Editorial: Dig Deeper
It is heartening when data bear signs of progress on the ground. Such signs were evident in the findings of the All India Survey on Higher Education, which showed that the gender gap in higher education has closed further: in 2019-20, there were 100 women for every 100 male students for the Bachelor of Commerce programme in higher educational institutions. In absolute numbers, of the 41.6 lakh students who were enrolled in the course in 2019-20, 20.3 lakh were women and 21.3 lakh were men. After the Bachelor of Science and the MBBS programmes in 2017-18, this is the third major course in the last five years where the gender gap in enrolment has been closed — almost.
Progress, however, must also be understood by placing it within a wider context. Even within the AISHE findings, there is evidence of a persistent imbalance: in the Bachelor of Technology programmes, there are just 42 women enrolled for every 100 men, and in undergraduate law programmes, there are only 53 women students for 100 men. It is no secret that girls and women in India have to confront numerous hurdles to achieve basic rights. Their challenges are compounded by myopic policymaking. The Union budget for education was reduced from Rs 99,311 crore in 2020-21 to Rs 93,224 crore for 2021-22. The slash in funds is expected to adversely affect women students — especially those from rural and disadvantaged backgrounds — the most. Moreover, the gains made at the undergraduate level are, unfortunately, being neutralized by newer gaps in other areas. Consider online learning. Studies have repeatedly shown that women students are being inconvenienced by the shift to the digital medium. In states such as Haryana, teachers in schools and colleges have to strive harder to ensure their female students are allowed to take online classes, as women’s access to mobile phones is believed to be detrimental to their personal reputations or a distraction from chores and income-generating work. The rise in women’s enrolment in higher education has also been accompanied by a steep fall in their participation in the labour force. Before Covid-19, 7.5 per cent of women in urban areas were employed; data from February 2021 show that the figure has fallen to 5.4 per cent. A principal factor for gender discrimination remains unaddressed, be it in employment or in education — the long history of inertia of elected dispensations. One way of addressing this would be greater and meaningful political representation of women at every tier of power.