD) contains the following harmonized variables at the individual level (when age>=ed_mod_age) to monitor progress towards the achievement of these goals:

Variable Description
ed_mod_age Age at which education module is applied
atschool Individual attending school (1 = Yes 0 = No)
everattend Individual ever attended school (1 = Yes 0 = No)
literacy Individual can read and write (1 = Yes 0 = No)
educy Years of education
educat4 1 = No education 2 = Primary (complete or incomplete) 3 = Secondary (complete or incomplete) 4 = Tertiary (complete or incomplete)
educat5 1 = No education 2 = Primary incomplete 3 = Primary complete but secondary incomplete 4 = Secondary complete 5 = Some tertiary
educat7 1 = No education 2 = Primary incomplete 3 = Primary complete 4 = Secondary incomplete 5 = Secondary complete 6 = Higher than secondary but not university 7 = University incomplete or complete

The most vulnerable group in terms of low literacy is women older than 65 years. Even among younger adults and children, the difference in literacy rates between men and women is wide. Figure 13.1 displays average literacy rates at a subnational level. Afghanistan clearly stands out being one of the countries with the lowest literacy rates in the world. In 2011, it was estimated at about 31 percent of the adult population (15 years or older).

Literacy rates at subnational level

Figure 13.1: Literacy rates at subnational level

Primary, secondary and tertiary education are defined differently in each country, but may be summarized as in Figure 13.2.

Figure 13.2: Standard education system definition

Secondary education, in particular, has significantly different meanings across countries as shown in this dashboard. In Bangladesh, the education system is divided into three levels:

  • Primary Level (Class 1–5). Students receive their Primary School Certificate at the end of 5th grade.
  • Secondary Level (6-10) or (9-12 at some schools). Students receive their Secondary School Certificate at the end of 10th grade (similar to India and Pakistan). This is equivalent to GCSE in England and the first two years of high school in the United States. There is no middle school system in Bangladesh.
  • Tertiary Level (University)

In contrast, Sri Lanka’s education structure is divided into five parts: primary (kindergarden through grade 5), junior secondary (grades 6-9), senior secondary (grades 10-11), collegiate (grades 12-13), and tertiary (university).

These differences in education systems mean that the relationships between age, ed_mod_age, educy, educat4, educat5, and educat7 vary by country. The following table displays each country’s most recent value for ed_mod_age and provides a summary for how primary, secondary and tertiary school have been harmonized in SARMD:

Country ed_mod_age Primary (Grades) Secondary (Grades) Tertiary
Afghanistan 6 1-6 7-12 13-
Bangladesh 5 1-5 6-12 13-
Bhutan 2 1-9 10-12 13-
India NA 1-5 6-12 13-
Maldives 5 1-5 6-12 13-
Nepal 5 1-6 7-12 13-
Pakistan 4 1-8 9-12 13-
Sri Lanka 5 1-6 7-12 13-

Figure 13.3 presents our analysis of school enrollment of school-age children and young adults (age<25). This analysis consists of studying how atschool changes over time in each country depending on male and urban. It is easy to identify how Bhutan, Maldives and Sri Lanka have achieved near-universal primary education by looking at the shape of the figure, which ressembles a plateau, while enrollment rates in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Pakistan still have the shape of an inverted U.

School enrollment over age

Figure 13.3: School enrollment over age

This analysis has provided the following findings at the country level:


Afghanistan has one of the youngest populations in the world, making quality education particularly critical for the rapidly growing numbers of school aged boys and girls. Afghanistan has the widest gap between male/female and urban/rural enrollment rates. The education system is K–12, that is from kindergarden (K) for 4-6 year-olds through twelfth grade (12) for 17-19 year-olds. Long distance to school and reluctance to send children to school are by far the most common reasons for not starting school (mentioned for 37 and 25 percent of those who never attended school), whereas the need for child labor and perceived irrelevance of further education were the most important reasons for terminating education.


In Bangladesh, all citizens must undertake twelve years of compulsory education which consists of eight years at the primary school level and six years at the high school level. Primary and secondary education is financed by the state and free of charge in public schools. Still, enrollment rates fall rapidly especially after age 9. Enrollment rates fall faster for male students than for female students until both lines intersect. At higher levels of education, female enrollment is lower than male enrollment.


Bhutan has achieved nearly-universal primary education over time and the male/female and urban/rural gaps have narrowed. In Bhutan, primary education is provided free for six years. Secondary education lasts six years and is divided into the lower, middle and higher secondary levels with a duration of two years each.


Unfortunately, surveys from India do not collect enough information about individuals’ general educational level to complete this analysis.


Our figures show how universal primary education has been achieved in Maldives. Still, a wide gap between male and female enrollment rates remains at higher levels of education.


Primary education in Nepal consists of grades one through eight. Secondary education are grades nine and ten, and Higher Secondary Levels cover grades eleven and twelve. Pre-primary education is available in some areas, and students usually begin grade one at age six. A Basic Education Examination is given on grade eight. A national Secondary Education Exam examination is conducted at the end of grade 10. Completing grade 12 examination leads to the School Leaver’s Certificate. However, it is clear from the figures that enrollment rates start to fall before reaching grade 12.


In Pakistan, the gap between urban and rural enrollment rates is very clear. There also seems to be a great increase in enrollment of young children from 2013 to 2015. The education system in Pakistan is divided into six levels: preschool (for the age from 3 to 5 years), primary (grades one through five), middle (grades six through eight), high (grades nine and ten, leading to the Secondary School Certificate), intermediate (grades eleven and twelve, leading to a Higher Secondary School Certificate), and university programs leading to undergraduate and graduate degrees.

Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka’s education structure is divided into five parts: primary, junior secondary, senior secondary, collegiate, and tertiary. Primary education lasts five to six years (Kindergarden through grade 5) and at the end of this period, the students may elect to write a national exam called the Scholarship exam. This exam allows students with exceptional skills to move on to better schools. After primary education, the junior secondary level (referred to as middle school in some schools) lasts for 4 years (Grades 6-9) followed by 2 years (Grades 10-11) of the senior secondary level which is the preparation for the General Certificate of Education (G.C.E) Ordinary Level (O/Ls). According to Sri Lankan law, it is compulsory that all children go to school till grade 9 (age 14) at which point they can choose to continue their education or drop out and engage in apprenticeship for a job or farming. This is very clear in our figures where enrollment rates drop shortly after age 15.

You may access our full Stata do-file by accessing the following link. Our work consists of running the following command for each dataset and saving the results in order to export to Tableau.

* Example: Measuring school enrollment by age, gender and urban/rural

* Open dataset
datalibweb, country(`country') year(`year') type(SARMD) surveyid(`surveyid') clear 

* Generate enrollment rates 
mean atschool [aw=wgt] if age < 25, over(age male urban) // same as anova
anova atschool i.age##i.male##i.urban  [aw=wgt] if (age < 25) 
tempfile g u gu a
margins i.age##i.male         [aw=wgt] if (age < 25), saving(`g')
margins i.age##i.urban        [aw=wgt] if (age < 25), saving(`u')

* Plot figure       
combomarginsplot  `u' `g', noci recast(line) legend(cols(2) position(6)) /* 
         */ plotopts(lpattern(l)) by(_filenumber) labels("Urban/rural" "Gender")


Dundar, Halil, Tara Beteille, Michelle Riboud, and Anil Deolalikar. 2014. Student Learning in South Asia : Challenges, Opportunities, and Policy Priorities. World Bank Group.

Tilak, Jandhyala B. G. 2015. “Higher Education in South Asia: Crisis and Challenges.” Social Scientist 43 (1/2): 43–59.

UNICEF. 2019. A World Ready to Learn: Prioritizing Quality Early Childhood Education. New York.