The Union Budget 2021 to be presented on February 1 will be the first-ever paperless budget - a shining example of the significant uptake of digitalisation in the past year in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
For the education sector, in particular, 2019 proved to be a game-changer with online learning replacing traditional classroom teaching, providing a huge boost to education technology.
In the Union Budget 2020, the government earmarked Rs 99,300 crore for the education sector, with a renewed focus on skill-building for youth, higher education and the introduction of the New Education Policy (NEP). However, public spending on education is still 4.6 per cent of the GDP, lower than most developing nations.
Budget 2021 needs to allocate more funds towards the improvement of digital infrastructure to boost online education and bridge the digital learning divide between urban and rural youth. In addition, details on the implementation of NEP, public-private partnership, policies to incentivise ed-tech companies, as well as tax relief for the sector, are all being keenly hoped for from the upcoming Budget.
NEP and digitalisation of the education sector
The New Education Policy, announced last year, envisaged increasing government expenditure on education from 10% to 20% by 2030, with a focus on the promotion of higher education, cutting across gender, social and economic divide. The guidelines on the implementation of this inclusive policy, especially for allocation of funds to various areas like higher educational institutions, focus on K12 and STEM education and bridging the digital divide between Tier 1, 2 and 3 cities through mass-scale implementation of technology in the education sector, are keenly awaited from Budget 2021.
It is hoped that NEP will further seek to enhance blended, experiential and immersive learning through increased investment in ed-tech while boosting vocational training, non-academia education and reinforcing skill development to increase India's employability ratio.
India will be taking part in the PISA Test 2022 and will be part of the assessment for the second time after 2009, where it ranked 72 out of 73 countries. The improvement in ranking will help boost India's confidence amongst OECD members and help it showcase its goal to achieve an effective and inclusive education system, at par with global standards.
Incentivisation of ed-tech
A recent KPMG report projected that the online education market in India will reach $1.96 billion in 2021. The Union Budget 2021 should focus on improving digital infrastructure and last-mile connectivity in terms of seamless, low-cost internet and affordable hardware devices and software to enable digital learning access to a larger section of the population.
Incentivising ed-tech is crucial, given its significant role in making online education available to youth across the country, as well as various course offerings for professionals wanting to upgrade their existing skill sets.
It is expected that by 2024, upwards of 47% of learning management tools will be enabled by Artificial Intelligence (AI) capabilities. The learning management tools offered by ed-tech companies including classroom stimulation, blended learning, 3D, DIY kits, AI, experiential and immersive learning offers an unrivalled experience.
Thus, it needs to be given a boost with government funding for small, mid-sized and ed-tech startups to bring India on par with global education standards. The government also needs to facilitate collaboration between the ed-tech industry and leading educational institutions with reduced GST rates on online education and a robust knowledge protection framework.
Teacher training and digital assessments
Another key focus area of ed-tech is teacher training. NISHTHA, an initiative to train over 4.2 million teachers across the country, is yet to achieve its objective owing to a lack of educators trained in digital pedagogy. In the absence of physical classroom education due to COVID-19 pandemic, it is imperative that Budget 2021 allocates increased funds towards teacher training in digital instruction, digital assessments and online examinations to enhance the skill development capabilities at the mass level.
PPP collaboration and tax-friendly policies
The greater impetus to public-private sector collaboration in terms of infrastructural allotments; both physical as well as digital infrastructure, is vital. Moreover, funding to government-aided and private institutions for digitalisation of course curriculum is critical.
Favorable policies for higher education and technical institutions will also enable more skilling of youth. More government-funded scholarships are also critical, without differentiation between the public and private educational institutions.
Furthermore, tax relief in terms of reduction in GST for online education from 18 per cent to five per cent and subsidy on education loans for both formal and skill-based learning, will help make online education accessible to more. Tax credits should also be given to corporates for expenditure on employee online training.
Education and skill development has an integral role to play in making India 'Atmanirbhar' or self-reliant, and as COVID-19 has shown, digitalisation of the education sector is the need of the hour. Making widescale digital education a reality will also help attract FDI in the education sector, thereby enabling India to become an attractive destination for higher education at par with global standards. A timely push from the government for the education sector will bring a paradigm shift and create an inclusive and robust academic system.
(The author is Vice President, Sales & Marketing, Pearson India.)
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