Debate: What Are We Missing When Talking of Education in West Bengal?

That West Bengal needs to do more in the education sector is true. But it is also true that the state has made huge strides in the last seven-eight years.

Prasenjit Bose, the Leftist economist, recently published a fact-check in The Wire to answer a question he set up: ‘Is West Bengal’s Economy Really Growing as the Rest of India’s Slows?‘ After some elementary probing, he answers that this is not the case – and his answer is probably partly true.His verdict: the state finance minister, in this year’s budget speech, relied less on evidence and more on hyperbole.

This note, however, concerns only three small paragraphs in his article dealing with education, and not with other issues such as revenue, tax collection, growth of gross domestic product, etc. Though one can argue with Bose around his contention that Goods and Services Tax figures do not reflect the revenue collection by a state. But I will focus on education.

Bose writes that the West Bengal government’s claim regarding an increase in the number of universities in the state from 12 in 2011 to 40 at present, with student enrolment in higher education rising from 13.24 lakh in 2010-11 to 20.36 lakh in 2017-18, does not mean anything substantive.

The reason is that the gross enrolment ratio in higher education (in the 18-23 age group) in 2017-18 was only 18.7% in West Bengal, as against the national average of 25.8%, with the ratio among women in the state even lower, at 17.6%. With only 1,341 colleges in West Bengal, the number of colleges per lakh population (18-23 years) is only 12, while the national average is 28. Average enrolment per college in West Bengal is 1,170, whereas the national average is only 698.

Hence, Bose claims that the deficit both in terms of the number of higher education institutions as well as the quality of the institutions in West Bengal, is too glaring to miss.

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That West Bengal needs to do more in education is true. But why is Bose reluctant to admit the huge strides the state has made in the last seven-eight years? Why does he brush aside the point that 2011 does indeed tell us the beginning point of a story in expansion of education? Bose ignores the fundamental point that education is one of the most contentious social sites, and progress in this field does indeed reflect social struggles and contentions.

Between 2016-17 and 2018-19, the pupil-teacher ratio for school education improved from 29 to 22 for primary schools and 49 to 42 at the upper primary level. There was an 18% increase in the revised budgeted expenditure in the same field from 2016-17 to 2018-19.

Likewise, between 2010-11 and 2017-18, government expenditure in education in the state saw noticeable increase. The departments of school education, panchayats and rural development, urban development and municipal affairs, and health and family welfare saw the highest allocations in the budget of 2018-19. The state allocated 18.2% of budgeted expenditure on education that year. This is higher than the average expenditure allocated to education by 18 other states.

Between 2011-12 and 2018, the number of universities grew from 26 (which includes besides 19 state public universities, central universities, deemed universities and universities of other categories to 46.

The purpose of this point is not to exaggerate the impact of the emphasis on education by the new government after 2011, but simply to bring to attention the state of education in West Bengal in those debt-ridden years in the last phase of Left Front rule.

For instance, while in state-wise distribution of funds for education by the education departments under the revenue account, West Bengal stood quite high (with Rs 12,922.31 crore) preceded by Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh, in case of the relationship between budgeted expenditure on education and gross state domestic product (GSDP) of states and union territories during 2010-11, the percentage stood at 2.73, a figure below than those of several other states. This percentage improved in the following years to 3.32. However, this improvement clearly was still not enough. The situation was better in several northeastern states and other states like Chhattisgarh.

The number of higher educational institutions (accredited to various national institutions such as the University Grants Commission, Medical Council of India, All India Council for Technical Education and other such bodies) increased from 855 to 1,849, while 31 new government colleges and 15 government-aided colleges came up. Five more universities are to come up soon in Darjeeling, South Dinajpur, Alipurduar, Murshidabad, and Birbhum.

In the period between 2011 and 2018, the number of new colleges set up was 47; seven new universities were set up. These were: Kazi Nazrul University (2012), Cooch Behar Panchanan Barma University (2012), Diamond Harbour Women’s University (2013), Bankura University (2014), Raiganj University (2015), The Sanskrit College and University (2015), and West Bengal University of Teachers’ Training, Education Planning and Administration (2015).

The number of teachers and employees also went up as 2,816 new teaching and non-teaching posts were created. Many new lecturers have been appointed and many posts of lecturers remaining vacant for long have been filled up. Teachers training institutions now number 655, many of them being parts of other institutions and colleges. A National Council for Teacher Education-Eastern Regional Committee report also tells us that an overwhelming number of these colleges started functioning from 2014-15.

In 2013-14, the gross enrolment ratio in the entire state was 17.5% as compared to the national average of 19.4%. According to a CII-Deloitte report titled ‘Annual Status of Higher Education of States and UTs in India 2016‘, the gross enrolment ratio in higher education in the state improved from 15.1% in 2015 to 17.4% in 2016, and West Bengal was among the top five states in terms of total enrolment. The report showed that more students were coming to higher educational institutions, but also that the state has miles to go.

Expansion of higher education, however, did not happen suddenly. The emphasis on the expansion of primary education and secondary education as elsewhere led to a demand for access to higher education. In 2010-11, the number of schools was 61,326 (including 49,908 primary schools and 4,454 secondary schools); in 2015-16 the total number of schools increased to 95,736 (of which primary institutions were 76,703).

In 2013-14, the enrolment of Scheduled Castes and Tribes were respectively 11.1 % and 8% of total enrolment in higher education. In 2017, the corresponding figures increased to 13.5 % and 10.1%. Again, the increase is not satisfactory, but we have to note at the same time that the expansion of higher education is happening on this basis. In faraway districts, villages and mufossil towns, there is a clamour for education. Dalits, Muslims, women and other poorer sections are all jostling for entry in nearby colleges. Expansion and contention are going hand in hand.

In the current year (2019), according to the University Grants Commission, the number of autonomous colleges in the state is 15 (13 in 2017), while in Tamil Nadu it is 193, in Andhra Pradesh 104, in Karnataka 71, and in Telangana 60. This has to be understood in the background best described in a 2004 report of the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (UGC), wherein it  had noted, “So far, there is no autonomous college in West Bengal. Autonomy has been contemplated for some of the leading institutions, but has not seen implementation yet. Higher Education in West Bengal, therefore, is still largely a governmental responsibility.”

In other words, privatisation of education is one reason for the high number of autonomous institutions elsewhere. Also, one may point to the role of the UGC. Yet the state too is responsible, particularly if we remember that the Pabitra Sarkar-headed committee appointed by the Left Front government in West Bengal had recommended way back in 2004 that autonomy in education could play a big role in elevating the standard of higher education. Initially the state took a leading role in this aspect, but succeeding governments did little.

In short, while West Bengal had done quite a lot in education, much remains to be done. We still are not sure about the extent to which Kanyasree has contributed to the improvement and expansion of girl child education. Research is still inadequate. Primary evidence suggests its relative success in rural areas; in cities its success is still to be ascertained.

In the area of enrolment in higher education, West Bengal is among the top five states. But there are inadequacies in many sectors. There are teaching vacancies. In some cases the post is there, but there is no teacher; in others teachers are perhaps available but there is no post or vacancy. Equipment, infrastructure and institutional expansion – all these call for proper logistical planning.

West Bengal has miles to go, but the assuring thing is that the ground for such an undertaking has been laid.

Where’s the politics?

Yet my purpose in writing this note is neither to point out these facts nor to deny or emphasise that much remains to be done. I want to point out the element of politics missing typically in these kinds of economics-centred analyses. Here are three important points to direct our attention to the political.

First, what made the expansion of education in West Bengal possible since 2011, and what turned education into a battlefield of politics, where the lower classes and the distant areas of non-metropolitan Bengal could leave their footprints? Economists are usually blind to the politics of a populist government and the power of popular politics. Hence they cannot direct their enquiry along that direction.

Second, why are the middle classes so insistent on quality that they can ignore the obvious need for expansion of education? Why this impatience, why can they not see the dynamics of privatisation of education acting as the motor of so-called quality of education?

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One has to take into account also the role of centralisation of educational finances as a critical support to the so-called quality of central universities. Indeed, it is this subterranean elitism that is responsible for our deplorable habit of comparing one state’s particulars with another’s, and ignoring the specific dynamics of a state’s own development.

Finally, there is an astounding neglect from most economists of the way in which the social infrastructure of a land develops, the contradictions it faces and the contradictions it unleashes. The topic of education brings out our deepest prejudices about learning, the social elite’s bias against the efforts of the lower classes to acquire skill and knowledge and keep pace with a changing world – obviously, a race with built in disadvantages and asymmetries.

Ranabir Samaddar is distinguished chair in forced migration studies, Calcutta Research Group. He can be contacted at [email protected].