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Kerala is a state in South India and it has received a lot of attention due to its unique situation regarding development. Like most other states in India, Kerala has a high population of more than 33 million people within an area of 38,863 square kilometres. The main issue that has put the state of Kerala at the centre of controversy in recent years is the perception shared by many scholars that the region’s performance in terms of economic development is poor especially in relation to the amount of progress that the state has made in the education sector. Most developing nations around the globe use education as a means of achieving their development goals. Sceptics use this notion as the basis for their argument, which essentially suggests that application of education, as a strategy to achieve economic development, is futile. However, another group of scholars holds a contrary opinion by suggesting that despite the view that educational expansion has done little to promote growth, people should not regard Kerala’s approach to promoting development as a failure. This paper explores the viability of the latter opinion through a discussion on the failures and successes that the education system has facilitated in various sectors of development in the state of Kerala.
Most scholars recognise education as one of the main requirements for the achievement of social and economic development for any nation alongside other factors including political stability and adequate population. As such, most people expect regions with high literacy levels to experience matching levels in terms of economic development. The premise that educational progression results in economic progress is the main cause of criticism against Kerala’s development policies concerning education. Kerala has the best literacy levels in the region and one of the highest in the world with 93.9% of its population being literate. The state boasts of numerous schools offering both standard and higher education to resident of the region and some from other states in the country. Despite having such high literacy levels, the state’s economic growth is low, which raises questions concerning the viability of using educational progression as a strategy for economic development.
Arguments for and against Kerala’s approach to development
According to Szirmai (p.213, 2011), ‘education is both an end and a means to an end’. The end in this case is development. Therefore, in application, Szirmai’s statement implies that education is a goal as well as a means through which development is possible. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Freedoms interprets education as a goal by terming it as a human right. Therefore, nations across the world have to ensure that they work towards providing the right to every individual within their territories as part of their mandate. The presence of a good education system is thus in itself an indicator of both social and economic development. Proponents of Kerala’s development strategy apply this interpretation in explaining why they consider the strategy as not being a complete failure. They explain that even though the strategy has it shortcomings, other factors come into play when considering the developmental progress of any region.
Proponents of the premise that the strategy is a failure apply the human capital theory in support of their argument. According to the theory, human capital represents an investment in people with the aim of improving their value in terms of attaining development. The investment comes either in the form of money, time, or both. Education requires individuals to invest in themselves financially through the payment of tuition fees and purchase of reading materials and stationeries among other expenses. This investment involves time as individuals who choose to engage in its procurement forego a certain amount of income available to them had they chosen to join the labour market immediately after attaining the majority age. The theory also suggests that individuals who invest in education tend to earn better incomes compared to illiterate individuals joining the workforce immediately after attaining the majority age. The proponent justify such differences in income by stating that the literate workforce population has an advantage in terms of innovation, adaptability to new ideas, understanding of organisational goals and procedures, and improvement of developmental ideas in pursuit of success.
In essence, education significantly improves a state’s chances of development. Application of this theory is part of the reason why some scholars express their disappointment regarding the current economic state of Kerala. Although life expectancy in the state is higher than that of any other state in the country at seventy-four years and the mortality rate is low, the quality of life is also low, as the income level for most labourers is wanting. The quality of education matches that of developed countries yet the economic disparities between Kerala and most developed countries are significant enough to warrant attention. Additionally, the high population of educated workers would be an advantage for most other countries, as it would reduce the amount of spending that any corporation would incur in human capital in terms of training where necessary. The literacy level would thus make the labour force attractive for public and private companies resulting in high employment rates, which is not the case with Kerala.
Although the arguments above make sense, the proponents seem to focus mainly on the economic bit of the developmental fraction and exclude components such as social development and accomplishment of literacy as a human right and a national goal. For instance, Joseph Tharamangalam is one of the scholars that believe in the prominence of economic development over social development. Tharamangalam wrote an article in the journal of Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars, in which he expresses the opinion that social development without economic growth presents perils to the community and he uses Kerala as his case study. Tharamangalam (p.24, 1998) posits that Kerala’s ‘development model results in economic stagnation, which makes the situation inherent in the execution of the model’. He cites political and societal frameworks as the culprits responsible for the failure of the development model and adds that promotion of high levels of literacy does very little to change the economic outcome.
Scholars in support of Kerala’s strategy to use education as a means to an end defend their position by stating the shortcomings of assessing the situation using economic value as the only basis for assessing the success of the development strategy that Kerala chooses to apply, which uses education as the central focus in attaining development. Such scholars are keen to note the shortcomings of theories such as the human capital theory as well as presenting other theories that support their position such as the screening theory. Szirmai (p.222, 2011) posits that even though economic development is a crucial part of an overall analysis on the level of development in the region, other benefits that education presents to the residents of Kerala are hard to ignore as they also form part of the reason that the local government chose to use education as a driver to development. He notes that the successes of the education system with regard to social and political development in the region are too significant for anyone to consider the Kerala development model as a failure.
Szirmai (p.217, 2011) notes that modernisation ‘of attitudes and mentalities in society as one of the goals of education’. According to an article in the Journal of South Asian Development by John Simister regarding an assessment of Kerala’s model of education, the attitudes of the people of Kerala concerning various social issues is significantly liberal in comparison to other regions in India. The study essentially contains evaluations of twenty-six states in India, some of which focus on individual states, while others focus on groups of states according to the regions in which they belong. Some of the main developments that set Kerala apart from other states are high life expectancy, high literacy levels, and high levels of employment regarding women. Simister uses Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS) from the years 1998 and 2005 in his endeavour to determine the level of progress that each state and region displays in relation to education-related social development over the years. Simister (p.5, 2011) notes that according to the 2005 DHS, a comparison between the weight of children in twenty-six states and the level of education of wives in terms of years of education reveals that in regions where wives spent more years on education, there was a smaller percentage of underweight children.
For instance, In Kerala, where wives spent 8.96 years on education on average, the percentage of underweight children was 41% in sharp contrast to Gujarat where wives spent an average of 5.20 years in school and the percentage of underweight children was 61%. Simister (p.6, 2011) records that in Rajasthan, the percentage of underweight children was 59%, with the number of years in school for wives averaging 3.12 years while Bihar’s percentage of underweight children was as high as 71%, with wives attending school for an average of 3.65 years. Simister draws the conclusion that in Kerala, where wives spent more years in school than most other regions, most households adopted better nutritional practices. This conclusion leads to the deduction that education of women in Kerala has led to better social practices including family care and consequently better quality of life. Further analysis of these findings reveals that even though the state’s economic progression is slower than most economists would expect, the social benefits of education have an economic impact as the government spends less revenue gains on mitigation of nutrition-related issues. An interesting observation in the study is that Kerala has a lower percentage of enrolment in schools for females in the early childhood, but the percentage increases drastically as females grow as compared to other regions. Kerala has the lowest percentage in terms of enrolment of females at the age of two years in comparison to Bihar at 60% and the North at 43%. However, Simister (p.11, 2011) notes that 12% of wives indicate to have attended school from the age of fifteen years and above, while Bihar and the North indicate lower percentages at 5% and 9% respectively. The survey also indicates that gender-based violence is lower in Kerala than in the northern regions owing to higher levels of education for women. Although the statistics present little in terms of economic value, the social progression in the region is difficult to ignore, which marks part of the success of the Kerala development strategy.
Higher levels of education also contribute to knowledge and practice of civic responsibilities by individuals as residents of Kerala demonstrate. The state has the lowest homicide rates in the country standing at 1.1 per 100,000 as at 2011. Political awareness and knowledge of civic responsibilities are part of the benefits of education that ease the burden of enforcing laws for government bodies and ensure the necessary stability for economic development. Kerala’s model is thus on the right track in terms of creating favourable conditions for economic development. Although the state has taken longer to realise the economic benefits of applying education as part of its development strategy, it does not mean that the strategy is a complete failure.
Some scholars argue that although education is an essential component of economic development, it is not the only factor in play in the establishment of a healthy economy. One of the theories that support this premise is the screening theory. The screening theory presents the concept that education does not contribute to an individual’s productivity in the labour force. Szirmai (p. 219, 2013) notes that the theory further suggests that most of the skills that individuals acquire during their years in various educational institutions do not always apply in job situations. This notion explains why, in some cases, people secure jobs that bear little relation to the academic courses they study in school and thrive in their work environments. To elaborate this perspective, Szirmai (p. 215, 2013) insists that education is merely a part of a screening process that aims at testing the trainability of an individual and that the real training happens during one’s job experience. Further evaluation of the theory reveals some viability, especially with regard to the amount of time and effort that different people spend in an effort to adapt into their work environments. Different organisations also have different goals and thus varying expectations of their employees, which means that even for people with similar academic qualifications, corporations still choose individuals that best represent their interest based on multiple other factors. Some of the other factors that employers consider include the individuals’ ability to adapt to different situations, innate abilities such as endurance, and openness to ideas. Apparently, education mainly serves to cultivate values such as discipline, punctuality, and concentration. This theory serves to prove that education does not guarantee individuals entry into the labour market or creation of job opportunities for the population, and thus is not the sole cause of Kerala’s economic failures.
Some scholars present the opinion that the economic situation in Kerala is a result of several factors working in tandem with the exclusion of education. For instance, The Human Development Report for Kerala for the year 2005 presents evidence of factors that significantly affect the economic development of the state with the exclusion of education. One of the factors that the report highlights is the issue of culture. Centre for Developmental Studies Thiruvananthapuram (p.7, 2006) reveals that culture is one of the factors that hinder the success of education in furthering economic progress. Hinduism and Islam form the first and second most prominent religions in Kerala and India as a whole. Although a significant number of people in the overall population practice Christianity, its impact does not compare to that of Hinduism and Islam with relation to negation of some of the benefits of the education system. Hinduism and Islam both have specific gender roles that dictate a large majority of the cultural practices in the Kerala area. However, most gender roles often benefit the male population more than the female population regardless of the view that females form the vast majority of the population in the region and the entire country.
The religions promulgate a culture that requires women to be subservient to men. The disadvantages that come with the practice of such culture include denial of property right for women coupled with more responsibilities for women than there are for men in most households and suppression of independence that comes from the emancipation of women through education. Therefore, even though the education system and government policies support equal opportunities for all genders in the economic and social arenas, women fail to exploit their full potential, which results in a lag in economic progression. Such culture is also difficult to alter or eradicate because it forms an integral part of the society’s identity. Therefore, blaming the state’s economic lag on the education system or terming the system as a failure amounts to an error in judgment.
The education system in Kerala is not a complete failure as it presents certain benefits to the society that serve to pave the way for economic progress. Even though the pace of such progress is slow, the system is utterly necessary. Additionally, other factors sometimes work against some of the benefits that the system offers to the population. It would thus be erroneous to evaluate the success of the education system in relation to economic and social development without considering other factors that come into play.
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Centre for Developmental Studies Thiruvananthapuram 2006, Human Development Report 2005, Government of Kerala, Kerala.
Simister, J 2011, ‘Assessing the ‘Kerala Model’: Education is necessary but not sufficient’, Journal of South Asian Development, vol. 6 no.1, pp. 1-24.
Szirmai, A 2013, The Dynamics of Socio-Economic Development: An Introduction, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Tharamangalam, J 1998, ‘The perils of social development without economic growth: the development debacle of Kerala, India’, Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars, vol.30 no. 1, pp. 23-34.