‘Social Returns’ or economic returns to the family or society against the investment made in a child/person’s education have become an important measure to assess effectiveness of education. And this is where the catch lies. Social significance attached to particular sex, class, caste, region (or location), etc influence the understanding of ‘who’ can bring higher Social Returns from education. This influence is critical, of utmost significance, as it is this understanding that makes a father or mother or the family determine who will receive education, who will receive what education, and who will receive education where. This understanding also influences social decision about which education will get prioritised and demanded and since society is a whole only conceptually, only those who hold power in a society get heard. The understanding also shapes the strategies of the institutions – governments, academic or otherwise who are capable of investing in education – as to who will constitute their ‘clientele’, what kind of education they would offer to whom, in which location they would offer the services and on what terms. Supposedly poor socio-economic worth of women, the supposedly lower castes and certain classes, forest dwelling communities or those living in remote areas where any form of economic development will require very high investment and would have a much longer gestation period, etc become disincentive to investment in their education by the families, institutions and governments.
Different types of education - primary, secondary, technical, higher education, etc – also pose different gendered challenges. The challenges that each type throws up require different responses. The situation is further complicated by the fact that although some problems cut across geographical barriers, education is a “State” subject in India and each state government has different legislations that affect education differently. The role of the family and society in making the changes in the state is of paramount but so is the orientation with which the party in governance comes to govern the state. For example in Kerala, higher level of literacy has been possible because of the communist elected government which forcibly introduced land and education reforms. But there has been a set back in the quality of education in Kerala in the recent years because the same government did not attempt to influence social traditions or practices and limited itself to reform as far as economics goes. This doesn’t meant that there have been no social change and reform processes going on. There have been but these have been led separately by individuals and groups who are concerned about gender inequality issues and caste issues. The poor synergy between the two or the state’s inability to go beyond economics contributed to what has been otherwise a smooth growth in literacy. Having said this, the fact that the communist government created a space to address these issues, which is visibly absent in other states, including the current day communist state West Bengal, made it possible for the individuals and groups to create a demand and desire for change.
The ‘Social Returns’ perspective needs to be continuously critiqued for its top-down approach as well as for being divorced from the socio-cultural analysis. It will benefit immensely by aligning itself with the social change and reform agenda and with the demand for reform in gender relations or the social allocation of roles and responsibilities to women and men and girls and boys in relation to each other and in the public space. Without this alignment, the claims made by institutions and governments that education will address and find responses to social issues will just remain a rhetoric without any value. Education cannot be looked at in isolation and it will bring ‘Social Returns’ for all only if we recognize and consciously work on the gender, class, caste, regional (or locational) and religious dynamics within families, societies and cultures.