THE overall growth and development of the country during the pre-Independence period, as we are all aware, had been not only unsatisfactory but also discriminatory. With this experience in mind, our planners thought it fit to adopt the approach of planned development of the country as a whole. The First Five Year Plan focused on agriculture, the second on industry and the third, again, on agriculture and agro-based industry. In these Plans emphasis on development of education was only peripheral.
Therefore, for a balanced development of the education system, in the subsequent Plans, the planners took up a number of thrust areas so as to meet the challenges of development and the needs of society in general.
India’s educational development is a mixed bag of remarkable successes and glaring gaps. In the post-Independence period, the pace of educational development was unprecedented by any standard. However, the policy focus and public intervention in the provisioning of educational services were perhaps, inadequate, or even misplaced, to the extent that even after more than 50 years of planned effort in the sector, nearly one-third of the population or close to 300 million persons of age seven and above, are illiterate.
There are critical gaps in the availability of infrastructural facilities and also the qualitative aspects, including teachers’ training, curricula, equipment and learning materials, particularly, in the state-funded schooling system. The achievements and failures are not uniform all over the country. In spite of apparent regional differences in the literacy levels, there has been a significant reduction of inequalities in educational attainments amongst different sections of society defined by gender, caste, income level and the rural-urban divide.
The Census of India defines the literacy rate as the proportion of literates to the total population of age seven and above. From a mere 18.3 per cent (for the age five years and above) in 1951 to 43.6 per cent in 1981, this percentage rose to 65.2 per cent in the Census of 2001.
For the first time since the Census of 1951, the number of illiterates declined in the decade 1991-2001, by almost 32 million in absolute terms, notwithstanding inter-state variations in literacy rates, such as over 90 per cent in Kerala but less than 50 per cent in Bihar.
Further, the gross enrolment ratio in Classes I to V was 94.9 per cent in 1999-2000 according to the annual report of the Ministry of Human Resource Development. The enrolment declined to 58.8 per cent in classes VI to VIII.
This lower ratio in the latter years of schooling, as compared to the earlier years, is not only on account of lower enrolment or higher drop-out rates but possibly also due to there being a large number of students in the age group other than six to 11 years in Classes I to V and at the same time there being a greater proportion of students of the specified age group in Classes VI to VIII.
The position in respect of higher education too is not satisfactory. The share of higher education doubled in the total education outlay from nine per cent in the First Five Year Plan to 18 per cent in the Second Plan, and increased to an all-time peak of 25 per cent in the Fourth Plan. Thereafter, it has seen a consistent decline, falling to about 15 per cent in the Seventh Plan. However, the share of higher education in the Eighth Plan outlay was estimated to be eight per cent.
In the post-Independence period, higher education has expanded fast with more than 345 universities as on May 31, 2005, and as many as 15,437 colleges in January, 2002. This may be attributed to the adult literacy (15 years and above) rate of 57.2 per cent, according to the Human Development Report 2002. Approximately 7.2 per cent of adults in the 17-24 age group have the privilege of getting higher education. As compared to this, the figure for the US and Australia is 80 per cent, Canada 88 per cent, Finland 74 per cent and the UK 52 per cent. This figure for India has to be augmented — at least by a modest 25 per cent before 2020 — if we are to become a developed nation in the next two decades.
The need for self-financing private universities and institutions of higher learning is evident. Though the government is committed to spend six per cent of the GNP on education during the Ninth Plan (1997-2002), it has spent only 3.7 per cent of the GNP on education and only about 0.5 per cent on higher education. Thus, there is a steep decline in the government share in education as a whole. Although the public expenditure on education has increased in relative terms, the share of higher education has actually declined. This is not because of any financial crunch but due to the low priority accorded to this important sector. In fact, in India, while education has been highly subsidised in the case of government-funded universities, the fee collection is only four or five per cent and, in any case, not more than 10 per cent of the total expenditure in most cases.
All these suggest that with increasing population, and rising educational requirement, a massive expansion of opportunities is urgently called for since the government by itself may not be able to meet this need. Hence, the case for encouraging private participation in expanding our educational base, though on a selective basis so as to ensure quality. This is especially so in view of the growing trend the world over towards greater participation of private enterprise.
Japan has 512 private universities out of a total of 684; the US, 1,752 out of 2364; and, more than 80 per cent of the universities in the Philippines are in the private sector.
Notwithstanding the alarming educational situation in India, people -whether political or otherwise - have been crying hoarse about the mushrooming growth of universities and educational institutions, mostly public, in spite of the fact that the number is really too small for a country of our size and the emerging needs of higher education and research. Comparative figures from the Internet for other countries are instructive in this context:
Japan with a population of 12.7 crore has 684 universities; the US with a population of 27.6 crore has 2,364 universities offering four-year and higher degree programmes; the UK with 5.98 crore people has 104 universities and 231 degree-awarding autonomous institutions; and, Germany has 330 universities for its population of 8.2 crore.
Even among the 247 universities we have, few are in a position to meet even the minimal academic expectations. In addition to revenue crunch, absence of autonomy and the extra burden of affiliated colleges, the general universities are also marred by the obsoleteness, outdated syllabi and lack of interdisciplinary approach. There is urgent need for networking of the system through information and communication technology and outgrowing the outdated composition, powers and functions of bodies like the Academic Council, Executive Council, Syndicate and Senate.
It is important to mobilise resources, arrest the process of declining resources and relate the fee structure to students’ capacity to pay, if higher education is to encourage the hitherto excluded sections of society. This is even more necessary in the case of technical education where the cost of education is relatively higher. In fact, it is in this context that the UGC and the AICTE committees recommended that at least 20 per cent of the recurring expenditure per student has to be generated through fees. At the same time, there is a compelling case for introduction of career-oriented courses which are necessary today, if we want to derive real benefits from our higher education system.
Only six or seven per cent of the relevant age group of our population is in higher education compared to about 40 per cent in developed countries. There is need to enlarge the role and relevance of our universities to reach a larger community.
Universities are the creations of legislatures and they are, by and large, financed from public funds. They have, therefore, to be accountable to the concerned legislatures and governments although the performance of their functions, which require exercise of academic judgment, lies exclusively within the domain of universities. A new awareness is growing that while the status of teachers should be raised, there should also be a system of their accountability. The practice of showing the evaluated answer books to the students is, perhaps, a part of this very exercise which will make teachers more careful and objective in evaluating the students.
Another aspect to be taken care of for the improvement of the education system is that the students should be screened before they are admitted to degree-level and postgraduate courses so that only those genuinely interested and with the right aptitude are given admission. This will obviate chances of indiscipline and unnecessary agitations by students which institutions are facing these days.
If the qualities of mutual understanding, cooperation, co-existence and harmonious living are to be inculcated, the teachers have to be well equipped and have to play their role to provide students with quality and value-oriented education.
In fact, the country needs "educational revolution", like the Green Revolution brought about by Dr M.S. Swaminathan, and some eminent figure has to spearhead this revolution with the avowed aim to:
These are some of the new thrust areas which, if taken up with earnestness, could make for a turnaround in the current scenario of sluggishness and obsolescence in our education system. The objective of education should be to develop a complete human being and make the system globally competitive and relevant while meeting the needs of Indian industry and society as a whole.
Then, and only then can the unprecedented challenges thrown up by the current global scenario be successfully met. This will help planners make human resource productive, purposeful and marketable.
— The writer is Vice-Chancellor, Panjab University.