Enhanced GER in higher education must be inclusive for sustainable growth
Around 2.31 crore OBC, SC and ST students were enrolled for higher education in 2020-21
Education is an important tool for socio-economic transformation. Quality higher education leads to sustainable growth and wholesome empowerment of people and adds resilience to the country’s overall economic ecosystem. It bridges societal gaps fast and ends disparities quicker. A higher inclusive gross enrolment ratio (GER) in higher education also goes a long way in fostering societal progress and individual elevation.
An enhanced GER signifies greater access to tertiary education, enabling a larger segment of the population to acquire advanced knowledge and skills. This translates to increased employability, innovation and progress as a well-educated workforce contributes substantially to a nation’s competitiveness in the global market. It also cultivates a broader range of perspectives and ideas, enriching the learning environment and driving creativity. To put it in a nutshell, an inclusive GER in higher education drives individual and collective advancement; bolsters both personal development and the country’s overall progress.
Where does India stand 77 years after achieving Independence as regards inclusive GER in higher education? According to the All India Survey on Higher Education-2020-21 (AISHE-2021), enrollment in higher education increased to 4.14 crore. GER in higher education in 2014-15 was 24.3 per cent, which rose to 24.5 per cent in 2015-16 and 25.2 per cent in 2016-17.
It is pertinent to note that the population in the 18-23 years age-group is considered as eligible for the purpose of enrolment in higher education. The government had set the target to achieve an overall GER of 30 per cent by 2020 in higher education. Presently, it is being pegged at around 28 per cent. As per Census 2011, there are over 14 crore people aged between 18 and 23 years.
The National Education Policy-2020 aims for universalization of education from pre-school to secondary level with 100 per cent GER in school education by 2030, while GER in higher education is to be raised to 50 per cent by 2035, which means that not less than seven crore youth aged between 18 and 23 years still won’t be able to reach colleges and universities.
Let us take some more figures from AISHE-2020-21 to reach a broader and more inclusive inference. The survey says that enrolment of SC students was 58.95 lakh as compared to 56.57 lakh in 2019-20 and 46.06 lakh in 2014-15, while that of ST students increased to 24.1 lakh in 2020-21 from 21.6 lakh in 2019-20 and 16.41 lakh in 2014-15. Enrolment of OBC students increased by six lakh to 1.48 crore in 2020-21 from 1.42 crore in 2019-20. In all, 2.31 crore students from OBC, SC and ST communities were enrolled for higher education in 2020-21, despite the fact that they account for the vast chunk of the country’s population, not less than 80 per cent. Their share in higher education GER is not in proportion to their population. Similarly, we do not have reliable and comprehensive data about the presence of SC, ST and OBC students in the country’s top seats of learning despite the fact that we have laid down quota norms for them.
Thus, the million-dollar question before us is how will we be able to ensure equity when India becomes the world’s third largest economy and a vast chunk of 18-23 aged population, mainly from marginalized and deprived sections of society, staying out of the holy precincts of higher education? Perhaps we will continue failing in our efforts to bridge the ever-widening socio-economic gaps among our own people. Things will not undergo a sea change from the present when India is the world’s fifth largest economy. So, we have to use all might and resources at our disposal to drive our youngsters from weaker sections of society to the seats of higher education. For this to happen, they need to be enrolled in adequate numbers in higher secondary schools. This will be possible only if we realize the goal of universalization of pre-school to secondary level education by 2035, that is, in the next 12 years.
It is certainly a tall order but not impossible to be achieved. All that is required is some drastic and well-intent raft of measures. What are these well-intent measures? The most important among them is to ensure 100 per cent enrolment of poor children in schools and a zero drop-out rate till Class XII. Every government and private school imparting pre-nursery to secondary or higher secondary education should be given the responsibility to make sure that no child in their earmarked locality is left out of school. If a child’s parents are not in a position to send their wards to school, the child should be adopted by area schools – either private or public – and the cost involving food, lodging and other care should be borne by the state. In other words, education up to Class XII should be made mandatory to all.
It is indeed a Herculean task but certainly not something unachievable in a country like India, which is blessed with a vibrant and inclusive democracy. What is needed is a collective will power.
Let us look at how G20 countries – Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Republic of Korea, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Turkey, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the European Union – are handling children’s school education. Perhaps, we can’t match many of them for certain valid reasons. Let us take South Africa as a point of reference. According to the South African Schools Act 1996, compulsory education starts there at the age of six years and continues until 15 years of age. During compulsory education, children are taught Language, Literacy and Communication, Mathematical Literacy, Mathematics and Mathematical Sciences, Human and Social Sciences, Natural Sciences, Technology, Arts and Culture, Economic and Management Sciences, and Life Orientation.
According to Knoema, a comprehensive source of global decision-making data in the world, in 2018, GER in tertiary education for South Africa was 23.8 per cent, growing at an average annual rate of 8.49 per cent while in secondary education it was 100.5 per cent, growing at an average annual rate of 2.35 per cent. India will be better positioned than South Africa if we achieve 100 per cent GER in secondary and higher secondary education. The challenge before us is to increase the penetration of higher education among the deprived sections of society. Without educating and skilling them appropriately, we won’t be able to achieve the desired goal of prosperity with equality. Given the magnitude of income disparities and multiplicity of deprivations at different levels, universalization of education at all levels is perhaps the only weapon we have to empower the masses and our economy in a sustainable and inclusive manner. The choice is ours! And the onus is on us!
(The writer is a senior journalist, columnist and author. The views expressed are his personal opinions)