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Essay: Gender and Higher Education -The National Context

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Post independence also Indian society was characterized by diversity and hierarchy the main parameters being religion, caste, ethnicity, rural/urban residence, regional culture, class and gender. Historically, some of these provided extreme handicaps to large sections of Indians and prevented them from moving up socially, economically and educationally. The Indian Constitution recognized caste and tribe as major indicators of backwardness and evolved a policy of positive discrimination in public sector education and employment in favour of those who belonged to the categories of Scheduled Castes/Dalits and Scheduled Tribes . Higher education in independent India was perceived as an instrument of economic growth, technological development and also as an instrument of equal opportunity and upward social mobility as was visualized by various commissions and committees. Further, higher education was also entrusted with the responsibility of protecting the constitutional provisions for positive discrimination and as a result of political interventions; the reserved categories have been expanded to include people with disabilities, other backward castes or OBCs. However no gender-based positive discrimination policy was visualized in education or employment although some provinces or institutions may have made a separate provision for them. In post-independence India to pursue the goals of higher education, the state took full responsibility for the growth and development of higher education and kept the private sector out of its purview. However, in spite of very low fees and the policy of ‘reservations’ or the affirmative action the women and the disadvantaged groups were either excluded from or had a negligible representation.
The first instances of a crisis in higher education appeared in 1960s, 1970s when the issue of educated unemployed led to a new politicisation, worker, peasant, tribal struggles and there was a spurt in women organizations. Radicalism of higher education gave way to declaration of emergency in 1975. The period between 1970’s and 1980s was marked by the influx of a large number of private institutions and a rising brain drain to U.S.A. A review of education system suggests that by the mid-1970s formal education seemed to have failed in providing equality of opportunity and universal access. Post 1980 witnessed the new educational policy in 1986 which emphasised universal access and diversity. Education for women’s equality and empowerment and decentralisation were adopted which were expected to alter the organizational and managerial structure of educational institutions. The University Grants Commission established women’s studies centres in the 1980s in several universities.1990s were marked by Mandal agitation and the resultant student unrest that raised issues of caste identity as a national discourse. Henceforth the expansion of higher education has occurred simultaneously with declining financial investment by the state along with an expanding private sector and a market for student loans.
An attempt has been made in the following table to outline the Progress of Literacy in India from 1951-1981 to understand how women have been lagging behind in basic literacy level and the same disparity continues in the higher levels of education.
Table 2 Progress of Literacy – All India 1951-1981
Year % of literate Decadal % of females Decadal Sex ratio
males to total Growth Rate literate to Growth among
male total female Rate literates
population population
1951 24.95 – 7.95 – 299
1961 34.44 70.88 12.95 102.03 354
1971 39.52 43.58 18.70 76.58 440
1981 46.89 44.11 24.82 63.75 496
An attempt has been made in the table given below to indicate proportion of women in higher education between 1950-51 to 1983-84.The proportion of women’s enrollment to total enrollment increased from 11 per cent to 29 per cent. The stage-wise enrollment data indicates that at the graduate level this proportion increased from 12 per cent to 31 per cent and at research level from 14 per cent to 26 per cent. It emerges from the table that the gender gap in enrollment narrowed at a faster rate. While the sex ratio of enrollment was 122 in 1950-51, 186 in 1960-61, 279 in 1970-71, 374 in 1980-81 and 410 in 1983-84, this gap further lessened at a faster rate at the post-graduate level.
Source: Census of India, 1961-81
Table 3 Faculty-wise Enrollment Distribution of Women to Sex Ratio 1950-51 to 1983-84
Particulars 1950-51 1960-61 1970-71 1980-81 1983-84
% SR % SR % SR % SR % SR
Arts 67.85 196 70.21 326 64.32 460 56.14 605 54.43 723
Science 20.97 76 18.59 116 25.69 216 20.55 403 20.29 425
Commerce 0.43 5 0.48 9 1.93 38 11.83 190 11.82 181
Education 3.10 478 3.65 487 3.17 575 4.50 898 4.49 1457
Engineering/ 0.40 1 0.23 8 0.13 10 0.66 39 0.68 44
Medicine 5.78 198 4.52 280 3.39 296 3.60 325 3.52 397
Agriculture – 1 0.07 4 0.02 3 0.17 34 0.17 42
Veterinary Science – 4 0.02 7 – 7 0.63 33 0.03 34
Law 0.67 21 0.47 30 0.40 38 1.59 73 1.57 83
There was a distinct change in the pattern of faculty-wise enrollment during this period which is reflected in a sharp drop in the share of arts and humanities with a comparative rise in share of commerce. While most of the other faculties have recorded a slight improvement there is a decline in share of enrollment in medical faculty. Thus while in 1950-51 the share in enrollment in medical faculty stood at 5.78 per cent it come down to 4.52 per cent in 1960-61 and declined further 3.39 per cent in 1970-71. In 1983-84 it showed only a marginal improvement to 3.52 per cent. Interestingly this decline has taken place in spite of reservation of seats for women in medical institutions. Entry of women to higher education has been gaining ground since 1950-51 which is indicated by the rising share of women’s enrollment in total enrollment in different faculties. Thus in the arts and humanities the share rose from 16 per cent to 42 per cent, in commerce from 0.6 per cent to 15.3 per cent, in medical from 16.3 per cent to 24.3 per cent, in engineering and technology from 0.2 per cent to 4.1 per cent, in law from 2 per cent to 7.7 per cent and in veterinary science from 0.5 per cent to 5.3 per cent.
The following table reflects the gender status of literacy at high school completion from 1971-2001.
Table 4
Male-Female Literacy Rates in India ‘ as Percentages of Population Year Male Female Percentage

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