In the wake of demonetisation, the country is poised for what could be a crucial transformation in many aspects. All eyes now turn towards the Government of India in anticipation of the Union Budget 2017-18. While the expectations are many and the impact of it will be important to track in every sector; 'what will the Budget hold for the education sector,' is a question we should all be asking.
Over the last 10 years or so, education policy has seen many ups and downs. While the allocations to the Department of School Education and Literacy (responsible for school education) under the Ministry of Human Resource Development saw a roughly consistent increase from 2008-09 to 2014-15, this changed from 2015-16 onwards.
FULL COVERAGE: UNION BUDGET 2017-18
This may have largely been due to the 14th Finance Commission recommendations, the impact of which was felt in the quantum of Union allocations decreasing, expecting State Budgets to make up for it; especially in the case of Centrally Sponsored Schemes like the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan.
While this may have been the case, it is unclear to what extent states have done so, and therefore highly probable that overall funds to the education sector have been cut.
Whereas the school education sector (elementary and secondary education) saw a nominal increase of 3% from revised estimates of 2014-15 (INR 42,220 crore) to budget estimate of 2015-16 (INR 43,554 crore), and a major dip before that from 2013-14 to 2014-15; higher education was better off seeing a 14% increase from revised to budget estimates of successive years (INR 25,399 core in 2014-15 to INR 28,840 crore in 2015-16).
FULL COVERAGE: RAILWAY BUDGET 2017-18
Ever since this government came to power - from President's speeches to education-related policy proposals in budget speeches etc., one great standout has been the increased focus on higher education.
In 2016-17, under the Department of Higher Education, INR 7,997 crore was intended to be spent on general higher education. Expenditure on e-learning such as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and ICT was estimated at INR 552 crore. While the funding for Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) was estimated at INR 4,984 crore in 2016-17, the funding for National Institutes of Technology (NITs) was INR 2,630 crore and for Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) INR 730 crore.
All in all, things are looking up for higher education. Moreover, the government's increased attention towards skill development and acknowledgement of the fact that education is not going to be enough in emerging areas of business and technology, without a high employability quotient, is reassuring.
However, in an absolute sense, higher education (college and university level) still lags behind elementary education, i.e., standard one to eight.
Elementary education has gone from 52% of the total education budget in 2014-15, to 48% in 2015-16 and finally, 45% in 2016-17. On the other hand, higher education went from 33% to 39% to 40%, along the same timeline. The Departmental spending on higher education has consistently increased.
There are, however, three main challenges that the Government is yet to tackle. These are what we should be keeping an eye out for in the upcoming Budget:
1. The true metric of success for higher education is not just pampering national institutes with funds. It also means building the ecosystem and providing high-quality education that prepares outgoing students for a rapidly evolving workforce. While some methodologies have been developed by the Government and private bodies alike, to measure learning outcomes/quality of school education, it is tough to do this for higher education as the success metrics are varied.
However, going by learning outcomes of schoolchildren at large: standard five students who can read a standard two level text has declined from 56.7% from 2007 to 42.2% in 2014, in government schools. The corresponding decline in private schools is from 69% to 62.5%.
In addition, the percentage of standard five students who can do division has declined from 41% in 2007 to 20.7% in 2014, in government schools. In private schools, this percentage has reduced from 49.4% to 39.3%. The situation is not looking good.
Naturally, if students are not learning at the very first rung of the ladder, it is unrealistic to expect them to even reach the last ladder of higher education, let alone excel at it. The Government should act as an enabler and allow only those institutions to thrive that strive for excellence, rather than get caught up in the pointless debate of public vs private.
2. The next issue is the lack of adequate attention being paid to secondary education (standard eight to 12). The Union Budget has always fallen short of expectations when it comes to this segment. Over the past few years, allocation to this segment has stagnated around a lowly 13-14% of the total education budget. Not only this, there is no law backing secondary education either, unlike the Right to Education Act, 2010, which makes it compulsory for the Government to provide elementary education for all.
Thus, secondary education in India is not only suffering from poor learning outcomes but also low enrolment (averaging at about 49% for the last 10 years) and high dropout rates (average of 54% over a decade, till standard 10).
3. The final but equally important issue would be the adoption of technology to enhance and support learning. Although the Government is making some advancements in this area through initiatives such as the Rashtriya Avishkar Abhiyan, a scheme targeted at students between six to 18 years of age and aimed at inculcating a scientific spirit in them through learning focused on science, math and technology; as well as ICT - digital initiatives where existing schemes will be implemented with the help of ICT such as, Swachh Vidyalaya, etc; it has a long way to go when it comes to pedagogy, quality, technology platform and other services support that can be provided to students, across all education segments.
The Government, as well as industry representatives, must begin to think about what we can do for higher education specifically as the implications for 'not' doing so are too vast and spread across negative effects on the economy, the future of our demographic dividend, working professionals and so on.
With these points in mind, we are hopeful for a big, optimistic and transformational Union Budget 2017-18.
Mayank Kumar, Co- Founder, UpGrad