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Gender Inequality in Higher Education in

The Sustainability Paradox

Dr. Kalyani Bondre
(Indian Federation of University Womens Associations)

A Research Paper presented at

31st, Triennial Conference of the

Inernational Federation of University Women

Istanbul, Turkey 16 to 21 August 2013


Womens role in achieving a sustainable

Education, urbanisation, violence and human

1. Introduction:
1.1 Definition and Context:
Higher Education is generally defined as education beyond secondary school,
i.e. education provided by colleges, universities and professional institutes. It
is well-known that higher education is a key to achieving economic and
socio-cultural progress and human development in any country. It is also
necessary that access to higher education should be available to every
citizen of the country, regardless, of gender or caste. The six pillars of human
development: equity, sustainability, productivity, empowerment, cooperation
and security cannot be achieved in a system where only a part of the
population has access to quality higher education. Hence, equal access and
opportunity to all is the basic requirement for building sustainable societies.
The United Nations International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural
Rights of 1966 declares, in Article 13, that "higher education shall be made
equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate
means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free
education".The Indian Constitution mentions Education as a fundamental
right and the higher education sector in India is currently the third largest in
the world.
The problem of women in higher education came to the forefront on the
global eco-political scene in 1998. The World Conference on Higher Education
gave special attention to the issue of women in Higher Education. The year
also saw the publication of the document Higher Education and Women:
Issues and Perspectives (UNESCO, 1998). In India, the Kothari Commission
had made recommendations in 1964-66 on equality in educational
opportunities for men and women.
In recent years, higher education in India has seen a vast increase, in
establishment of institutes and universities, student enrollment, and
particularly enrollment of women students. The Government has launched a
variety of schemes to promote education among women. However, gender
inequalities in education still prevail. These are mainly socio-economic and
socio-cultural in nature.

1.2 Focus of the present paper:

This paper tries to analyse two major aspects of sustainability: social and
economic by using an exploratory and descriptive method. While an
equitable education system is essential in contributing to socio-economic
sustainability, there exits a trade-off, since providing higher education to all
may not be economically viable on the macro-level. This paper also tries to
analyse this trade-off and the economic viability of the provision of higher
education to all in India in the context of socio-economic and cultural
sustainability. A bigger question, however, is that even if the provision of
higher education to all were economically viable on the macro-level, will it
ensure gender equality in the long run. The crux of the matter, hence, is to
look at the problem holistically and try to find out whether the problem is
only that of provision of higher education to all and equal opportunities to
men and women from all backgrounds, or if the greater problem is that of
empowerment of women through higher education, trying to increase the
enrolment ratio of female students and making them qualified for being
economically and socially independent. Unfortunately, very often the
responsibility is dumped on the Government to make budgetary provisions
and policy initiatives, when the real challenge is not just to increase
Government spending on higher education, but see that the given
investment and educational opportunities reach the population for which
they are meant and productively lead to empowering the female population,
in areas and social systems where they are most likely to be marginalised.

2. The Indian Higher Education Scenario:

Higher Education in India is provided by both, the public and private
sector.The University Grants Commission is the apex regulatory body of
higher education in India. India has the largest number of higher education
institutions in the world. According to the data published by the Ministry of
Human Resource Development, Government of India, the number of
Universities/University-level institutions has increased 18 times from 27 in
1950 to 504 in 2009. The sector boasts of 42 Central universities, 243 State
universities, 53 State Private universities, 130 Deemed universities, 33
Institutions of National Importance (established under Acts of Parliament)
and five Institutions (established under various State legislations). The
number of colleges has also registered a manifold increase with just 578 in
1950 growing to be more than 30,000 in 2011.

2.1 Student Enrollment (both men and women):

Around 25.9 million students are enrolled in over 45,000 degree and diploma
institutions in India. Two-thirds of these institutes have been set up by the
private sector. Undergraduate courses enroll 87% of the total number of
students enrolled in degree courses. Around 4.2 million students are enrolled
in distance education programmes. However, the Gross Enrolment Ratio in
Higher Education in India is pegged at 18%, which however, is much below
the world average of 27%; China (26%) and Brazil (36%). The Ministry of
Human Resource Development (MHRD) has stated that its Rashtriya
Uchchatar Shiksha Abhiyan (RUSA) Scheme will increase the Gross
Enrolment Ratio (GER) from 18% to 30%. The scheme is estimated to cost Rs
990 billion. (The Times of India, July 5, 2013).

Problems faced by the Higher Education Sector in India:

Demand Supply Gap and the Dualistic Economy:
The population of India is 1.27 billion according to the 2011 census
with a sex ratio of 940 females to 1000 males. Approximately 58.4% of
the population falls in the age group of 15-54 years.Indias large young
population requires access to quality higher education in order to
achieve a better socio-economic progress.
As mentioned earlier, India has the largest number of higher education
institutions in the world. At 10.5 million, the number of students
enrolled is the third largest globally. However, the Gross Enrollment
Ratio (18%) is low as compared to other countries, including
developing countries. Critical gaps exist in the capacity and
management systems of the higher education structure.
India is a highly dualistic economy. A dualistic economy is one, where
two or more socio-economic systems simultaneously exist together. In
India, there exists a wide gap in the level of income and development
between various states. There is also a great rural-urban socioeconomic divide within the states. As a result, while some sections of
the population, both men and women have access to world class
educational facilities, the greater majority still remains outside the
purview of quality higher education. Thus, there exists a demand
supply gap in higher education on the one hand and a low gross

enrolment ratio on the other.The same goes for regional disparities in

facilities as well, which further widens the gap.
India has world class institutes like the Indian Institutes of Technology
(IITs) and Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) as well as universities
offering quality higher education in disciplines ranging from
engineering, medicine, business management, law, to the liberal and
fine arts. However, Indias high quality institutes have limited capacity,
so deserving students have to opt for below the standard institutes and
universities. To tackle this problem, the Government has a policy to
start IITs and IIMs in smaller towns and cities. Also, due to very high
population density in the urban areas and the resulting high real estate
prices, a lot of new institutes have started residential campuses in
semi-rural areas and towns. However, generally the fees of these
institutes are not affordable to the masses, thus keeping the demandsupply gap as it is.

Quality versus Quantity:

There is shortage of qualified faculty as norms for higher positions in
teaching and academics are quite stringent. There is acute shortage of
faculty in central universities (40%) and state universities (35%).
Similarly, incentives for research and academics are also lower than
the other career options available to people. So very often it is an
economic decision, rather than an academic one. There is also
inadequate enrollment in research as students opt for technical
courses like Engineering, Finance and Management, as these sectors
pay better than Education and Research. Very often, research is also
undertaken only to achieve higher positions in universities and
educational institutes and may be of a doubtful nature. According to
the accreditation of the National Assessment and Accreditation Council
(NAAC), 62% of universities and 90% of colleges were average or
below average in 2010.

3.Women and Higher Education:

There has been a great increase in the number of universities and colleges
and student enrollment, also of female students. The enrollment of lady
students has also increased from 33, 06, 000 in 2001 to 70,49,000 in 201011. However, gender inequalities are still prevalent to a large extent.

Gender Gap and Disparity in Gross Enrolment Ratios in Higher Education


Gender Gap






Source: UGC, 2008

Gender disparities arise due to traditional role expectations. Even in

educated families, there still are traditional role expectations from women,
particularly, married women. As a result, there is a high drop-out rate of tobe-married or just-married women. A survey published by the Times News
Network in 2011 states that around 26% of the students interviewed for the
survey of drop-outs attributed their stepping back to financial problems at
home. Girls, mostly, are in a dilemma as they get into marriage and start a
family. This constitutes 9% of the crowd. In the Indian society and culture
marriage is traditionally perceived as an event of utmost importance in the
life of a woman, and everything else, work, career, education is often
considered subservient.

The social system is also completely different in various parts of the country,
encouraging women to make successful and independent careers in the
developed cities and business centres, and confining them to the family
chores in the interiors.
Social and family upbringing often leads to lower enrolment of women in
higher education, particularly in professional courses like engineering and
technology, which are traditionally looked at as the mail domain.
Economic Inequalities exist to a very large extent in the country along with a
high population. Large families which often cannot provide for the education
of all the children, still tend to give preference to the male child when it
comes to giving educational opportunities. These disparities start at the
school level, with more number of girls dropping out than boys, which are
socio-economic in nature.

Gender Inequality in Higher Education: Gross Attendance Ratio (GAR)



National Average





GAR by gender (%)

*statistics for 1999-2000 and 2004-05 is as per student

enrollment, 200708 is as per student attendance

Source: FICCI (2008)

Disparity between the rural and urban women:


National Average






GAR by rural and urban (%)

*statistics for 1999-2000 and 2004-05 is as per student
enrollment, 200708 is as per student attendance
Source: FICCI (2012)

4.Market economy and inequality


Will unfettered markets solve the gender disparity problem?

India has a federal structure of Government and Education is mentioned in

the concurrent list in the constitution of India. This means that Education is
governed both by the Centre as well as the individual states. Indian higher
education continues to be one of the most regulated sectors. In a series of

judgments in the 1990s, the court affirmed the states right to interfere in
admission policy and the fee structure of private professional institutions on
the grounds that education being a fundamental right could not be the object
of profit seeking activity.
The branch of Public Finance in Economics mentions three types of goods:
public goods, private goods and merit goods. Education is generally
considered a merit good, which is perceived as beneficial to society and
although it can be and often is provided by the private sector, the public
sector too provides it for the benefit of the society. Hence, merit goods are
provided on the basis of need rather than the ability and willingness to pay.
The private sector in education, like any other private service sector, mainly
functions with the profit motive, charging high fees and perceived as giving
high quality. In addition is the dual mismatch between demand and supply.
This is mainly due to the mushrooming of colleges and institutes all over the
country which has increased the supply of average and below average
quality educational facilities on the one hand, and the acute shortage of
quality higher education institutes on the other. This has also reduced the
quality of education. Thus, in this context, the free market may not have a
solution to the problem of gender inequality.
However, one benefit of the market economy has been that private
universities are opening up in remote areas with residential campuses, due
to the sheer economic benefits these places offer.The economic benefits
arise mainly from the fact that these places have a lower population density
and hence comparatively lower effective demand, leading to lower prices.
A survey of the Indian population density, 2011 shows quite a considerable
rise in the figures of population density in India. The records of population
density of India state that the density has increased from a figure of 324 to
that of 382 per square kilometre, which is considerably higher than the
average population density of the world, which is 46 per square kilometre.
Records reveal that along with the wide difference with the population
density of the world, there are also a lot of differences in the population
density of the various states of India. While the National Capital Region area
of Delhi possesses the highest of the population density among the states of
India having a statistics of 11,297 per square kilometre, the state of
Arunachal Pradesh has the lowest record of population density having just 17
per square kilometre. It is very obvious that a higher density of population of
a region would essentially mean that it is an urban area with high buildings

and other modern aspects, while the low density of population of region
would mean that it is a rural area with a probability there might be lack of
modern amenities in the region. (
Thus, with the increasing number of educational institutes opening up in
remote areas, the problem of regional imbalance in higher education is
somewhat tackled, but the problem of high unaffordable fees still remains.
4.2. Government spending on higher education:
Government spending on higher education has been in the range of 30-35%
of the total spending on education, with almost 50% spending on elementary
education. Currently public sector, or government, investment in education is
less than 3% of GDP, including
a share of higher education at 0.4 per cent, or around 12% of the aggregate
education budget. Thecentral government spends slightly more than 25% of
total public expenditure and the state governments spend the remaining
three-quarters. About 50 per cent of the central governments technical
education budget went to the Indian Institutes of Technology and Indian
Institutes of Management in 2001-02. Real public expenditure per student
has declined drastically since 1990-91 from Rs. 7676 to Rs. 5500 in 2002-03,
coming down by nearly 28 percentage points. This would be even lower if the
50% expenditure on national institutes of excellence is left out. (ICIER,CII,
2006). Experts believe that the government spending on higher education in
India is very low as compared to the requirements of the sector and the
The Indian Government also has a variety of schemes for the benefit of
women in higher education. These include the Scheme for Development of
Women's Studies in Indian Universities and Colleges, Scheme for Womens
Hostels for Colleges, Scheme for Capacity Building of Women Managers in
Higher Education, and so on. However, the reach and spread of these
schemes is still not as much as required.

4.3 The Economic Trade-Off:

While there is a persistent demand for the Government to increase the
spending on higher education, there exist concerns on the burden it would
create on the exchequer. Indias fiscal deficit was 5.9% of GDP in 2011-12

due to higher subsidy bill and lower income tax collections. Higher fiscal
deficit is worsening Indias fiscal position. Inflation is a major source of worry
today, and higher spending might aggravate the situation further. The last
two years have seen analarmingrise in the inflation rate which was around
9.35% in April-December 2011 and 7.55% in 2012. This gets the Indian
government to the oft-repeated growth-inflation trade-off, and hence,
increasing Government spending for achieving gender equality in India would
be unsustainable in the long run.

4.4 The Socio-Cultural Aspect:

Achieving gender equality in higher education in India is a socio-cultural and
socio-economic problem. Unfortunately, the problem often gets studied as
merely an economic problem, with recommendations made about
Government spending, establishment of educational institutions, and
regional balance. The paradigm of Government spending on education does
have economic issues to be resolved. Indias GDP accounted for Rupees
100,281.18 Billion at current market prices in 2012-13. Although a meager
3% of the GDP is spent on Education, in absolute terms, Government
spending on Education would be 33,427.06 Billion Rupees. Increasing
expenditure, with a rising fiscal deficit and rising inflation rate, will always be
a matter of concern for the Government. India being a welfare state, the
Government has to also spend on a variety of more pressing needs. The key
problem is that of increasing the gross enrolment ratio in higher education
and trying to reduce the drop-out rate, both of which are related not just to
the economic aspect, but largely related to the socio-cultural aspect as well.
The focus, thus, should be on increasing the quality of education, changing
the socio-cultural paradigm, which will help women take the benefit of the
increased capacity and spending in the Higher Education sector, rather than
merely increasing the quantitative variables like Government spending and
number of universities. It is more important to see how the Government
spending is utilized for the sector, for increasing not just capacity, but also
quality and student retention.
A revolutionary change in the socio-cultural paradigm is of paramount
importance, as gender inequality begins at home at a tender age even in
educated homes. This starts with minor things like the tasks assigned to boys
and girls at home, difference in the toys given to both, rituals of religious and

social nature and the general overall upbringing. The psyche of the people,
the traditional patriarchal society, the undue importance attached to the
marriage of the girl child as the focal point of her life, all need to be changed;
so that women as a majority will be able to get the fruits of the emerging
economic development in the country. In this context two very relevant
points need to be made:
1. The schools should take up the responsibility of propounding gender
equality not just amongst the children, but also sensitizing the parents
towards gender issues. This will work in a two-way pattern: the values
of gender equality will be inculcated in the children at a very young
age, so that they become enlightened and liberated citizens of
tomorrow; and at the level of the parents, who will bring out their
children in a more egalitarian spirit.
2. Structural, curricular and pedagogical changes should be made in
Higher Education, making it more employment friendly. The Indian
education system is often criticized for being theoretically and
conceptually very good, but lacking in application and developing
employment potential for the individual. Connecting employability with
education will create a strong link between higher education and
economic independence, and will help increase the gross enrollment
ratio and reduce the drop-out rate, both of female as well as male
Employment opportunities will act as an incentive for
enrollment and retention.
The above two points may be treated as the outcome of this exploratory
research paper and may be taken as hypotheses in further long-term
sociological and socio-economic research in this area.

A concerted effort to change the dualistic pattern of the society is
essential for a sustainable long term egalitarian society.
The Government is required to play a vital role, as market failures
exist, leading to concentration of equal opportunities for women in a
few elite cities and classes.
Private sector is essential to complement the Government in
creating opportunities for quality education for women.
However, an equitable society will only be created when people
understand the importance of womens education and economic
independence and do not give preferential treatment to the male


child, particularly in the less developed areas and socio-economic

Lastly, economic independence is the key to social independence
and young women should be encouraged to earn while they learn,
and continue to do so even later.


Pune, the Oxford of the East
I come from the city of Pune in India, which is often referred to as the Oxford
of the East, the seat of education of the country. Pune is famous for
pioneering work of womens education in the country in the 19 th century. The
stalwarts of the Indian freedom struggle realized the importance of education
in general, womens education in particular. Social reformers like Mahatma
Jyotirao Phule (1827-1890) and Maharshi Dhondo Keshav Karve (1858-1962)
worked hard to achieve the goal of educating women in the then orthodox
and highly discriminating society.
Mahatma Phule after educating his wife Savitribai, opened the first school for
girls in India in 1848, thus pioneering womens education in the country. He
alongwith Savitribai worked relentlessly for human equality and dignity and
the education of women and people from the lower castes.
Maharshi Karve started the Stree Sikshan Sanstha (Organisation for Womens
Education) at Hingane, a suburb of Pune. He started the first womens
university in the country in 1916. He worked for widows remarriage,
considered a taboo at that time and his organization worked for the shelter
and education of widows as well. Maharshi Karve travelled extensively to
spread the cause of womens education. He also lectured at various forums
in America and England about womens education. He was awarded the
Bharat Ratna, the highest civilian award in India for his lifelong commitment
to womens rights.
Pune also has a history of the strong and radical women, who refused to
accept the traditional male dominance and fought for the rights of women.
One of the first published works in gender equality was written by Tarabai
Shinde (1850-1910) as early as in 1882. Similarly Pandita Ramabai (18581922) worked for the cause of womens education and abolishing child
Today, Pune enjoys a high status in the country for its education and culture.
It is one of the largest cities in India, with more than a hundred educational
institutes, nine universities, offering quality educational services, with
students coming in from not only across the country, but across the world. In
addition, it is a hub for manufacturing, automobile, finance and IT
companies, with a lot of women employed in key positions. The independent
and educated woman of today owes a lot to the revolutionary work of the
social reformers of Pune. It is time now for another social revolution of this
kind, to drive more and more women towards higher education to remove
gender inequalities in the country and creating a conducive environment
where women will be able to take confident steps towards empowerment and

Higher Education in India: Twelfth Five Year Plan (20122017) and beyond (2012),
FICCI Higher Education Summit 2012
Higher Education Outlook Survey: Leaders Optimistic About Institutions Financial
Future, KPMG, 2012
Towards Excellence: Higher Education in India (2006) Collaborative Research
carried out by the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations,
New Delhi (retrieved 20th July 2013) (Database of the Indian Economy,
Reserve Bank of India, retrieved July 10,2013) (Economic Survey, Government of
India, State of the Economy and Prospects, 2013) (Website of the Ministry of
Development, Government of India, retrieved June 30, 2013)


retrieved July, 1, 2013
Saraswati Raju (2008) Gender Differentials in Access to Higher Education
inHIGHER EDUCATION IN INDIA: Issues Related to Expansion, Inclusiveness, Quality
and Finance, University Grants Commission (UGC), New Delhi
About the Corresponding Author: Kalyani Bondre has a PhD in Economics from
the University of Pune, India, and is currently a faculty member of the Institute of
Management Development and Research. She is a member of the Research and
Development Cell of UWA, Pune, an honorary member of Organic Farming
Association of India, Project Coordinator, Arbutus Centre for Sustainable
Development and Editor, Linkpin, the In-House publication of the Institute of
Management Development and Research, Pune. Her area of research activity is
centred on the relevance of past and present Indian Economic thought in the
context of current global economic crises. Her listed presentations and publications

include Curriculum Design for Sustainable Agricultural Development in India, and

The Economics of Organic Farming.
For further information contact her at