Placing ‘Learning’ at the core of CSR programmes

Businesses investing in education are increasingly including ‘learning’ as the core objective of their CSR programmes.

A lion’s share of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) funds in India is invested in education programmes. Credible learning assessments and reporting can help businesses map learning progress of students under specific interventions and assist in decision-making. Anannya Chakraborty reports.


Since the enactment of the Companies Act 2013, Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) has gained considerable attention in India. The key development actors in the country such as the UN, aid agencies, and international and domestic NGOs, are partnering with businesses to tackle national development challenges. The CRISIL CSR Yearbook published in March 2018 notes that ‘around 70% of the companies spent more on CSR compared with fiscal 2016’, suggesting that businesses are making unprecedented investments in CSR programmes (CRISIL Foundation, 2018). Moreover, under the private-public partnership model, they are collectively working with governments for the implementation of government-run schemes in India.

The CRISIL CSR Yearbook also reports that CSR spending was highest in education and skill development, rising from 32.2 per cent to 36.59 per cent in the fiscal year 2017 (CRISIL Foundation, 2018). Earlier, a report published in 2014 revealed that education programmes attract maximum CSR funds with 78 out of 100 companies having at least one programme to address the cause of education (Samhita Social Ventures, 2014). Scholarships and infrastructure remain the two most popular areas where businesses commonly invest their CSR funds.

Aligning CSR activities with global and national priorities

Globally, countries have progressed considerably in providing access to education. However, the 2018 World Development Report recently released by the World Bank Group showed that ‘worldwide, hundreds of millions of children reach young adulthood without even the most basic life skills. Even if they attend school, many leave without the skills for calculating the correct change from a transaction, reading a doctor’s instructions, or interpreting a campaign promise—let alone building a fulfilling career or educating their children’. (World Bank, 2018)

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) launched in 2016, shifted the focus of key education actors towards inclusive and quality education. To achieve ‘Goal 4─Quality Education’, countries need education interventions that have the potential to improve the quality of education and ultimately impact learning.

In India, the education landscape is evolving. The newly launched Samagra Shiksha, an integrated scheme for the school education sector, focuses on equal opportunities for schooling and equitable learning outcomes. ‘Learning outcomes’ now find a prominent place in all educational development plans, including in India. The recently conducted National Achievement Survey (NAS) reflects the renewed impetus of the government to measure learning outcome data in order to guide education policy and practice.

Improving the quality of education that lies at the heart of the SDGs is a shared and collective responsibility. Clearly, improving learning would mean that governments, non-governmental organisations, and businesses work together to accelerate progress. The Smartest Investment: A Framework for Business Engagement in Education highlights why and how businesses around the globe have the potential to lead education advancement if they partner with experts, are outcomes-oriented and results driven, and are sustainable and scalable (UNICEF, UNESCO, UNGC, & UN Special Envoy for Global Education, 2013).

In light of these developments, it is clear that businesses would optimise their CSR expenditures by aligning their activities to national priorities, while supporting the achievement of SDGs through local action.

Why invest in learning?

Like other countries around the world, India too has made notable progress in increasing access to education. According to Census 2011 data, the literacy rate of children (age group 7+ to 15 +) is 64.8 per cent, and the total Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) according to UDISE in 2015-16 is 99.21 at the primary level and 80.01 at the secondary level (NEUPA, 2015-2016) (MHRD, 2018). However, the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2016 reports that only 47.8 per cent of children in Standard V could read a Standard II level text, and only 26 per cent of children in Standard V could do divisions, indicating the poor state of learning in the country (ASER, 2016).  In 2017, ASER found that 25 per cent youth in the age group of 14-18 could not read basic text fluently in their own language and only 43 per cent were able to do problem divisions correctly, highlighting the lack of basic reading and numeracy skills in that age cohort (ASER, 2017).

The NAS 2017 state reports have been published, and national level findings are awaited. The following table displays some of the learning data from the major states; unsurprisingly, the levels of achievement vary across classes and states.

This range of performance across states re-emphasises that all actors ─ government, non-government organisations, international aid agencies, and private sector ─ need to come together to focus on improving learning. It also indicates that CSR engagements in infrastructure and scholarship interventions that have easily measurable tangible outcomes are not enough; businesses need to shift towards designing programmes that have a positive impact on learning levels.

Re-focusing on learning

So the big question is ─ are businesses engaging to improve learning? A 2018 study investigated the impact of CSR on learning outcomes, taking the CSR initiative of ITC Limited as an example, and found that it could have a significant impact on the learning outcomes of students. (Sinha & Chaudhuri, 2018)

Clearly, for those businesses already focusing on learning, robust, standardised, and effective assessments can help them measure learning outcomes and provide data that helps them to scale- up and improve their intervention.

Even new businesses that aim to invest in improving learning will need reliable assessment tools that help them to gather evidence on learning levels of the pupils under their intervention, interpret the findings, and take necessary steps to support improvement.

Why measure learning outcomes?

Professor Geoff Masters, CEO, Australian Council for Educational Research describes the fundamental purpose of assessment. He says ‘The fundamental purpose of assessment in education is to establish and understand where learners are in an aspect of their learning at the time of assessment’. He further explains that this ‘means establishing what they know, understand and can do’ (Masters, 2014).

He also points out that the results of assessment can be used to ‘evaluate the effectiveness of the educational initiatives’. And this can only be done if assessments provide reliable information and valuable data on establishing where students are in their long-term learning.  Masters argues that the core essence of assessment is to understand the progress of individual students over time instead of ‘grading performances against age/ year group expectations’ (Masters, 2013)

Monitor and evaluate education programmes using standardised tests: a case

ACER India recently designed a monitoring and evaluation programme for assessing early-grade reading among class 2 students in the states of Maharashtra, MP, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, and Rajasthan. In addition to developing a scientific, reliable, and standardised test instrument to measure the reading capabilities of the intervention cohort, semi-structured interviews were conducted to understand the programme inputs and processes. As the assessment tested students in their local language, the tool was adapted to be used in local languages and to ensure equivalency of data/skills points tested.

Similar monitoring and evaluation programmes can be developed for CSR interventions that can accurately measure the learning outcomes of students using advanced psychometric analysis and scientific test development process.

Thus, scientific and standardised assessments can help businesses to evaluate the learning outcomes of students under their interventions and take necessary action so that these have a maximum impact towards the achievement of national and global goals.


Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) has the potential to change the education landscape of India. Strategic partnerships can help businesses promote national objectives and support the achievement of global goals. Partnerships can help Indian businesses widen their areas for intervention, adding more fields beyond scholarships or infrastructure, and implement them so as to achieve quality education.

Businesses investing in education are increasingly including ‘learning’ as the core objective of their CSR programmes. Credible assessments and reporting can help them to gather evidence on student learning, the results of which can be used to improve learning outcomes and support financial (resource allocation) and technical decision-making.

About the Author: Anannya Chakraborty is Senior Communications Officer at ACER India.


ASER. (2016). Annual Status of Education Report (Rural) 2016. New Delhi: ASER Centre.

ASER. (2017). Annual Status of Education Report (Rural) 2017. New Delhi: ASER Centre.

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MHRD. (2018). Educational Statistics at a Glance. New Delhi: Ministry of Human Resource Development, Department of School Education and Literacy, Government of India.

NEUPA. (2015-2016). School Education in India. New Delhi: National University of Educational Planning and Administration.

Samhita Social Ventures. (2014). Education & CSR: Mapping initiatives of the top 100 companies. Mumbai: Samhita Social Ventures. Retrieved from

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Sinha, S., & Chaudhuri, T. (2018). Impact of CSR on learning outcomes. Management of Environmental Quality: An International Journal, 29(6), 1026-1041. doi:

UNICEF, UNESCO, UNGC, & UN Special Envoy for Global Education. (2013). The Smartest Investment: A Framework for Business Engagement in Education. New York: UNGC.

World Bank. (2018). Learning to Realise Education’s Promise. Washington: The World Bank.

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