Comparative Education in South Asia: Contribution, Contestation and Possibilities
Education in South Asia
South Asia has a population of over 1.7 billion living in nations with unique trajectories of development. Countries in this region are grappling with processes of economic change and widening inequity; negotiating cross-border and domestic conflict, and the politics of cultural revivalism and patriarchy threatening a democratic social order. Some of the key challenges facing most countries of South Asia include deep poverty, increasing social and gender inequality, malnutrition, high maternal and infant mortality; regional and social disparities on almost all indicators of health and education. South Asia has some of the worst human development outcomes of the poorest population quintile in the world. Even the best performing countries such as Bhutan, Maldives and Sri Lanka have human opportunity indices that are smaller than in other inequitable countries such as Brazil and South Africa.
Inequality in educational attainment in the region of South Asia is large. While Maldives and Sri Lanka have the lowest gap in educational attainment, Nepal, Afghanistan and Pakistan have large gaps. A crucial reason for this is low investment in education. Bangladesh invests 2.2 percent of its GDP on education; India, 3.3 percent; Pakistan, 2.4 and Sri Lanka, 2 percent. This investment is unevenly distributed: the poorest 40 percent of the population in Bangladesh received 50 percent of public primary spending in 2010; while the richest 40 percent received 80 percent of public spending directed to tertiary education. This trend is true for Pakistan and India (World Bank cited in Rama, 2014, p. 20).
Barring Sri Lanka and Maldives where literacy rates are 93 and 99 percent respectively, literacy rates in other South Asian countries range from as low as 38 percent in Afghanistan to 72 percent in India. All countries of South Asia recognise education as a fundamental right. Sri Lanka declared education as a fundamental right in 1945, three years before independence; Bangladesh in 1993; Nepal declared it in its Constitution of 1990 and via the seventh amendment in 2001; India in 2009 and Pakistan the following year.
Despite South Asia’s commitment to children’s right to free and compulsory basic education, several disparities within each country create conditions of inequity, in and through education. Rapid economic growth in South Asia for instance, did not lead to significant increase in per student expenditure (Rama, 2014, p. 115). India's public spending per student on primary education is the lowest in all countries especially for the lowest quintile. South Asia’s 10 million of the total of 33 million children of 5 to 14 years and 27 million lower secondary school age children are out of school. Afghanistan, India, Bangladesh and Pakistan have the highest number of out-of-school children (UIS, 2012). One of the most critical educational challenges of the region of South Asia includes the need for about 15 million new teachers to universalize primary and secondary education by 2030. The largest gaps are in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan (UNESCO, 2016). Barring Sri Lanka and Maldives, all countries in the region have low achievement levels in mathematics, reading and language. Quality of education is the most significant concern, as levels of learning continue to either remain stagnant at low levels or have declined further, especially in rural schools of the region (ASER, 2015, 2017; UNESCO, 2015).
Comparative research in South Asia could therefore provide us with important insights on country innovations and reforms; their relationship with comparative education processes and the discourse in high income countries of Europe and North America.
The Trajectory of Comparative Education
Origins of comparative education (CE) lie in 19th century France with Marc-Antoine Jullien’s seminal work (1817). Beginning with Europe and USA, CE spread to other parts of the world. Along with a focus on the ‘science of comparative education’ established by Jullien, philosophical and socio-historical thinking too influenced research and intellectual debate. The contributions of Sadler (1900) and Kandel (1933 led to examine educational phenomena within larger socio-political contexts, tempering the positivist influence of Jullien and bringing epistemological issues at the heart of methodological debates in comparative educational research (Zachariah, 1990). A more recent post-colonial reading of comparative and international education however, describes Kandel’s contribution as committed to a colonial worldview, critiquing his assertion that ‘policy borrowing’ is the way to lift newly independent countries “from their almost primitive level to the civilization of the twentieth century” (Takayama et. al, 2016, p. 10).
Comparative education scholarship can be broadly categorised into that which engages with theoretical and methodological questions in search for universal patterns to advance a ‘science’ of education; and that which is directed towards improving the policy and practice of education in developing countries. Decolonization of the 1950s and 1960s brought a broader focus in the field of comparative education, but its emphasis remained on developed countries. Over the years CE got majorly associated with concerns of education from an international perspective, largely in advanced societies; and issues related to policy, planning and practical ways of improving the education systems of developing countries became the focus of international education (IE) (Watson, 2012). Three sets of arguments provide insight into this distinction: (a) the first is embedded in the relationship between the colony and the colonized; (b) the second foregrounds the geo-political roots of comparative education research; (c) the third, highlights the changing direction of comparative education as a field of inquiry.
Engagement with constructs of neo-colonialism and educational dependency (Altbach & Kelly, 1978; Carnoy, 1974; Hayter, 1971; Watson, 1984) led to a gradual merging of CE and IE leading to an overarching field called ‘comparative and international education’ (CIE) (Watson, 2012). This contributed to major changes in the direction of comparative education as a field of inquiry. The subsequent decades saw the field broaden in its geographical scope, with a greater emphasis on less developed countries. Little (2003) argues that the need to better understand the relationship between education and ‘development’ led to a proactive seeking of contributions from a wide range of developing countries. This was supported by comparativists in the US working on modernization. Comparative education, seen as integral to the modernity project, also influenced the European educational space (Silova & Brehm, 2010). Prompted to be sensitive to the diversity of educational and socio-political contexts, comparative education scholars also had the collective challenge of enfolding comparisons of the local, national, regional, international and the global (Batra, 2017).
The convergence of CE and IE argues Watson (2012), led to a variety of comparative education activity, including advocacy by international consultancies and global networks. In the absence of definitive parameters and scope for comparative and international education (CIE) and its strong inclination towards coloniality (Takayama et. al, 2016), the idea that CIE can embrace any education activity received impetus. Institutional weaknesses of CIE as a field of inquiry including lack of disciplinary boundaries led to an appropriation of research agendas by sponsors in an increasingly globalized economy. At this juncture, comparative education faced the challenge of preserving a critical academic orientation and responding to challenges thrown by forces of globalization.
One of the key challenge was the imposition of neoliberal reforms in education as a consequence of global forces that also strengthened the ‘modernist’ view of comparative education with its ‘denial’ of coloniality. In this process the colonial narrative was in effect, re-created in most South Asian countries. According to Waldow (2012), cross-national support for PISA has been the turning point for the field of comparative education; giving politicians the legitimacy to push reforms in their countries (Cowen, 2014). ‘The perceived objectivity of the hard sciences’ gave policy makers the legitimacy to make educational interventions, projected as evidence-based and non-ideological (Ozga & Jones, 2006). The ‘modern’ variant of ‘applied’ comparative education is thus promoted by a network of academics, think tanks, consultancies who act as intermediaries to identify and advocate ‘best practices’. The complex network of organisations and a transnational community of experts, referred to as ‘epistemic community’ by Haas (1992) is now a ‘global education policy community’ according to Ball (2017). These exert tremendous influence and authority in local and regional settings of diverse societies.
The Political Economy of Educational Reform in South Asia
There is little doubt that the task of comparing foreign systems of education is now dominated by transnational agencies, policy entrepreneurs and policy makers. Cross-national comparisons of pupil performance are central to policy debates and comparative ‘evidence’ is being used to initiate, legitimise patterns of ‘borrowing’ and ‘lending’ around the world (Beech, 2009; Takayama, 2009; Rappleye, 2012; Soudien, 2011). Despite a focus on context sensitivity in critical scholarship; comparisons based on hard statistical indicators are seen as valid by governments of the developed and the developing world. The ‘text’ of comparative education is being written in reference to the discourse of several multi-lateral and bilateral agencies, such as UN agencies and the World Bank. This ‘text’ frames the policy narratives within the countries of South Asia and much of the global South.
Embedded in a neo-liberal frame, education reform in South Asia views education as critical for economic development and to some extent social well-being. The idea of social well-being as critical to indices of development, gained prominence with the work of Mehbub ul Haq (1995); and Sen (1992) who foregrounded the idea that economic disadvantage is also social disadvantage. This was the discourse of education at the beginning of the economic liberalization era in the region of South Asia. However, Education for All (EFA) programmes in South Asian countries focused on reform measures aligned with neoliberal agendas. Cash transfers and voucher systems, school choice, teachers on contract, linking teacher performance with pay, partnering with private organisations and measuring learning outcomes were instituted in the name of ensuring quality. A series of commissioned studies constructed a discourse that legitimized many suggested reforms (Dahal & Nguyen, 2014). This led to the mushrooming of private non-state sector engagement in South Asia, with about one-third of children from 6 to 18 years of age attending private schools in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Nepal (World Bank, 2017). The low castes, muslims, girls and the poorest are however, left out of even the low fee paying private schools (Ha¨rma¨, 2009).
It is important to examine education reform in South Asia through two interconnected lens: (i) the nature and design of reform as emanating from a ‘human capital’ approach and shaping the role of education towards this aim; and (ii) the trajectory and process of reform as informed, directed and shaped by a process of internationalisation gaining legitimacy through comparative research and thinking.
Today, several governments across South Asia are being advised by committees comprising of corporate agencies and international edupreneurs; using commissioned research. Sustained interaction with policy makers through educational research led by international agencies opened up several spaces for policy transfer. In the absence of robust institutions for educational research in many South Asian countries, non-state actors tend to have, as argued by Keck and Sikkink (1998), a considerable agenda-setting influence, especially when they work on behalf of global advocacy networks.
Through a case study of the Indian education reform movement, Ball (2017) uncovers how a discursive ensemble is constructed around a set of arguments, assertions, and assumptions in relation to the state and its alternative. Taking the failures of the state as its starting point, the ensemble projects a state of crisis in education, thereby creating a rationale for the processes of reform of education. Neo-liberal imaginaries are disseminated, legitimized and reassembled in relation to and as part of a global education policy community (Ball, 2017, p. 30). Taking a few examples of educational reforms in India, the section below presents the structural impact of these reforms.
Educational Reforms in India: Undermining Public Institutions and Processes
Educational reforms in India were initiated in the early-1990s via World Bank funded District Primary Education Programme (DPEP). The teacher was made the object of reform, with little or no effort to examine whether strategic interventions in the curriculum and pedagogy of preparing teachers at the pre-service stage could have been a way forward. In a decade of reforms the school system was inundated with cadres of ‘para-teachers’ and learning achievement levels showed little improvement. Commissioned studies put the blame on teachers leading to an anti-teacher discourse that dominated policy thinking, plummeting public opinion about teachers to an all-time low.
Yet, research sponsored by international agencies presented ‘evidence-based’ arguments that ‘para teachers’ (with a remuneration of less than one-third of teacher salaries) were showing better learning outcomes among children in primary schools than regular teachers. This argument received support from domestic and overseas economists (Mehrotra & Buckland, 2001; Mehrotra, 2006) who had been questioning the need to continue state investment in a system that was showing clear signs of decay. Short-sighted bureaucratic solutions of developing blueprints of what should be transacted in classrooms, and providing quick-fix solutions and short-term alternative certification programmes for teachers began to be seen as answers to the growing problem of underperformance in schools. In this frame, educational research largely driven by policy, discounts learning environments as valid sites of enquiry. Questions arising from attempts to develop a nuanced discourse on curriculum and pedagogic approaches remained marginal to the discourse of reform; failing to attract the attention of comparative researchers as well. In the absence of concerted research on realities of educational practice, scholars attributed ‘implementation failures’ of reforms to ‘low state capacity, poor administration, poor delivery system, poor community information and corruption/leakages’ (Kingdon et al, 2014, P. 55).
Donor-led reforms undermined state institutions, established for the purpose of universalising elementary education in India. Parallel structures were set up to co-ordinate and monitor the DPEP programme at the state and district level. Not only did this lead to poorly designed structural systems that promoted a culture of role ambiguity and lack of accountability; it facilitated the path of state withdrawal. District Institutes of Education and Training (DIETs) established in the early 1990s continue to languish due to lack of state ownership, since their deliberate marginalisation in the first phase of reforms during the DPEP.
With international and national pressures of achieving high enrolment and literacy rates in short periods of time, the bureaucracy relied heavily on ‘economically viable’ but ‘sub-optimal’ options, thus compromising quality. Private players stepped in to meet the demand for quality education, resulting in an indiscriminate mushrooming of unregulated private schools as well as teacher education institutions. Currently, about 95 percent of India’s teacher education institutes are private; while over 80 percent of elementary level school children attend state schools. It is indeed a paradox that the share of India’s state schools has dropped considerably since the implementation of the Right to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act in 2009. This is accompanied by the indiscriminate mushrooming of low fee-paying private schools that fail to qualify the norms stipulated by the RTE Act.
The provisioning of quality education as advocated in international reports and comparative education literature is often seen in isolation of the social ethos of the school and the learning environments it provides. Seen as politically driven, reforms justify the intervention of vigilant, strong outsiders (bilateral agencies) who are ‘committed to reform and who are not embedded in a country’s vested interests’ (Kingdon et al, 2014). This argument belies the critical voice within comparative education that perseveres to counter “western epistemic dominance…embedded in the current understandings of internationalization” (Stein cited in Takayama et al., 2016). It also belies the voice of the national academia, grounded in the educational realities of a languishing state system.
Intervention by international agencies are seen as ‘windows of opportunity’, that advocate mechanisms around student assessments and performance-based evaluations of teachers. Neither of these is designed to ‘problematise’ the context and nature of educational process; and build upon evidences gathered to develop and support processes of teaching and learning. With international pressures re-orienting domestic policy towards privatisation of school education, India today has a diluted RTE Act with critical amendments that have succeeded in repositioning the Act from being a fundamental ‘right to education’ to a mere ‘right to learning’. The educational discourse promoted internationally created a ‘domestic-foreign dichotomy’, locating the system’s perceived failure with practices and structures within the home context, thereby strengthening the imperative for policy transfer (Stone, 2004).
Reflections on SriLanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh
The Sri Lankan education system since independence in 1948 has been widely acknowledged as a success story compared to other developing countries. Despite its success story of achieving universalisation and high levels of education, most comparative scholarship attributes economic inefficiency; and secessionist conflict to government policy of not promoting the private sector in education. Countering this, Little (2003) argues that advocacies derived from external agencies with financial aid, often set agendas not in consonance with national interests. Aspects more critical to Sri Lanka’s education, such as engaging with ethnic conflict and the social exclusion of groups from mainstream processes of development fall outside the frame of EFA. Little (2003, p. 86) therefore raises a legitimate question: “Why (was) Sri Lanka's voice silent at Dakar (2000), as was of many countries striving ways to bring national policies in line with EFA goals”?
Educational reforms in Pakistan started with international donor aid for standalone projects (pre-Jomtein) as in India and Bangladesh. One of the key consequences of reforms in Pakistan is the exponential growth in the number of private schools since 1993. Yet, Pakistan continues to face the challenge of low learning levels even in private schools (Dundar, 2014). Scholars have attributed this to the problem of language of instruction followed by the Pakistan education system. Urdu continues to be the medium of instruction in all state schools, despite the fact that 92 percent of the people of Pakistan speak mother tongues not used in formal education (Pinnock, 2009). The adoption of Urdu as a national language and as the language of instruction in state schools has been a source of alienation and ethnic resistance (Rahman, 2004); and increased stratification of Pakistani society (Naviwala, 2016). Despite several years of military regimes, Pakistan struggles to maintain democracy via a purposeful education in a society confronted with social and ethnic conflict. Clearly, the educational reforms agenda, set via a proactive international community is not grounded in the pressing issues of linguistic diversity and the challenges of social cohesion in Pakistan; augmented by the commitment of state funds to privileged children of English medium schools, often referred to as a situation of ‘educational apartheid’ (Rahman, 2004).
Educational expansion in Bangladesh began with a democratically elected government in 1991 after a gap of two decades. Despite initial slow progress Bangladesh attained a net primary school enrolment rate of 90 percent by 2010. However, the share of private school enrolment in Bangladesh is the highest in South Asia; followed by Pakistan and India. Therefore, despite phenomenal educational expansion; student enrolment is much lower for the poor at the secondary and tertiary levels. The medium of education distinguishes the economically advantaged English speaking urban population from the under-educated and economically distressed rural population. “School exclusion in Bangladesh has become a new route to social exclusion through its denial of economic opportunity, social and political participation and the basic tools for citizen engagement with the state” (Hossain cited in Hossain, 2010, p. 1274).
The discourse of internationalisation is in dissonance with critical voice on language and social exclusion, emerging within Bangladesh. Succumbing to the international pressures of privatizing schooling has led to an education system that divides a society, otherwise unified by language and religion.
Ineffective Reforms and the ‘Text’ of Comparative Education
The ‘text’ of comparative education rooted in processes of internationalization gave fillip to neoliberal reforms in South Asian countries. Critical voices from the South have been raising concerns about large scale testing, standardization of curriculum, private schooling for the poor and schools as sites of business, advocated by large global networks emanating from the developed world (Nambissan and Ball, 2011); questioning the relevance and appropriateness of ideas that have shaped these reforms (Soudien, 2011).
Post-EFA, several countries are faced with the challenge of ineffective reforms manifest in increasing rates of school failure and poor learning outcomes. As non-state actors redefine the educational space, narrow conceptions of quality emerge, leading to major policy shifts away from a national imaginary of quality universal access to education. In India, despite a national curricular discourse that created space for integrating local knowledges, stressing the role of the teacher in processes of re-contextualisation; schools across the country are swarmed with unimaginative and alienating measures of reform.
‘Policy borrowing’ from developed countries pursuing the agenda of internationalization of education, has sought to ‘standardise’ school education, foregrounding ‘governance’ of education rather than curriculum, pedagogy and teacher professional development. With the rise of cultural nationalism in the region, convergence between forces of globalisation and obscurantism threaten to capture the educational space in South Asia.
Even as policy enforcement through technology-driven measures of accountability turns the trajectory of educational practice in several South Asian countries, the challenge before us is to re-position knowledge as the fulcrum of educational and social change. This is the more difficult task, as the marginalisation of knowledge has characterised the educational project in South Asia, since colonial times. The marginalisation of knowledge and alienation of the teacher from her work over the past few decades, have fundamentally altered the universal ethos of schooling and the egalitarian purposes of education in South Asia. Comparativists may do well by exploring the post-colonial dynamics in the region especially in the light of an imposed ‘modernist’ view of comparative education that denies ‘coloniality’.
Engaging with the Post-colonial
The neo-liberal agenda of education foisted upon societies of the South are designed to fulfill individual aims and self-interest defined in narrow economic terms. This is in strong contrast to the agenda of the subaltern in South Asian societies - Dalits and minorities in India and Nepal; tribal and indigenous groups across India, Pakistan and Bangladesh; women, minorities, migrant labour and populations that seek refuge for mere survival. There is much to learn from the socio-historic practices and discourses of their struggle, resistance and political action. Questioning the transfer of educational policies and practices to developing societies, Lumumba (2016) urges that “new transformative relational theories and methodologies of understanding education in formerly colonized societies” need to be the focus of comparative education. Decolonised narratives highlight that importation of educational concepts and policy orientations have often led to the dismantling of existing structures and processes of education - uprooting the existing while unable to root the ‘new’, leaving the educational space depleted.
The tension between comparative thinking that sets the agenda for ‘internationalizing’ education; and perspectives which disrupt this discourse with insights from decolonized and subaltern knowledges, is evident. There is a strong need to articulate a critical perspective that can shape the trajectories of policy and practice, research and theorization, within the field of comparative education in South Asia, and the global south.
The international education project embedded in coloniality, has evoked sharp reactions in several South Asian societies, leading to inward looking ideas of identity and nationalism; foregrounding ‘indigenous’ thinking without critical reflection; thus undermining diversity. The educational agenda set by reforms has created a further wedge, between the needs of society and policy formulation. The South Asian context is markedly different from a western context that the ‘comparative education project’, seeks to transfer educational reform to. The sheer scale and diversity of populations within the region poses formidable challenges and opportunities for contextual innovation. Instead of learning from decolonized and subaltern knowledges, what we see is a disruption of diverse post-colonial processes via a reform policy transfer - constructed in decontextualized abstraction, rationalized by a target driven universal agenda.
Building a Social Justice Framework for Comparative Education
A minimalist education agenda set by neo-liberal reforms is unlikely to develop people’s capabilities enabling them to alter their quality of life. The need to go beyond the human capital approach in the last decade has emphasised building a social justice framework for policy with an emphasis on quality and the importance of context (Tikly and Barrett, 2011). Questions of curriculum, linguistic and social diversity in classrooms, locating learning in social-cultural contexts and developing teachers’ professional repertoires and agency in bringing about social transformation are specific to each South Asian country and are deeply related to their efforts at deepening democracy.
To respond honestly to this, comparative educators will need to remove the ‘epistemological veil’ by engaging with the multiple realities that characterize diverse and often contested societies of South Asia. The construction of national imaginaries in the diverse societies of South Asia can provide new discourses to educational reform; going beyond the abstract goals set by disconnected international experts and the institutional processes they represent.
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 Jullien’s Plan for Comparative Education 1816–1817. See Fraser (1964).
 The term para-teachers has been used to refer to poorly paid and poorly trained teachers on contract, increasingly being recruited in place of regular teachers in India since the mid-1990s.
 Each state created a ‘registered (implementation) society’ that was led by a ‘state project director’ along with a team of subordinate staff to implement DPEP. This structural arrangement was created in parallel to existing State Departments of Education, and had exclusive powers to implement DPEP and later SSA.
 Established as district level institutions, post-national policy of education 1986, DIETs have the mandate of pre-service and in-service preparation of elementary school teachers.
 Source: Government of India (GoI) (2017). Three Year Action Agenda: 2017-18 TO 2019-20. NITI Aayog: New Delhi
 This refers to the World Education Forum held in Dakar, Senegal on 26-28 April in 2000.
 This refers to the National Curriculum Framework (NCF), 2005 and school textbooks that were designed based on the NCF.
This paper was presented at the WCCES Congress on Future of Education, held on 20-24 May, 2019 at Cancun, Mexico and is a shorter version of the chapter: Batra, P. (forthcoming). Comparative Education in South Asia: Contribution, Contestation and Possibilities, in C. C. Wolhuter & A. W. Wiseman (Eds)., Comparative and International Education: Survey of an Infinite Field. Bingley, UK: Emerald Publishing Limited.