Education and new challenges

Print edition : December 17, 2004

Transformative Links between Higher and Basic Education - Mapping the Field, edited by Karuna Chanana; Sage Publications; New Delhi, 2004; pages 355, Rs.650.

THAT the system of education is a pyramidal structure with primary education at the base and higher education at the top, and many other levels in between, is well known. The upward and downward links within the structure are also familiar. Thus, primary education prepares the ground for all higher levels and there is a filtered upward movement from there till the top. Similarly, higher education trains teachers for all lower levels.

But are these, and should these be, the only links within the educational system? Are there reasons to think that apart from the built-in systemic connections, there should be closer involvements between different segments in the pyramid? In particular, in the light of the social commitment to provide Education for All and to achieve a fully literate society, does higher education come to have responsibilities in addition to its conventionally accepted role?

These are the issues discussed in the volume. The papers included in it were presented at what Prof. Yash Pal, former Chairman of the University Grants Commission, describes in the foreword as a "remarkable workshop" in November 2001 in the Zakir Hussain Centre for Educational Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. The participants consisted of those involved at the grassroots level as activists and researchers into primary and mass education programmes on the one hand and university professors and educational administrators on the other.

Contributors to the volume have tried to indicate the specific roles of education at the lowest level (designated as basic education or primary education, though, strictly speaking, the two are not identical) and at the highest level and then to explore the actual and desired links between the two. Says one of the contributors (Jacob Aikara): "Basic education is considered necessary for every human being in the present day society. It consists of knowledge and skills that an individual needs in order to lead a really human life or to live with human dignity in her/his socio-economic and political environment" (page 255). Higher education, on the other hand, tends to be much more abstract, more related to the pursuit of knowledge and the principles of the application of knowledge. Consequently, it tends to be somewhat removed from the coarser realities of life, at least as they are experienced by ordinary citizens, including those engaged in higher education.

Thus, basic education and higher education appear to have different orientations; the former aims to be universalistic, meant for all, while the latter, of necessity, has to be selective. The former is related to the day-to-day tasks of individuals; the latter tends to be removed from the mundane concerns of life.

And yet, those who view education as a whole and society as a whole are eager to see that the bottom and top of the educational structure do not pull in opposite directions. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation's (UNESCO) World Declaration on Higher Education (1998), for instance, stated: "The core missions of higher education systems (to educate, to train, to undertake research in particular, to contribute to the sustainable development and improvement of society as a whole) should be preserved, reinforced and further expanded... . Moreover, higher education has acquired an unprecedented role in present day society, as a vital component of cultural, social, economic and political development and as a pillar of endogenous capacity-building, the consolidation of human rights, sustainable development, democracy and peace, in a context of justice" (quoted by Anita Dighe in her piece, page 309).

Specifically, therefore, how can universities, especially departments of education, and other institutions of higher learning be of help to primary education, non-formal education, adult education and other efforts to make Education for All a reality? There are seven case studies in this volume that deal with different attempts made by university departments, colleges, institutions for management studies and fundamental research in the sciences and some nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) to achieve this objective. These efforts are indeed commendable. There are also five contributions that reflect on the role of research and action in this area. The case studies indicate what is possible. The reflections critically evaluate the limitations of present practices and suggest how to go forward to establish transformative links between higher education and basic education. Educationists and those concerned with education will find these contributions extremely valuable.

In her introductory piece Karuna Chanana, the Editor of the volume, points out that the attempts to establish links between higher education and basic education are taking place at a time when higher education is facing a major challenge of a different kind. Globalisation and liberalisation, she points out, have placed "higher education in the market to be traded as a commodity for profit" (page 14). This attitude towards higher education poses not only a threat to the traditional notions of its role, but makes it difficult to accommodate within its functions any purposes beyond those that can be validated by the profitability calculus of the market. At the same time, the state, which, through the financing of higher education, used to remind institutions of higher learning about their societal obligations, is substantially abandoning that role. Whether under such circumstances higher education can be drawn into a deeper and more fundamental social role of establishing transforming links with basic education is problematic. Perhaps the real issue today is whether life-related basic education can make a contribution towards liberating and civilising the transformation of higher education.

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