Higher education continues to be a mixed bag in the country. A countrywide education survey has found that the rate of attendance in the 20-24 age group (corresponding to graduation and above) has recorded the highest rates of growth in several decades. However, worryingly, the dropout rate has also kept pace.
The survey carried out by the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) in 2009-10 was released this month. It looked into employment and educational trends in India.
Compared to the 1991-2000 period, the past decade (2001-10) saw attendance rates for the higher age group increase by 71% for boys and 110% for girls in rural areas. In urban areas, the growth was 40% for boys and 45% for girls. Although the rise in percentage terms is a marked improvement over previous decades, the data shows that the picture remains dismal at the ground level. In 2009-10, the attendance rates were just 19% for boys and 8% for girls in rural areas; in urban areas, the corresponding figures were 33% and 24%, respectively. This state of higher education compares badly with those in the 5-14 age group, where 87% of boys and 84% of girls were attending school in rural areas, and 91% of all boys and girls in urban areas.
Various measures like mid-day meals, new curricula and better facilities have drawn children to schools, said eminent scientist Yashpal, former chairperson of the University Grants Commission (UGC). However, in higher education, complex socio-economic conditions skew the growth rate in favour of female students. While economic pressures motivate young men to opt out of education at the earliest possible level in order to start earning, young women are increasingly pursuing higher education as it helps in marriage prospects and potential future employment. An earlier NSSO study had shown that women, despite higher education levels are still not becoming part of the workforce.
“At the higher education level, we need to do away with rigidity, allow more freedom and innovation, and link the courses to life. Resources need to be pumped in on priority basis,” asserted Professor Yashpal, while explaining the persistent high dropout rates at higher levels. Prof Yashpal had headed a high-level committee on ‘renovation and rejuvenation’ of higher education which submitted a detailed report in 2009. Its battery of suggestions included increased funding for higher education and stricter regulation of private entities. The government is yet to act on the report.
While current attendance rates indicate a positive trend for the future, existing educational levels of people 15 years old and above continue to be dismal. The traditional picture of educational levels—like a pyramid with a very wide base (of illiterates) tapering to a sharp point (of graduates)—is changing at the bottom but not much at the top. The proportion of those who are illiterate or have studied just up to primary levels is going down but beyond that the pyramid continues to be sharply pointed.
In urban areas, about 15% of males and 11% of females are graduates or above. This is much higher than the rural areas where only 3.7% of males and a mere 1.6% of females have gone up to graduation or beyond. This is despite an explosion of private higher education institutions including universities in recent years.
What is even more alarming is that in 10 years between 1999-2000 and 2009-10, the graduate and above segment of the urban population declined by 5% among males although it increased by 10% among females.
In the rural areas, the pent-up demand for education is still driving educational levels higher. The proportion of graduates and above went up by 78% among females but only 12% in males.