Why there is need for policy attention on disparities in education sector

Evolution of higher education has had a long and chequered history, through which the modern system has evolved.

 |  14-minute read |   26-08-2020
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There has been an overwhelming growth of the higher education system in India. This has been possible with public and private initiatives along with good use of information technology. Higher education worldwide is dynamic and is influenced by not only the national policies but also global perspective. Various aspects of higher education dominate firmly on the agendas of UNESCO, OECD, International Economic Association and other national and international organisations.

Education being a key investment in human capital, quality enhancement is equally relevant besides its quantitative expansion. Increasing access to higher education is, however, not commensurate with public funding levels. As a consequence academic standards deteriorate. The share of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on education, in general, at present in the country is far below six per cent benchmark advocated by Kothari Commission (1968), National Knowledge Commission (2006), Committee on National Common Minimum Programme (2005), CABE Committee on Financing Higher and Technical Education (2005), etc. Most of the Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) in the country provide a mediocre standard of quality. Structural reforms in the 1990s promoted private provisioning, thereby forcing students or their families to bear the money cost of education. Equity is thus adversely affected, making higher education affordable to only a few. Privatisation is, at times, believed to defeat the purpose of education being public or social good. This paper discusses various issues which are pertinent to the Indian higher education system and also explores feasible strategies to make it affordable and accessible to all.

The 21st Century, considered as the ‘Knowledge Century’ has significantly attributed brainpower in determining a country’s place in the global arena. Brainpower may be reflected in, what Amartya Sen has called, ‘human capabilities’. Basically, the wellbeing of people and the investment made in human capital formation contribute to human capability. Kofi Annan clearly articulated that education is a human right with immense power to transform. On its foundation rest the cornerstones of freedom, democracy and sustainable human development. Education develops basic skills and abilities and fosters a value system conducive to national development goals, both long-term and immediate. Evolution of higher education has had a long and chequered history through which the modern system of education has evolved. Considering its size and diversity, India has the third-largest higher education system in the world, next only to that of China and the United States.

Growth of higher education

Religion-based education in ancient India had an outstanding role in creating, transforming and transmitting knowledge to the people in the society. The main religions were Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. Banaras, Mithila and Nadia became centres of intellectual activities in mediaeval India. There were usually three conduits through which knowledge was acquired. These were Maktab, Madrasah and Khankah. While Maktab was a place where elementary education was imparted, higher learning was pursued at a Madrasa and religious education or theology was discussed at a Khangah, the birthplace of Sufism or spiritualism in Islam.

A historical landmark of the Colonial period is the McCauley’s Policy of 1835 to promote European learning through English. This period also marked the establishment of Universities in India on the model of the London University viz. Universities of the affiliating type, first promoted in Sir Charles Wood’s Dispatch of 1854 which has been described as the Magna Carta of English education in India. Resultantly, three universities in the presidency towns of Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras were set up in 1857.

Since India attained independence in 1947, the higher education system witnessed a phenomenal growth in institutional capacity. During 1950-51, there were only 30 Universities and 695 Colleges. The number of universities and university-level institutions in the country increased to 624 (44 central, 286 by the state, 151 at the state-level but private, 129 deemed to be universities and four institutions established under state legislature) and 37,204 colleges by the end of March 2013. The growth of recognised institutions of higher learning in India since 1950-51 is evident from Table 1.

main_table-1-growth-_082620035726.jpgGrowth of universities and colleges in India

The Universities in the country grew at a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 4.38 per cent in fifty years since 1950-51 (during 1950-51 and 2000-01) and 7.80 per cent from 2000-01 to 2016-17. The number of Colleges grew at a CAGR of six per cent from 1950-51 to 2000-01 and 7.55 per cent during the same period. In the year 2016-17, the state of Rajasthan had the maximum (77), followed by Uttar Pradesh (75), Gujarat (63) out of 851 universities and university-level institutions.

Access to higher education

The expansion of HEIs has contributed significantly to providing increased access to students. The three focal themes in Indian higher education for the Eleventh Five-Year Plan (2007-11) have been ‘expansion, inclusion and excellence’. The Twelfth Five-Year Plan (2012-17) is envisaged to focus on ‘expansion for deepening excellence and achieving equal access to quality higher education’. Considerable changes in participation have been observed as efforts have been made at the national and state level for providing equal opportunities for quality higher education to all, irrespective of gender, caste, region etc. There have been certain affirmative policies of special scholarship, fee waivers, separate girls’ hostels etc. by the Indian government, besides the change in the societal attitudes favouring girls’ education.

Before independence, access to higher education in India was limited and elitist. However, enrolment of students in higher education increased from 3.97 lakhs in 1950-51 to 294.27 lakhs in 2016-17 constituting 48.24 of females.

Accessibility is generally measured in terms of Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) in higher education. GER measures the access level by taking the ratio of persons in all age groups enrolled in various programmes to total population in the age group of 18 to 23 years. The GER (based on SES estimates) in Higher Education has been increasing over the years as depicted in Chart 1.

main_chart-1_082620035907.jpgSource: UGC Annual Report, Various years

There has been a remarkable achievement by nearly 25 percentage points in GER in the last 67 years (from 1 per cent in 1950-51 to 25.8 per cent in 2017-18). It has been proposed to increase GER to 32 per cent by 2020 for which several reform policies are underway. Several disparities in terms of accessibility, however, predominate in the country. Table 2 displays the differences in gender-wise GER among different social categories.

table-2-social-categ_082620035947.jpgSocial Category-wise GER (2017-18)

During 2017-18, GER for males and females was 26.3 per cent and 25.4 per cent respectively, the total being 26.3 (as per MHRD). The GER among the Scheduled Castes (SC) 17.2 per cent and 23 per cent for Scheduled Tribes (ST) respectively. GER for ST Males it is 22.7 per cent and 17.9 per cent for ST males. Similarly GER for the female population at all India level in the SC and ST categories, it is 23.3 per cent and 16.5 per cent respectively

Funding Higher Education

The responsibility for imparting education in India is the concurrent agenda of the Centre and state governments as per the Constitutional Amendment in 1976. It is, however, the state governments which bear the larger share of total education expenditure relative to the Centre. In general, education accounted for 88.19 per cent of total public spending (State and Centre combined) by the state governments in 1990-91, the share of which decreased to 77.46 per cent in 2017-18 (BE). Amongst various sectors, elementary education is assigned significant importance in India. The government initiative of Universalisation of Elementary Education (UEE) with its Sarv Shiksha Abhiyaan (SSA) as its programme demands huge public resources. During 2016-17 (BE), 50.96 of the share of elementary education was about 49.68 per cent (Rs 229724.44 crores) out of the total plan and non- plan expenditure on education by Education Department of Rs 462398.25.crores. While the share of secondary education was about 31.28 per cent, university and higher education was given 12.74 per cent.

Availability of adequate funds from the public sources is a sine qua non for the smooth functioning of educational institutions. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is one of the primary indicators for measuring the overall wealth of a nation. Table 3 displays the sector-wise allocation of GDP on education.

main_table-3_082620040029.jpgSector-wise Break-up of GDP on Education

The public expenditure on education as a percentage of GDP in the country increased from 2.86 per cent in 1993-94 to 3.36 per cent in 2010-11 (RE) and further to 4.65 per cent in 2016- 17. Th44e expenditure on Higher education has been significantly low and showed a marginal decline from 0.38 per cent of GDP in 1993-94 to 0.31 per cent in 2007-08 (RE) after which it gradually increased to 0.64 per cent in 2016-17. While the expenditure on elementary education in 2016- 17 was about 1.82 per cent of GDP which is maximum among all other sub-sectors of education followed by secondary education (1.05 per cent of GDP). The contribution made by adult education (0.01 per cent of GDP) is lowest amongst all the sub-sectors followed by University & Higher Education and Technical education for which it is around 0.64 per cent and 0.87 per cent respectively.

Obviously, the GDP spent on education, at present in the country, is far below the 6 per cent of GDP benchmark set by the Kothari commission way back in 1968. The same target was recommended by other committees as well, like the National Knowledge Commission (2006) and Committee on National Common Minimum Programme (2005). Besides, the CABE Committee on Financing Higher and Technical Education also estimated that a minimum of 1 per cent be allocated to higher education. Thus, there is a difference of .36 per cent of GDP in 2016-17 (BE) to the extent of which higher education can be said to be underfunded.

Worldwide, public expenditure devoted to higher education amounted to 1.4 per cent on average across OECD countries in 2010, ranging from a minimum of 0.7 per cent in Chile and Japan each to a maximum of 2.6 per cent in Norway.

The funding of public HEIs in India from governmental sources is inadequate to serve the consistently growing student population. This calls for reduced dependence upon the government for funds and corresponding cost recovery measures and privatisation of higher education. Some of the self-financing modes or alternative funding measures include fees, student loans etc. The Government of India (GoI) introduced a cess of 1 per cent in 2007 on major central taxes/duties for secondary and higher education. It implies that a part of the cost of higher education falls upon the taxpayers.

Privatisation in higher education

Privatisation may be considered as a process of moving from public ownership, financing and control to private ownership, financing and control of varying degree. Private university in India is an institution of higher learning established through a state or central act by a sponsoring body, such as a society registered under the Societies Registration Act, 1860, or any other corresponding law for the time being in force in a state or a public trust or a company registered under Section 25 of the Companies Act, 1956. The private sector within a total higher education system comprised 57 per cent by the 1980s increasing further to 75 per cent by 1990s. There has been a marginal increase witnessed in the number of public institutions– both government and private aided during 2000-01 and 2005-06, however, the private institutions increased significantly. The share of private unaided HEIs increased from nearly 37 per cent in 2000-01 to 50 per cent in 2005-06. Their share of enrolments also increased from 22 per cent to 31 per cent during the same period.

There has been a mushrooming growth of private or self-financed colleges with their prominence in professional education in the country. As regards private engineering education, there has been a surfeit in a few states such as Maharashtra, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. Lack of transparency is quite common to private entities in spite of having a multitude of regulatory agencies working in tandem in Indian higher education. There are no stringent rules imposed upon private entities, as such, to disclose basic statistics on education which reflects the quality and performance of education services they provide. A liberalised regulatory framework for education requires well-informed consumers and regulators which might also bring about improvement in the functioning of the private sector.

Higher education is being looked upon as a tradable commodity with increasing privatisation. There has also been a dramatic shift in the nature of higher education to that of becoming international as a result of the initiatives of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) since 2000. Education instead came to be recognised as a global good. Higher education no longer is solely responsive to domestic economic growth for national development but is also influenced by worldwide reforms taking place in higher education. Multi-nationalisation of higher education permits private institutions to quickly establish new academic programs by importing them from abroad, and potentially to use the best practices from other countries.

main_university-stud_082620041857.jpgHigher education is being looked upon as a tradable commodity with increasing privatisation. (Representative photo: Reuters)

Information and Communication Technology (ICT) has been the accelerator for the growth of the present education system without which it would have been unimaginable to have such an unprecedented expansion. Technology has been the game-changer as regards the nature of various educational processes with the delivery of education not nearly restricted to brick and mortar institutions but moving on to brick and click campuses. ICT is breaking down the ceilings of not just enrolments but is also facilitating learning at convenient moments in one’s lifespan facilitating unlearning and relearning at breakneck speed for lifelong learning, which is the need of the knowledge-rich 21st century. Conventional teaching may eventually yield to customised credit-based Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) in the not so distant future as the world over uninterrupted digital connectivity has begun to be perceived as a fundamental right.

In the present era where knowledge is considered as an equaliser, benefits from higher education ought to be reaped as a matter of right by all citizens of the country. In India, it has been found that there are several issues which plague higher education sector. There occur inequalities/ disparities- gender-wise, social group-wise, the economic group-wise besides predominant regional ones amongst states and within states. Although there has been noticeable increasing participation, there is a need for special policy attention on all such disparities by evolving long-term goals. The education policy ought to provide high-quality, accessible, and generally affordable higher-education. It needs to ensure that higher education and research adapt to the changing needs of society and advance scientific knowledge so as to increase the international competitiveness of the Indian system of higher education.

India being a democratic country, the major initiative to promote education has to be provided by the government and hence additional public funding is required. Public funding seems to be inadequate with the expansion of the higher education system in the country. However, elementary education, among all the sectors within education, commands the largest attention of all the education policies at the national and state level. Since there is a justification for public funding on higher education, for it produces positive externalities, it would be in the interest of the future of the economy and society to adequately fund the sector. Political will coupled with the reprioritisation of current expenditure by the government in favour of higher education is urgently needed. Such a reallocation of public resources at the central and state level would lead to a better higher education scenario in the country. For higher education, in general, the government recognises HEIs to diversify their funding resources and adopt certain cost-recovery measures.

It may be emphasised that reforming higher education is what is needed. The joint endeavour of the public and private higher education system with ICT tools can definitely work towards creating a large pool of educated citizenry to compete in the global knowledge economy.

Also read: How India can transform education in the post-coronavirus world


Rashmi Mishra Rashmi Mishra

The writer holds a Ph D in Economics from Dr RML Awadh University, Faizabad. She has done extensive study on the dynamics of higher education in India.

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