Changing higher education to achieve social inclusion

Higher education can be used for the social and economic mobility of underprivileged sections. This is achieved usually by providing admission to a set of students from these sections in universities and other institutes of higher education through the reservation of a quota of seats.

India has been using this reservation policy for many decades. It has helped a section of students from the so-called ‘backward’ communities, scheduled castes and tribes to enter the institutes of higher education and has helped a subset of them to get jobs that require such education. Many among them would not have received admission in universities and other such institutes in the absence of such a reservation policy.

Since the number of seats for higher education is limited, one person is denied the seat when someone else is admitted through the reservation system. Hence such a policy becomes an effective instrument towards equitable redistribution if the person who gets admission (at the margin) is from an economically poorer background compared to the person who has been denied the admission. That was found to be the case in India, especially with regard to admissions in engineering colleges.

The reservation policy has been useful, albeit partially, in addressing the historically shaped marginalisation or exclusion in India. However, it has not been that useful to improve the living conditions of the majority of people belonging to underprivileged groups, especially the scheduled castes and tribes.

One reason is that around 45% of children in India do not complete school education currently and they are more likely to be from one of these underprivileged social groups. Hence they cannot benefit from higher education through the reservation system.

Moreover, some students from such groups who get admission in well-known institutes (such as the Indian Institutes of Technology) may find it difficult to complete the degree programmes successfully.

In summary, this approach to use higher education to achieve social inclusion is necessary and is to be continued. However it is not adequate in India. That is the reason we need to consider an additional model.

A second model

Before writing about this, let me briefly summarise two experiments that have been going on in Brazil over the past decade. Universities there have come out with a special teacher-education programme for indigenous people. (This would be equivalent to a special BEd programme for the scheduled tribes in India).

This cannot be a typical teacher-education programme. School education for indigenous children, if it is to be effective and useful, should be appropriate to their social and cultural context. A science or maths teacher has to be in a position to teach the subject in a way that the students from these communities can relate to and they must also teach in a language that they can understand. This requires appropriate changes in the content of teacher education.

Teacher-educators or university professors may not have adequate exposure to the social and cultural context of indigenous groups. In order to address this issue, these professors should be willing to learn and change the content of teacher-education to make it appropriate to the context of indigenous people.

Moreover, trainee teachers from the indigenous community and university professors should collaborate and jointly develop learning materials. Professors should carry out research on appropriate teaching practices for the education of indigenous people.

All these have been attempted in the universities of Brazil, and through this process, a substantial share of teachers from this social group have been able to receive the required qualifications.

There is a professional masters programme at the University of Brasilia for students belonging to marginalised social groups – blacks or indigenous people – or those from mainstream society who work for the welfare of these groups. This programme is meant for those who are part of a government or non-governmental organisation working among such groups. This is another example of using higher education directly to address the issues of social or human development within the country.

There are other such experiments. In all these cases, the purpose of higher education itself is to achieve social inclusion in a direct way. That requires a change in the content of education to make it appropriate to that social purpose.

This goal cannot be met by admitting a few students from marginalised social groups to a normal degree programme.

It requires the redesign of higher education. If such programmes are to have the desired impact, they have to be implemented at scale. For example, a small experiment to train a few teachers from a disadvantaged social group may be grossly inadequate.

The need for such programmes is much more crucial in India than in Brazil. The education of scheduled tribes, which make up 10% of India’s population, is a much greater challenge than that of indigenous groups in Brazil, which constitute only 0.4% of its population.

There are other social groups in India that are similarly vulnerable. Poverty, malnutrition and unhealthy and unhygienic practices and living conditions – or manifestations of economic and social underdevelopment – are more prevalent in India. Despite all these issues, we have not thought much about using higher education to address them directly.

One can see the mission of Azim Premji University, Bengaluru (formerly Bangalore), as being close to the second model. However, there are many challenges for its implementation and some of these are discussed here.

Challenges that this model may face in India

Teaching of different subjects (whether sociology, economics or physics) in universities and colleges in India has very little connection with the social context of students.

Academics struggle to teach with textbooks used in one of the North American or British universities (or their inferior versions produced in India) without much adaptation to the local context in terms of the content in their effort to create a second- or fourth-rate replica of such universities.

Teaching on undergraduate courses in India is useful only to enable students to pass examinations or to do postgraduate studies; and teaching in postgraduate courses facilitates the pursuit of doctoral education.

For example, students who complete a degree programme in economics in India and who decide to become an employee in a government or a non-governmental or a private organisation or a trader (rather than doing an MA) have no insights into microeconomics that are relevant to their professional or personal lives. This is the situation in the case of most subjects.

What ails Indian academics? One problem could be their laziness and unwillingness to do hard work. They tend to be preoccupied excessively with family matters. Though academics get more leisure time than many, it is not used for academic purposes.

There is another side to this issue: the excessive teaching load for the faculty in state universities and colleges, which may reduce their time for preparation. However, one cannot see a higher level of preparedness on the part of teachers even in those universities where the teaching load is reasonable.

As a result of laziness and a pre-occupation with non-academic private matters, teaching the same thing that one has learnt at university becomes the easy option.

Translating the theoretical or international or macro-knowledge to the context of the student requires additional work and that is avoided. Teachers would be happier if students understood concepts on their own by reading papers and books written for international academic readers.

Many academics do not have adequate exposure to real-world social issues. People become academics through an uninterrupted education process from school to university, then postgraduate studies and finally doctoral research. Though field research is carried out by a small section of academics during their doctoral work, it is not continued after they become a university teacher, when it becomes something they outsource to students and research scholars and assistants.

Though these issues are prevalent in many parts of the world, different variants may have aggravated the situation in India. Upper-caste Indians tend to be somewhat aloof or indifferent to the issues that affect the population as a whole. There is a tendency to be in an unreal or imaginary world of ‘philosophy or theory’ without making sufficient effort either to contribute to the international peer-reviewed literature or to translate that into applications to make a real difference in the world around them.

Even those who are pro-poor in terms of ideological orientation can lead a happier life by participating in discussions without doing anything significant to make the lives of others a little more comfortable.

Though Indian academics aspire to be in world-class liberal universities, they are not willing to make the required effort. If someone asked academics who live in India to do and publish more research (in peer-reviewed journals), they would resist and complain that ‘Western standards’ are being imposed on them.

On the other hand, if they are asked to do something to address an issue in their own social context, they will grumble about the dilution of academic standards or autonomy. Or they may come out with arguments to legitimise their actions and inaction: ‘thinking is practice’; ‘the education of scheduled tribes is an imposition of modernisation or development over their culture’ and so on. This may be called ‘convenience elitism’.

Many people are willing to experiment with new ideas and change their practices when they have the opportunity to do so, but I see an unusual kind of ‘closedness’ or lack of openness among Indian academics.

Getting past such attitudinal barriers is unavoidable if we want to introduce a different approach and use higher education for social inclusion in India. I don’t presume that these issues can be addressed solely through the tightening of rules or institutional regulations. What is required is a higher level of intrinsic motivation and changes in values too.

V Santhakumar is a professor at Azim Premji University, India. A version of this article was first published on his blog.