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Inclusiveness in higher education

Thursday 7 December 2006, by THORAT*Sukhadeo

A combination of a compensatory policy for particular social groups and a pro-poor policy, which must cover all the poor irrespective of caste, religion or gender background, is necessary for inclusiveness in higher education.

IN THE current approach to planning, "inclusive economic growth" is intended to occupy centre- stage, with "inclusive" education as its major component. Inclusiveness in higher education would mean, above all, increased access to education for groups that currently have only limited access. The identification of such groups with their specific constraints is critical for developing a policy of inclusive education. In the present context, exclusion from access to higher education occurs in multiple ways and is reflected in the disparities observed not only between the poor and the non-poor, but also across social groups classified according to caste, religion, ethnicity, and gender.

The National Sample Survey data for 2000 provide useful information on these multiple disparities. The overall gross enrolment ratio in higher education is about 10 per cent. However, it is 6 to 7 per cent for Scheduled Tribes, Scheduled Castes, and Other Backward Classes compared with 17 per cent for the others. Enrolment is low for Muslims (5.23 per cent), compared with Hindus (10.44 per cent), Sikhs (11.2 per cent), and Christian and other religious groups (18.56 per cent). It is also low for girls (8 per cent) compared with boys (12 per cent).

Among economic groups, enrolment is low for wage labour households and also for landless and marginal-landowning households. Enrolment for rural and urban wage labour households is at an abysmal level, varying between 1.41 and 3.3 per cent. Enrolment is 2.4 per cent for the poor compared with 13 per cent for the non-poor; it gets reduced to a mere 1.3 for the rural poor. As for the other economic groups, enrolment is negligible for poor landless and marginal farmers.

Thus the SCs, STs, OBCs, women, and Muslims among the social groups, and wage labourers, landless and marginal farmers among the economic groups, suffer from lack of access to higher education. The poor from all these groups suffer the most.

While this story refers to particular categories, there is also a significant interface between these categories. The SCs/STs/OBCs from all religious backgrounds, namely Hindu, Muslim, Christian, and Sikh, suffered more from low access to higher education than their higher caste counterparts. For instance, the enrolment of Hindu SCs is 5 per cent compared with 20 per cent for the rest of the Hindus. Likewise the enrolment of SC Sikhs is 2.33 per cent compared with 15 per cent for non-SC Sikhs; and of SC Christians 7.37 per cent compared with 27.52 per cent for the rest of the Christians. Enrolment is also lower for both Hindu and Christian STs than for the rest of each community. Similarly, the enrolment of OBC Hindus is 7 per cent compared with 20 per cent for non-SC/ST Hindus; and that of OBC Muslims is 3.86 per cent compared with 6 per cent for other Muslims.

Again, while girls in general have lower enrolment, among them the lower caste and tribal girls have even lower enrolment than upper caste girls, within each religious group. The enrolment for SC, OBC and ST girls among Hindus is 3.93 per cent, 4.70 per cent, and 5.57 per cent respectively compared with 16 per cent for higher caste girls. Similarly, the enrolment of SC and ST Christian girls is 9.57 per cent and 7.37 per cent respectively compared with 27.52 per cent for higher caste Christian girls. In the same way, the enrolment of SC Sikh girls is only 2.53 per cent compared with 16.52 per cent for higher caste Sikh girls.

The enrolment of Muslim girls is lower than for girls belonging to other religions; it is only 3.74 per cent, compared with 8 per cent for Hindu girls, 11.46 per cent for Sikh girls, and 20 per cent for Christian girls. Among the Muslim girls too, the enrolment of OBCs is the lowest, a mere 2.84 per cent.

Enrolment is generally low for wage labour but it is particularly low in the case of rural wage labour belonging to SCs and STs. Against an enrolment of 3 per cent for rural non-farm labour and 3.26 per cent for urban wage labour, we have a figure of 1.52 per cent for the same groups from the Scheduled Castes. In the case of poor households too, the enrolment is less for poor belonging to SC, ST, and OBC categories. Among the poor SCs/STs, it declines further to just 1 per cent for the rural poor; and is almost negligible for poor rural wage labour households.

It is apparent that the access to higher education is low for SCs, STs, and OBCs from all religions. Muslims, girls, wage labour, and landless, and marginal farm households are among the most deprived, with the poor within all these categories suffering the most. The lower access of certain social groups within particular categories to higher education compared with other groups belonging to the same broad categories suggest that there are group-specific constraints related to the caste, ethnic, gender, and religious background of social groups.

An inclusive education policy, to be relevant, would require a focus on these specific constraints faced by certain groups, both social and economic. An inclusive education policy accordingly needs to have a two-fold character. It must consist of compensatory measures for particular social groups, and also for the poor. A compensatory policy would require measures that would compensate particular social groups, like the SCs, the STs, the OBCs, women, and Muslims, for the denial of equal education rights in the past, the consequences of which are being carried forward in the present. On the other hand, the education policy needs to be pro-poor as well, that is, it needs schemes to reduce the constraints imposed by poverty in the economic sense on accessing higher education.

An inclusive pro-poor policy in this sense will involve measures for all poor irrespective of caste, ethnicity, religion, or gender, with priority for wage labour, landless, and marginal farmer households. In short, a genuine inclusive policy will require a judicious combination of a compensatory affirmative action policy and a pro-poor policy. The compensatory policy is necessary for giving a fair share in educational institutions - public as well as private - for particular social groups, with supplementary measures of economic assistance for the poor within each of these social groups. The pro-poor policy, on the other hand, must cover all the poor irrespective of caste, religious, and gender background. The introduction of both these sets of policy, which is necessary for inclusiveness in higher education, would demand a comprehensive change in the orientation of the present policy.

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(Dr. Sukdeo Thorat, Professor of Economics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, is Chairman of the University Grants Commission.)

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