15 minute read

South Asia

Education Development after Independence, Recent Policies and Approaches, Conclusion

Writing about education in South Asian region means writing about one-fourth of the world's population. South Asia comprises seven contiguous countries: Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. The region is geographically knit together and is homogenous in terms of sociocultural, political, historical, economic, and educational factors. The people of this area are heirs to a heritage of common culture and civilization steeped in history. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, however, it is one of the most backward regions of the world, both educationally and economically. It is the poorest region economically in the world, with an average per capita income of about US$350. Most of the countries in the region rank fairly poorly in terms of the human development index, a crude summary statistic of development compiled by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). All the countries of the region, except Sri Lanka, are classified as low human development countries.

This is a historically rich region, with one of the most ancient civilizations of the world. The ancient scriptures associated with the region placed education and knowledge on a high pedestal, regarding it as the most important treasure one could have. Even in the early twenty-first century, many in the region value education very highly. Some of these countries were once very rich, industrially advanced, and materially prosperous. "The fame of their wealth earned for this region the appellation of the 'gorgeous East,' and inspired the quest which led to the discovery of the New World and created the preconditions for the Industrial Revolution in Europe" (Huq, p. 5). The countries of the region, except for Nepal and Bhutan, experienced various short and long phases of colonial rule and became independent in the middle of the twentieth century. The devastating colonial impact can be noted on the development of education in the region. The long colonial rule uprooted the beautiful tree in the undivided India and transformed an advanced intermediate society of India into an illiterate society, besides converting it into a raw material appendage on the economic front.

At the start of the twenty-first century, with the exception of Sri Lanka, South Asia is one of the most backward regions of the world in terms of educational development. The region has been described as "the poorest region," "the most illiterate region," "the least gender-sensitive region," and "the region with the highest human deprivation" (Haq and Haq 1997, pp. 2–3). It has emerged as an "anti-education society in the midst of a pro-education Asian culture" (Haq and Haq 1998, p. 42). In sheer numbers, the South Asian subcontinent poses the most serious challenges in education: nearly half the adult illiterates of the world live in the subcontinent, the rate of participation in schooling is low, and the quality of education is poor.

Education Development after Independence

The importance of education is increasingly realized by every nation in the region. The human investment revolution in economic thought initiated by Theodore Schultz in an address to the American Economic Association had its own impact on public policy regarding educational development. The critical role of education in social, economic, and political development–as a means of development as well as a measure of development–is widely recognized. As a result, there has been an education explosion during the second half the twentieth century in most developing countries. Countries in the South Asian region also experienced an explosion in the number of people attending school. Between 1950 and 1997, enrollments in schools in South Asia increased sixfold, from 44 million to 262 million. The total teaching staff increased from 1.4 million to 7.2 million during this period. Enrollment ratios increased from 20 percent (net) in 1960 to 52 percent (gross) in 2000. (Gross enrollment ratios refer to the total enrollments as a proportion of the relevant age group population, while net enrollment ratio refers to enrollment


in the relevant age group as a proportion of the population of the relevant age group.) The rate of adult illiteracy declined from 72 percent in 1960 to 46 percent in 2000 (see Table 1). These are no mean achievements, given the poor economic conditions of the newly independent countries of the region and their high rates of population growth.

Along with quantitative progress, however, the education system in the several countries of the region is characterized by conspicuous failures on many fronts. While the rate of illiteracy has decreased, the number of adult illiterates increased from 299 million in 1970 to 429 million in 2000, and the current adult illiteracy rate is quite high. Adult literacy campaigns–an important strategy adopted by the South Asian countries to improve literacy rates–have not met with great success. Sixty percent of the adults in Nepal and Bangladesh, and about 55 percent in Pakistan and Bhutan, are illiterate (see Table 2). Further, a large majority of the literate population have had little more than primary education, and very few have gone on to higher education institutions. For example, only 7 percent of adults age twenty-five and older in India have graduated from postsecondary institutions; the corresponding


figure is 2.5 percent in Pakistan; 1.1 percent in Sri Lanka; and 0.6 percent in Nepal. About 50 million children in the primary-school age group were estimated to be out of school in 1995.

As of 2001, the gross enrollment ratio in primary education in the region as a whole was impressive (about 95%). But this is only the gross enrollment ratio. The net enrollment ratio in Pakistan, for example, was only 49 percent in 2001. Universal primary education is still a distant dream for many countries in the region, except for Sri Lanka and Maldives (see Table 3). Similarly, though the number of teachers has increased at all levels, the pace of growth has not kept up with the increase in enrollments. According to the latest statistics available, the number of pupils per teacher in primary schools is as high as fifty-nine in Bangladesh, forty-nine in Pakistan, and forty-eight in India–and the situation has worsened in many countries over the years. The situation is similar in terms of internal efficiency in primary education, as measured by rates of survival of children in school (the converse of dropout rates) and promotion rates.

Dropout and repetition rates are also high. In fact, the completion rates in primary education in South Asia are the lowest in the world. Quality of education, reflected in levels of achievement of children in primary schools, has been found to be unsatisfactory in several countries of the region. The regional, social, and economic inequalities that are a glaring feature of the societies of South Asia are reflected in the education systems, with the poor and socially backward areas suffering a severe degree of exclusion from education. In addition to religious and cultural prejudices, gender prejudices are also strong, keeping girls out of schools.

Enrollment ratios in secondary and higher education are also low in South Asia compared to many other regions of the world. Many countries in South Asia (e.g., India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka) have emphasized vocational training in their secondary education plans, but have not succeeded. As Mahbub ul Haq and Khadija Haq have estimated, barely 1.5 percent of the enrollments in secondary education in South Asia were enrolled in vocational programs in the early 1990s, compared to six times that level in East Asia and fifteen times that level in Latin America. Secondary education has failed to provide any job-relevant skills, and as a result has served only as a transitory phase toward higher education and is not viable terminal level of education in these nations. In addition, gender disparities in secondary education are the largest in the world.

It is felt by some that higher education has expanded too fast in South Asian countries. Acute unemployment rates among the educated and high rates of emigration to the West are cited as testifying to this phenomenon. But higher education is, in fact, very much restricted in South Asia. Higher education is practically nonexistent in Maldives and Bhutan, and barely 3 percent of the relevant population is enrolled in higher education in Pakistan–with 4 percent enrollment in Bangladesh, 5 percent in Sri Lanka and Nepal, and 7 percent in India (see Table4). This is in sharp contrast to most economically advanced countries, where the enrollment ratio is generally above 20 percent. Additionally, all South Asian countries compare very poorly with countries in East Asia, Latin America, and many other areas of the world with respect to scientific and technical manpower.

While the region as a whole is educationally backward, there are one or two important exceptions. In terms of numbers, India has one of the largest education systems in the world–its student population exceeds the total population of some of the countries of the world. This, however, does not place India ahead of others in educational development. While India could build the third largest reservoir of scientific and technical manpower in the world, this was found to inadequate to meet the challenges of growth in the rapidly globalizing and competitive world.

Sri Lanka and the tiny Maldives are far ahead of other countries in the region in literacy and basic education. More than 90 percent of the population in these two countries is literate. Basic education is nearly universal and enrollment ratios in secondary education are high, although Maldives does not have any higher education institution.

The problems of dropouts and grade repetition are also not so important in Sri Lanka as in other countries. With its emphasis on school education, Sri Lanka could improve the level of human development, as measured by the human development index, but it still continues to be economically backward. However, internal civil war and political unrest have had a serious adverse impact on educational development in Sri Lanka.

One of the important factors responsible for the unsatisfactory development of education in the region is the low level of public investment in education. The present levels of public investment in education in South Asia have been found to be of the lowest order, even less than those in sub-Saharan Africa. For instance, Bangladesh invested 2.2 percent of its gross national product (GNP) in education between 1995 and 1997 (the corresponding investment during this period was 2.7 percent in Pakistan; and3.2 percent in Nepal and India). It is only in the relatively rich country of Maldives that the proportion is reasonably high (6.4 percent). As a proportion of the total government expenditure, education receives a small portion in countries like Bhutan and Pakistan (see Table 5). Particularly during the 1990s, after economic reform policies were introduced, public expenditures on education decreased–not only in relative proportions but also in absolute total and per student amounts–in real prices and sometimes even in nominal prices. In addition, political instability and the compulsion to allocate substantial resources for defense and internal security have also constrained India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bangladesh in raising their levels of spending on education.

Though sound finances are not a sufficient condition for educational development, they are a critically necessary condition for development. For instance, high historical investments made in education helped Sri Lanka march ahead of others in literacy and school education. Education systems in


most countries of the region are starved of scarce financial resources. A low level of economic development is generally believed to be the reason for a low level of public investment, but that is not necessarily true. With political and social will, some relatively poor societies could spend more on education than some relatively rich economies, even in South Asia.

Recent Policies and Approaches

Most countries of South Asia have recognized the vital role of education and the need to accord high priority to education in development efforts, and they have begun paying serious attention to education–particularly to basic education–as a part of the global program of Education for All (EFA). Several strategies have been adopted, some of which are not necessarily sound, and many of which are controversial. Along with strengthening formal schools with increased levels of physical and human infrastructure facilities (in India, for example, where a national program of improvement in school infrastructure on a massive scale was launched in 1986), all the countries in the region also place undue emphasis on nonformal education for universalizing basic education. Though started with good intentions, nonformal education is favored by the educational planners in the region primarily due to its low cost. It is also cheap in quality, however, with poor physical infrastructure facilities, inadequately trained teachers, and inadequate teaching and learning material. As a result, it did not take off well. Further,


no links exist between nonformal and formal education, and the graduates of nonformal education often tend to relapse back into educational poverty.

Effective compulsory basic education is still nonexistent in many countries of the region. Efforts to promulgate compulsory education laws have only recently been initiated in Sri Lanka, and India. However, even if enacted, such laws will not necessarily provide free education. Families incur huge expenditures in acquiring even basic education for their children, both in terms of payments to school and the cost of other necessary expenditures, such as for books, uniforms, and transportation. The high cost of schooling incurred by families is an important factor constraining the participation of the poor in schooling.

Decentralization has been regarded as "the key to improvement in education in South Asia" (Haq and Haq 1998, p. 82). Decentralization has become an important issue not only in large countries such as India and Pakistan, but also in relatively small countries like Nepal. Many responsibilities of schooling are being decentralized to the local level. The mechanisms envisaged would not only increase the role of local bodies, but would also ensure an increased level of participation by local communities. As a corollary to all this, however, it is feared that the role of the central government and of provincial governments may get minimized.

Private education is another important issue of concern, particularly in postprimary education. Though private education is not a new phenomenon in South Asia, public policies only recently began favoring the rapid growth of private schools. Along with private education, public policies are also being formulated for improved mechanisms of cost recovery in education. This will be accomplished through the introduction or increase of fees in schools, as well as through various efforts of mobilization of nongovernmental resources. These measures are advocated not only because resources are scarce, but also because it is believed that they can improve the efficiency of the school system. However, according to some, the effects of such measures on equity may be very serious–not only on the education system but also on the society at large.

Given the scarcity of domestic resources, almost all the countries in the region have resorted to international aid for education, particularly since the World Conference on Education for All was held in Jomtien, Thailand, in 1990. While this has relaxed the constraints on resources to some extent, it has also led to an increased level of donor dependency, with every new educational program being dependent upon international aid. In addition, public policies are affected, as aid from some international organizations comes with severe policy conditions attached. On the whole, international aid for basic education has been increasing in South Asian countries, though positive and sustainable effects of this aid on educational development have yet to be noted.

One of the unintended effects of Education for All and an increased emphasis on basic education has been the neglect of secondary and higher education. While concentrating their efforts on EFA, countries in South Asia tend to ignore secondary and higher education altogether, based on the presumption that EFA goals could be realized only at the cost of growth of secondary and higher education. Therefore, public resources and policy initiatives have primarily been confined to basic education and adult literacy. This may lead to serious imbalances in the development of education, causing irreparable damage to secondary and higher education. Some countries, such as Sri Lanka and India, have already realized, with the rapid expansion of primary education, the need to expand secondary education. Further, these nations realize that higher education is not only important for economic growth and development, but also that quality higher education is important if these societies are to succeed in an increasingly globalized world.


The present education system in South Asia is marked by low access; poor quality and low standards; gender, social, and economic inequities; and low levels of public investment. The region is caught "in a vicious circle of low enrollment, low levels of literacy, low levels of educated labor force, lower rates of economic growth, and lower levels of living" (Tilak 2001, p. 233). The low level of educational development in South Asia has constrained "the immediate potential for human resource led development," and it has also "stunted the future prospects for rapid human development in the region" (Haq and Haq 1998, p. 34). Some countries have realized the importance of education and taken several new policy initiatives, but not all of these initiatives are necessarily conducive for the development of sustainable education systems of high quality. The most important factors responsible for the poor education status of South Asian countries are the lack of political commitment to education and the lack social will to exert pressures on the political elite. Political activism is completely lacking, though social will is slowly being built, providing a ray of hope for the betterment of education in South Asia.



BASU, APARNA. 1972. Essays in the History of Indian Education. Delhi, India: Concept.

DHARMPAL. 1983. The Beautiful Tree: Indigenous Indian Education in the Eighteenth Century. Delhi, India: Biblia Implex.

DRÈZE, JEAN, and AMARTYA SEN, eds. 1997 Indian Development: Selected Regional Perspectives. Delhi, India: Oxford University Press.

HAQ, MAHBUB UL, and HAQ, KHADIJA. 1997. Human Development in South Asia. Karachi, Pakistan: Oxford University Press.

HAQ, MAHBUB UL, and HAQ, KHADIJA. 1998. Human Development in South Asia: The Education Challenge. Karachi, Pakistan: Oxford University Press.

HUQ, MUHAMMAD SHAMSUL. 1965. Education and Development Strategy in South and Southeast Asia. Honolulu, HI: East-West Center.

SCHULTZ, THEODORE W. 1961. "Investment in Human Capital." American Economic Review 51 (1):1–17.

TILAK, JANDHYALA B. G. 1988. Educational Finances in South Asia. Nagoya, Japan: United Nations Centre for Regional Development.

TILAK, JANDHYALA B. G. 1994. Education for Development in Asia. New Delhi, India: Sage Publications.

TILAK, JANDHYALA B. G. 2000. Education for All in South and West Asia: A Decade After Jomtien: An Assessment. New Delhi, India: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization/South and West Asia Regional Technical Advisory Group.

TILAK, JANDHYALA B. G. 2001. "Education and Development: Lessons from Asian Experience." Indian Social Science Review 3 (2):219–66.

UNITED NATIONS DEVELOPMENT PROGRAM. 2001. Human Development Report. New York: Oxford University Press.

UNITED NATIONS EDUCATIONAL, Scientific and CULTURAL Organization (UNESCO). 1969;1999. Statistical Yearbook. Paris: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.


Additional topics

Education - Free Encyclopedia Search EngineEducation Encyclopedia