Access to education and its issues

12 Dec

Universal Access to education is a most desirable goal, and yet the term is often bandied about loosely. Grand statements such as the goal of ‘30% Gross Enrolment ratio in Higher Education by 2030’ or the ‘25% RTE Quota’ imply improvements in access to education but often gloss over the mechanics of such access, and, more significantly – the sustainability of such access plans.

Access to education is specifically seen as access to opportunity. This clearly means that each individual must be given the opportunity to access the resources that will enable them to achieve their potential. Universal access is therefore at the point of time of entry to a course of study. It is not a right to a qualification or a degree – successful achievement is still dependent on merit and effort. All that equitable access gives is entry into the system that will support and direct achievement of the educational goal.

In a recent news report, the vice chancellor of a medical university in central India wrote to the Medical Council of India (MCI) asking for some students to be given degrees as they had been taking exams since 1996 and failing. Since they had been admitted via reservation, with lower achievement levels – the VC argued, they should be allowed to become doctors with similar concessions. This case probably highlights most of the issues that prevail in the debate around access to education, and access to professional arena. While a decision is pending on this particular case, it is clear that the social responsibility of governments does include facilitating access to opportunity.

At the same time, it is clear that the educational establishment has a responsibility to maintain professional standards and not allow the value of its degree to depreciate. A doctor who cannot pass standard exams clearly does not know enough to put the lives of individual patients – men, women and children – at risk. At the same time, when it comes to primary school education, does the new right to access school education merely extend to the admission into that school? Does the school then necessarily care for the progress of that child beyond giving it that opportunity to participate in the same space as the best. Monitoring drop out rates, pastoral care, remedial support sessions and tracking progress are some of the tools that will ensure that the provision of the access (often at the cost of other groups) is a worthwhile exercise

It is undeniable that universal access to better education opportunities is an essential tool in poverty alleviation and social re-engineering. Affirmative action via access to education has been practiced all over the world to right the wrongs of previous generations. Access issues are not restricted to the socially or economically deprived. They arise when there is a paucity of quality institutions and there are more candidates than places- witness the rush for nursery or Class 1 school admissions each year. The experience is as distressing for the economically able when access to quality institutions is restricted. Now, with the provisioning under the Right to Education Act, a quarter of seats in each school are available to those who come from economically weaker backgrounds, thus opening up access to quality education – yet issues in implementation remain.

Access for the differently abled has its own issues, often requiring a degree of customization in both curricula and provisioning, which should ideally be included in and at the design stage of educational establishments. (For some, quality education itself means the customization of curricula built into the design – but we will leave that discussion for another day).

Access is more than mere availability, which is a precondition for ensuring access. Availability of education can be improved by increasing capacity via investments in infrastructure and resources. More schools and colleges, more and better teachers, libraries and laboratories will certainly ease the problems faced by the multitudes who seek an education. Yet, this does not resolve the access issues for those that need it – the economically less able need access via reduction of financial barriers, the meritorious would like access to better quality education, the physically challenged would need access via better design of both the bricks and clicks world. Those in remote areas would seek improved access via better electricity, internet connections and local colleges or schools. Access for the girl child often depends on good toilet facilities, for many it is the mid-day meal that has eased access to education. Access issues for all are more than just capacity, they are about making a pathway that brings good education within the feasible zone of their circumstances.

Building access is a usability design issue – there is no one solution that can fit all, even though there are basic practices and principles that must be built into every educational institution to ensure that inadvertent or thoughtless barriers do not reduce access to opportunity. Building access to education comes from the first responsibility of every educator – the duty of care.

Published on the Times of India, India Times site on 07 December 2011, 06:34 AM IST 6

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