Yogendra Yadav Jul 7, 2012, 12.00AM IST
Higher education in India should not perpetuate inequality of opportunity
It's admission time again. Charming images of 'freshers' entering the campus and glossy advertisements of the universities we had never heard before hide the harsh reality of educational mortality from school to higher education. Elaborate coverage of rising cutoffs and entrance tests draw our attention to individual merit and luck. We tend to forget the overwhelming role of 'social luck' defined by the accident of birth. As and when we pay attention to inequality of opportunity, the focus is on economic condition. Media's overwhelming coverage of admission season masks the harsh reality of inherited group inequalities.
Reservations get some attention. Recently, a news report about entrance to the IITs mention that 1,403 students got admission under the scheduled caste category, only two dalit students could secure admission under general category. The figures also showed that if there was no reservation for the OBCs, the IITs would have had only 17% students from this social group that comprises around 45% population of the country. Official statistics did not reveal how many upper caste Hindu students make it to the IITs, but a simple back-of-the-envelop calculation shows that despite reservations, their share is anywhere between two or three times their share in population.
Caste however is not the only axis of inequality. Gender, religion, class, locality and region, not to speak of disability, are some of the principal dimensions of educational inequality in our country. A quick look at Gross Attendance Ratio (GAR) for age-group 18-22 years in the 66th round of National Sample Survey (2009-10) brings it out. GAR is measured as percentage of students who report attending a higher educational institution to the total population in age-group 18-22 years. The overall GAR of the country in 2009-10 was 27.7%. In other words, of the 1,000 youth in the age group of 18 to 22, only 277 reported attending any higher educational institution.
Access to higher education for all the disadvantaged social groups is substantially below this national average: the participation of women (23.2%) and OBCs (26.2%) as a whole was marginally below the national average. The figure was substantially lower for SC (17.3%) and villagers (18.7%) and even lower for Muslims (16.1%) and the scheduled tribe (14.2 %). The strongest single factor is of course the economic condition. Among the lowest two quintiles of income distribution, the GAR was as low as 14.1% and 9.3%. As for the disabled, we can only guess that their situation is perhaps worse than any other category, for there are no official statistics on the number of disabled who manage to enter higher education.
We do not have comparable data for subgroups such as the lower OBC, extremely deprived dalit communities such as those engaged in sanitation or particularly vulnerable tribal groups, or nomadic/DNT communities, but the non-official evidence suggests that their condition is much worse than that of the larger category to which they belong. Census figures show many communities like Musahars in Bihar, several nomadic communities and scavenging castes have barely one graduate in the adult population of 1,000. At 48.6% the GAR among Hindu 'general' category is thrice as high as among SCs and STs. We can expect the 'caste census' to yield clearer information on this.
The situation is compounded when an individual lies at the intersection of more than one axis of inequality. While the overall GAR for women stands at 23.2%, it is much worse for rural women (13.4%) and shockingly low for rural women belonging to the poorest income decile (3.8%). For men the GAR was 31.8%, for urban men 48.7% and for urban males in the richest income decile it was well over 100%.
We cannot expect that expansion of higher education will automatically reduce inequalities. Over the years, the access to higher education has improved for all social groups, but their relative disparities have not reduced substantially. While rapid expansion of private educational institutions has helped to meet the acute need for increasing the capacity, it has also accentuated inequalities by reducing the scope of state action in favour of the disadvantaged. The entry of disprivileged social groups has shifted the site of deepest imprint of social inequa-lity from the lower end of higher education to its upper end.
How then does one address these stark inequalities in higher education? Experience of the past suggests three lessons. First, instead of just talking about inequalities, we need to pay careful attention to the various dimensions of inequalities and how they interact with one another. This would mean targeting subgroups such as scavenging and nomadic communities on the one hand and identifying groups that lie at the intersection of many inequalities, on the other.
Second, talk about equity must be backed by resources. In particular there is a need for a quantum jump in the volume, range and amount of student support measures like scholarship, stipend, assistantship and loans for disadvantaged students. Third, reservation needs to be supplemented by a range of smart equity designs such as a multi-dimensional index of disadvantage for students and a diversity index for institutions.
If these steps are not taken soon equity might quietly drop from our higher educational policy motto of "Expansion, Equity and Excellence".
The writer is a senior fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.