The Indian education sector is diverse and has the challenges and opportunities of any developing nation. However, given the size of the population, both challenges and opportunities have massive leverage - if we get it right, we leapfrog into prosperity; if we don't, we are looking at a demographic disaster. Although India has the world's largest early childhood care programmes (ICDS), we do not have a consistent approach to pre-primary education yet. Sporadic policy making of the past years is slowly coalescing into a consistent policy in the current dispensation. With regard to primary section, the achievement in enrolment has now moved focus on to the quality of education, particularly the literacy and numeracy levels of students. The secondary and senior secondary sections are yet to improve the enrolment ratio. Although there are pockets of excellence in the country, the state of higher education and research in the country is rather dismal. We have had multiple commendable attempts at skill building, and there is some pace in the sector even though we are far from achieving our targets.
I am a great believer of the public-private partnership model. The PPP model has had a slow start and a mixed response in the education sector. There are two prominent models for collaboration - infrastructure support and outsourcing the management accompanied by expense reimbursement. Lack of long-term vision and poor planning have stymied many initiatives in which the government or the private party does not see attractive returns from the joint venture. Various consultation papers by institutions like planning commission and NCERT have discussed the issue without satisfactory consensus. The key motivation of government is increased efficiency and additional investment in infrastructure. Often there is very little incentive for for-profit private sector to invest and get low returns in primary education. However, I believe there is a sustainable solution for both parties even at the bottom of the pyramid. Quality and solvency of the private partners is a key focus area that the government should look into.
Depending on the target group (pre-primary, primary, secondary, higher secondary, higher education, professional course, skilling initiatives), PPP will need to evolve nuanced models. There is no one solution. Government's focus on quality assurance cannot falter. As for the private sector, the incentive and strategies will be different for different target groups. For example, the pre-primary segment requires comparatively less investment and has very low barrier to entry. Government should actively encourage the private sector to experiment with different models while keeping a hawk's eye on quality and child safety issues. Tax incentives for performers and penalties for laggards can ensure better quality in this sector. The school segment, quite regulated, needs better planning so that the private partners are selected for the right reasons.
In higher education financing, I think the proposed 1000 cr. government equity in HEFA is a good start. The government can also explore the option of allowing specific higher education institutes to raise money through bond issue. This would require multiple changes in universities acts and company acts, but the model has proven to be quite effective for universities like Harvard.
Another area of focus is digital education, which depends on the key building blocks like infrastructure, regulations and resources. Internet penetration in India is still very low and the quality of internet services is not always reliable. The National Optical Fibre Network initiative for linking over 200,000 gram panchayats is a great start. However, a countrywide reliable internet grid is just the starting point; we need to connect each school. NCERT has initiated the ePathshala app with freely accessible content, and we are seeing the initial roadmap of a robust content ecosystem. Moreover, we should stop looking at digital learning as optional reinforcement and empower the digital medium with appropriate certifications in the K12 space. With a regulatory validation of digital education, it will become the priority avenue of learning.
I believe that this government is greatly focused on skill building and the issues of quality. I expect empowerment of quality oversight bodies. The sheer hope of more jobs among the populace will lead to more investment in skilling missions. I also expect greater investment in technology-based content and infrastructure in line with the GOI's emphasis on Digital India. The ambitions of Make in India would see greater Industry-Academia collaborations in case of high-end research. A combination of fiscal consolidation and the expectation of a post-demonetization fiscal stimulus in infrastructure will lead to a moderate jump in education spending. Overall, I believe the education sector will see targeted spending to achieve measurable goals of access, quality, employability and excellence.