Higher Education of Women in the era of Globalisation and Privatisation: An Enquiry into the Changing Policies of Education

Abstract: The General Agreement in Trade in Services (GATS), aim at promoting international trade in health and education. With reference to education, it encourages private enterprise and allows foreign universities/institutions to enter the Indian educational market either by scouting for students or by establishing bilateral tie-ups with local institutions. These measures are followed by cutbacks on state spending on education. This paper examines the implications of these developments for women’s access to higher education. The critical questions raised are as follows: What are the implications of rising educational costs for women’s higher education? What are its implications for the realisation of gender equality in the country? The reason for this woman-centered enquiry is because gender is an important determinant of entitlements and allocation of resources in the family and community.

Keywords: gender issues, patriarchy, women’s education, post-independence, female higher secondary education, national education policy, privatisation of education, cost of education, women’s access to education, gender equality, educational policies/programmes

In the last round of the international trade negotiations that established the World Trade Organisation, a comprehensive agreement called the General Agreement in Trade in Services, GATS, was made. This multilateral agreement, positing legally enforceable rights to trade in services and investments, aims at promoting international trade in health and education. With reference to education, it encourages private enterprise and allows foreign universities/institutions to enter the Indian educational market either by scouting for students or by establishing bilateral tie-ups with local institutions. These measures are followed by cutbacks on state spending on education.

The full import of this development on higher education in the country is evident from the policy statement entitled, Xth Plan Profile of Higher Education in India issued by the University Grants Commission, New Delhi and the Report on a Policy Framework for Reforms in Education brought out by the Prime Minister’s Council on Trade and Industry with Mukesh Ambani as convenor and Kumaramangalam Birla as Member. The document indicates that the future thrust on higher education will grant autonomy to private educational institutions, encourage Indian universities to scout for foreign students and set up educational shops in other countries. These measures, in short, aim at making the economic laws of demand and supply applicable to education.

This paper examines the implications of these developments for women’s access to higher education in the context of the prevailing gender disparities in higher education. It specifically raises questions on the implications of these changes for the future of university education in the country from the standpoint of women. The critical questions are as follows: What are the implications of rising educational costs for women’s higher education? And what are its implications for the realisation of gender equality in the country? The reason for this woman-centred enquiry is because gender is an important determinant of entitlements and allocation of resources in the family and community. Studies indicate that any development policy or programme, which do not consider gender as an important social category, adversely affect women. Confined to the family with less access to education, skill development and resources, women have less mobility and fewer alternatives; therefore the human costs of these new policies are likely to be greater among them and their implications need to be studied with caution so that the issue of women’s equality do not remain rhetoric. To find answers to these questions, the paper begins by describing women’s access to higher education in post-independent India. It subsequently examines the educational policies of the period to raise questions on the implications of the current developments for gender equity.

Women’s Access to Higher Education in Post-Independent India

According to the 1991 census, barely 39.3 per cent women in the country are literate. There are also significant rural and urban differences. In rural areas, the female literacy rate is as low as 18 per cent, while in urban areas it is about 48 per cent. The dropout rate for girls is estimated at 56 per cent at the middle school stage and there is unlikely to be any real change in the near future. This means there are 197 million illiterate women and about 70 million more female illiterates than males, despite the fact that there are 32 million less women in the country than men (Poonacha 1999:129-155).

The problems that assail girls’ education at the primary and the secondary stages are different from those that affect their access to education at the tertiary level. As evident from Tables 1, 2 and 3, these inequalities in higher education continue even in recent years.

Table 1
Percentage Distribution of Graduation and Above
Women Men
Year 1971 1981 1991 1971 1981 1991
Rural 0.27 0.74 NA 0.87 2.07 NA
Urban 0.87 2.07 NA 2.75 5.75 8.67
Total 1.35 2.96 4.50 2.38 4.42 6.44

Apart from underscoring the rural/urban disparities, Table 1indicates the prevailing gender differentials in access to education. It indicates that the rate of growth of men’s access to higher education is faster than that of women. Zeroing in on the decade that ushered in economic liberalisation, Table 2 indicates that there is no significant increase in the enrolment of women in higher education during this period, while Table 3 shows the stagnation of women’s access to higher education by stages. A significant point is that this stagnation has taken place in a decade which saw an increased articulation of gender issues nationally and internationally.

Table 2
Enrolment in Higher Education
Year  Women   Men
1991-92 32.0 68.9
1992-93 32.7 78.1
1993-94 33.2 66.8
1994-95 33.8 66.2
1995-96 34.1 65.9
1996-97 34.1 65.9
Table 3
Proportion of Level-wise Women Students in Higher Education
Year  Undergraduate Graduate Research
1994-95 33.6 35.6 38.5
1995-96 34.1 34.0 39.2
1996-97 34.1 34.0 39.2

This data on access to education from 1971 to 1991 shows that the reason for the continued gender disparity is not just the absence of institutions or economic factors such as poverty and underdevelopment but the in-built prejudice against women’s education. For, apart from the prevalence of child marriage and other forms of blatant discriminations, the impediment to women’s education comes from the patriarchal devaluation of women. Derogatory ideas of women’s education are expressed, for instance, in proverbs such as, ‘a woman’s intelligence does not rise above her foot’, and that ‘education is unnecessary for one who has to tend the kitchen fires’ (Basu 1988: 65-95). There is also the feeling that if a woman becomes highly educated, it would be difficult to find a suitable marriage partner for her within the closed community group. The idea underlying this notion, that a man should be better qualified than the woman, is reflected in the educational choices of women in higher education. Women are predominantly concentrated in the humanities and social science faculties and are under represented in the pure sciences and technology (Chanana 1988: 96-121).

Despite these diverse and complex socio-economic reasons that hinder, these findings suggest the need for state interventions in education to ensure that women and other vulnerable groups have access to education. Therefore to understand the limitations of access to education faced by women it is necessary to examine the prevailing policies and programmes.

A Critical Appraisal of Policies and Programmes in the Post-Independence Period

In independent India, education was placed in the concurrent list of the Constitution, thereby making education a responsibility of the state as well as the Central Government. Seen as an agent of social change, education was defined as going beyond the development of the individual to initiate the transformation of society and a means of establishing equity. This socialist/democratic concern for equity in access is reflected in the three important policies that were formulated between 1960s and 1980s. These include, the National Policy on Education (1968), Draft National Policy on Education (1979) and the National Policy on Education (1986). Education in these policies was viewed as a means of equalising opportunities and enabling the backward and the under-privileged groups to improve their prospects. Education is thus seen as a means of ensuring social justice (Ministry of Human Development, GOI 1964-66 and 1992 cited in Sisodia 1999).

Translated into concrete terms, the socialist underpinning of educational philosophy justifies extension activities in colleges such as the N.S.S for undergraduate students, whereby students are expected to participate in nation-building activities. It also justifies the existing affirmative action programme within educational institutes, whereby students from the socially deprived sectors are admitted even though they have lesser marks than other students and are given concessions in fees. These documents encapsulate a vision of social change and equality based on a socialist vision of society. Explicitly expressing this vision, the National Policy on Education (1986) states that education is a means of removing disparities. Therefore there is a need to ‘equalise educational opportunities by attending to the specific needs of those who have been denied equality so far’ (Para 1, NPE 1992).

Indubitably there is a wide gap between the professed ideals and the ground reality. At the outset, this gap was due to the immediate problems that besieged the country, such as, self-sufficiency in food; economic and industrial growth; maintaining the political stability of the country after the partition and poverty. Education was not thus given due importance in the early phases of the planned economy. During this period, in a bid to rapidly modernise India, the Plans focussed on the development of science and technology and did not adequately address the idea of education as a means of social justice. This top down approach to education was in essence a continuation of the colonial approach to education, namely the downward filtration theory, i.e., the assumption that the education of the elite sections in society would in turn trickle down to the masses.

Waking up to this shortfall in policy planning, the Third Five-Year Plan, recognised education as a means of attaining economic self-sufficiency and social justice. The government thus launched various programmes, such as mid-day meals, free books and uniforms, and scholarships, to keep children in schools. Additionally, ‘Operation Black Board’ was launched to provide improved facilities for schools and efforts were made to increase the number of schools in the rural areas (Chaudhary 1995:58). Despite these efforts it was difficult to bridge the gap between policy targets and action, resulting in the continued inequities of caste, class and gender in the country. Part of this problem was the absence of a coherent national education policy until the 1960s. This failure of education planning is most apparent with reference to women’s education. These early policy guidelines did refer to the importance of women’s education, particularly their participation in tertiary and professional education, but did not spell out its action plan for the realisation of this goal. It was only in the Sixth Five-Year Plan that specific measures were suggested to address the gender disparity in education and to bridge the gap between the literacy and educational levels of men and women.

Policy Blindness on Gender Issues

A review of the growth of education since Independence thus indicates the failure of policies and programmes to circumvent the prevailing class/patriarchal impediments to women’s education. The post-colonial educational policies carried some of the ambiguities that characterised the colonial policies on education. To specify, the 19th and early 20th century debates on women’s education never clearly defined the purpose of women’s education. Did women need education so that they would become better wives and mothers or because education had an intrinsic value? Therefore did women need the same kind of education as men or should it be different to enable them to fulfil certain nurturing roles in society?

This lack of clarity on the purpose of women’s education is apparent in the educational planning. For instance, the National Committee on Women’s Education (1956) set up to scrutinise the special problems of women’s education, on the one hand emphasised the need to bridge the gap between the education of men and women, and on the other, reiterated the traditional values of society. Similarly, all the other important commissions such as the University Education Commission (1948-49), Secondary Education Commission (1952-53), National Commission on Women’s Education (1958), National Council for Women’s Education, Baktavatsalam Committee (1963), and National Committee on Women’s Education (1970) reveal a hesitancy in defining the aims of women’s education. They seem to have been caught in contradictory value systems while defining the purpose of female education. The only dissenting voice during this period came from the Hansa Mehta Committee report of 1962, which stated that the ‘so called psychological differences between the sexes arise not out of sex but social conditioning.’ The Committee however backtracked and added that, as social transformation could not take place overnight, there was a need to accept certain gender differentiation in the roles women play (Mishra 1966). The National Policy on Education (1968) also looked at women’s education as a means of social transformation and not as an intrinsic value/right in itself.

It was only in the Report of the Committee on the Status of Women (1974), better known as the Towards Equality Report, that a clear agenda was set regarding the aims of female education. The decade of the 1970s was a period that witnessed the growth of feminist articulation. Acceding to the demands of the movement, the Five Year Plans, since the 1980s, have recognised the importance of education as a means of establishing gender equality. Apart from improving facilities for women’s education, they have suggested the need to remove gender bias by restructuring the curriculum. In particular, they have stressed the importance of higher education for women and their entry into professional or technical careers without neglecting primary education. These plans, in essence, reflect the new thinking on education since 1985.

Assessing the sweeping changes in the country over the last two decades, since the Education Policy Statement of 1968, the government circulated a document known as the Challenge of Education: A Policy Perspective, to initiate discussions on new directions for education. Admitting the failure of the state in promoting education, the document called for educational restructuring, universalisation of elementary education, reduction of the dropout rate, creation of model schools and the de-linking of education from jobs. The ensuing nationwide debate identified certain basic issues that the new education policy must resolve to prepare the next generation for the 21st century, an era of advanced scientific, technological and industrial development.

Seeing education as a means of social justice, the national education system was expected to play a positive interventionist role in the empowerment of women. It was expected to foster development of new values through redesigned curricula, textbooks, the training of teachers and policy makers. Women’s Studies was to be promoted in the university system to encourage the development of women. Following the recommendations, the new education policy entitled Education for All by 2000 A.D. (1990) was formulated. This document states that it is not enough to encourage women’s education within the formal system. There was the need to strengthen the informal school system. Education is seen as a means of realising gender equality — an important component of the overall strategy of change. It stresses: 1) the need to remove female illiteracy and obstacles inhibiting their access to and retention in elementary education, through special provisions of support services, the setting of time targets and effective monitoring, and 2) the importance of women’s participation in vocational, technical and professional education, particularly the emergent technologies to eliminate sex stereotyping (GOI 1992:10).

Changing Educational Policies

The parameters of these debates have changed drastically. Today the mantra in all spheres of life is that of globalisation, privatisation and de-regulation of capital. These neo-liberalisation policies are opening the economy to foreign investments, trans-national companies as well as indigenous entrepreneurs in all sectors of life. It entails changes within the system of higher education in the country through privatisation of education, cutback on education spending by the state, enabling foreign universities to scout for students in the country and establish tie-ups with Indian institutes.

Based on the consensus arrived at the first ever World Conference on Higher Education organised by the UNESCO in Paris between 5-9 October 1998 which was represented by 182 governments, the Xth Plan Profile of Higher Education in India issued by the University Grants Commission, New Delhi and the Report on Policy Framework for Reforms in Education brought out by the Prime Minister’s Council on Trade and Industry call for public and private investment in higher education. Education is now seen as a service, within which knowledge has become a commodity.

These documents, no doubt, recognise that education is a means of social transformation — an agent of population control, reduction of poverty, economic and civic growth. These goals however seem secondary to the primary goal of education as an economically profitable enterprise. Some of the suggested structural changes, namely, the need for flexibility in programmes, in its structure, in its curricula and in its delivery systems are, no doubt, necessary to make higher education relevant for the present age and to get rid of its colonial roots. The difficulty, however, is in the approach to education. There is in the documents an excessive emphasis on the acquisition of knowledge as a currency to meet the global economic challenges. This emphasis operates at two levels. One, it proposes a cafeteria approach to education so that the students ‘as consumers of a service’ will have ‘multiple choices’. They will be able to ‘buy’ courses that will enable them to meet the challenge of a competitive job market. This in essence will lead to the conversion of education as a competitive enterprise. Two, it opens the educational market for foreign/private entrepreneurship. The argument favouring this enterprise in education is that competition for students would enhance the quality of education and enable India to develop human resources needed by a new world order.

To facilitate this process, the documents call for greater autonomy for private institutions and loosening of the present controls exercised by universities across the countries over institutions. What the document seems to imply is that the private sector, both national and international, would like to have a share in the educational spending, which according to the estimates provided in the UGC Xth Plan Profile, is about Rs. 47,00,000 crores in all sectors of education. Also recognising that privatisation of education would escalate the costs of education, thereby placing education beyond the reach of the socially deprived sections of society, the document speaks for the continued state spending on education.

What is not taken cognizance of is that, this pitting of public institutions with private enterprise in an environment that is adversely loaded against the former, is not the most effective way of realising social equity. At present, there is a steady erosion of state spending on education. in Maharashtra, for instance, universities suffer from paucity of funds and are short staffed. Therefore, can universities withstand the competition from foreign universities and private institutions that affiliate with these universities? Would this therefore mean a fair competition for the majority of Indian universities? In the current situation most of the Indian universities, apart from a few premier institutions and courses, like the Universities of Maharashtra, are starved for funds and have poor infrastructure.

Apart from these questions on the ability of Indian educational institutions to survive the competition posed by foreign universities, there are important pedagogical and ideological issues. No doubt, those welcoming globalisation and privatisation see education as a new avenue for enterprise. They argue that the education system should meet the requirements of the market. The opponents describe these measures as neo-colonisation of indigenous cultures. Drawing a parallel with the role of colonial education system introduced in the 19th century, which aimed at making Indians into loyal clerks, critics argue that the current trends could undermine the academic autonomy. These institutions will churn out students, who forgetting their cultural roots, will serve international capital as a loyal work force. Similarly they argue that privatisation of education will undermine the role of universities as agents of social change. The application of market principles of demand and supply to universities and institutions of higher education, would result in them dwindling into ‘assembly line factories’ churning out human products required by industries.

Given that the Indian Constitution guarantees equality to its citizens and that it enjoins the state to empower the more vulnerable sections of the population, such as the dalits, the tribals, and women, can the role of universities be restricted to meeting market demands? Do they not have an obligation to ensure goals for the creation of a just society by challenging the status quo and providing space for the emergence of opposition to the existing hegemonic structures? It is likely that the hike in educational costs would put the so-called premier institutions outside the reach of women and other vulnerable groups. Would this not reinforce the existing caste/class and gender hierarchies, for these sections will have to access the neglected public education systems?

That there has been a differential access to education is noted in the UGC Xth Plan Profile: it states that while the growth of student enrolment, both formal and informal, has increased in the last decade from 62.17 lakhs in 1992-93 to 1999-2000 to 93.14 lakhs, i.e., 50 per cent increase in enrolment, women’s enrolment has not risen proportionately to that of men. For although women’s enrolment has increased from 20.92 lakhs to 33.24 lakhs, it represents a marginal increase from 33.6 per cent in 1992-1993 to 36.15 per cent of the total in 2000. Also indicating the limitations in access to higher education, the document further states that India’s access parameters is approximately 1/6th of developed countries. Therefore on what basis does the state abdicate its responsibility towards the spread of education?

Indubitably, any rise in cost of education on the principle that the user pays for services and the withdrawal of state support for education will have a negative impact on women’s access to education. It is well known that within Indian/Asian families the education of daughters does not receive the same priority as that of sons. While families are prepared to make sacrifices for the education of sons, they would not do so for their daughters. Further, the current policy thrust seems to see education as an economic currency to be used to enhance the earning capacities of individuals. It no longer emphasises that education is a means of developing critical thinking and resistance to regressive and superstitious belief systems. Treated as a vehicle of indoctrination, education is increasingly being used for narrow political purposes and the promotion of right-wing ideologies. While these ideologies gain common currency because of the failures of the current economic developments to fulfil the basic needs of the people, they have a negative impact on women’s equity; for they justify an ideology of the hearth and the home for women. We therefore need to evaluate the economic transformation on higher education in the country from the standpoint of women and also in terms of the changes that the University has to make in order to meet these challenges. Furthermore, we need to consider the future of disciplines that do not get adequate students as they do not meet the utilitarian goals of fitting students to the job market, if the economic principles of demand and supply are the only determinants for conducting research and teaching courses.

There are also serious ideological problems with the documents:
1) Pragmatic in their approach, the documents fail to recognise the intrinsic value of knowledge as a process of self-development. Education no doubt is seen as a life-long activity in a knowledge-based society, where more than 80 per cent of international export will be knowledge based. Thus education, even if it is treated as a life-long activity, now becomes a goal for career advancement. 2) The other serious problem is the conservative ideology expressed in the documents. Although these documents talk of the advancement of technology and the use of new technologies as teaching aids, they aim at maintaining the status quo. Thus the Xth Plan Profile talks of Defence Studies and Internal Security as interdisciplinary areas of study and research and jettisons Women’s Studies, a potentially radical area, into extension activities to be undertaken alongside with Family Studies. It is evident that Women’s Studies that aims at establishing gender equity will now have to compete for funds with Family Studies, expressly introduced to counter break up of families. The right-wing political agenda of the documents also become apparent through the introduction of areas such as Vedic Studies and Astrology as legitimate areas of university education.

Could it be assumed that the new policy thrust will prove a set-back to the growth of women’s education by making education inaccessible for women? It must be recognised that despite progressive policy interventions we have not been able to establish gender parity in education and disparities between male-female access to education continues in post-Independent India. Therefore the question is what will happen to women’s education when the state abdicates its responsibility and constitutional commitments towards gender justice. At the outset, the increased cost of education will deny women access to education. At the same time, the insidious right-winged and neo-liberal ideologies will subvert the struggles of the women’s movement for women’s equality. The women’s movement is now in an unenviable position of having to re-invent its struggles against the overwhelming forces of family, state and global patriarchies in a world driven by intolerance of ideological differences.


1. Source: Department of Women and Child Development 1997.

2. Source: UGC. University Development in India: Consolidated Data State-wise 1998-99 to 1993-94; UGC. Annual Report 1994-95, appendix VI, p.110-135; UGC Annual Report 1995-96, appendix VI, p. 163; UGC Annual Report 1996-97 p. 20. Cited in Chanana: 2000: 1015

3. Source : University Grants Commission, Annual Report, 1996-97, Table 13.2, P.160; Annual Report, 1995-96 Table 14.2, p.127; Annual Report, 1994-95, p.109. Cited in Chanana, Karuna 2000: 1012-1022).

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Is Professor and Director of the Research Centre for Women’s Studies, SNDT Women’s University, Mumbai. She is currently the General Secretary of the Indian Association of Women’s Studies. Her publications include From the Land of a Thousand Hills: Portraits of Three Kodagu Women, Understanding Women’s Studies, Responses to Domestic Violence in Karnataka and Gujarat (jointly with Divya Pandey) and Gender in the Human Rights Discourse.

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Is Professor and Director of the Research Centre for Women’s Studies, SNDT Women’s University, Mumbai. She is currently the General Secretary of the Indian Association of Women’s Studies. Her publications include From the Land of a Thousand Hills: Portraits of Three Kodagu Women, Understanding Women’s Studies, Responses to Domestic Violence in Karnataka and Gujarat (jointly with Divya Pandey) and Gender in the Human Rights Discourse.

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