This article was originally published in HuffPost India and Business Today.
As all eyes now turn towards the Government of India in anticipation of the Union Budget 2017-18, one of the questions we should all be asking is, what will it hold for the education sector?
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 under the Ministry of Human Resource Development saw a roughly consistent increase from 2008-09 to 2014-15, this changed from 2015-16 onward. 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, with the expectation that state budgets would 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.
The true metric of success for higher education is not just showering national institutes with funds. It also means building the ecosystem…
While the school education sector (elementary and secondary education) saw a nominal increase of 3% from revised estimates of 2014-15 (₹42,220 crore) to budget estimate of 2015-16 (₹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 (₹25,399 core in 2014-15 to ₹28,840 crore in 2015-16). Ever since this government came to power, one great standout has been the increased focus on higher education.
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In 2016-17, under the Department of Higher Education, ₹7997 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 ₹552 crore. While the funding for Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) was estimated at ₹4984 crore in 2016-17, the funding for National Institutes of Technology (NITs) was ₹2630 crore and for Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) ₹730 crore. The funds allocated to the Rashtriya Uchchtar Shiksha Abhiyan went up by 13% this year, from the 2015-16 budget allocation.
All in all, things are looking up for higher education. Moreover, the government’s increased attention towards skill development and its acknowledgement that education is not going to be enough 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.
Image source: Rediff
Now, there are 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. Enhance the quality of primary education
The true metric of success for higher education is not just showering 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 to measure learning outcomes/quality of school education, it is tough to do this for higher education as the success metrics are varied.
If students are not learning at the very first rung of the ladder, it is unrealistic to expect them to even reach the last rung of higher education…
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.
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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 rung 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. Bring focus back to secondary education
The next issue is the lack of adequate attention being paid to secondary education (standard 8 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 enrollment (averaging at about 49% for the last 10 years) and high dropout rates (average of 54% over a decade, till standard 10).
Image source: William and Mary School of Education
3. Promote technology for learning
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) as well as 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.
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The government, as well as industry representatives, must begin to think about what we can do for higher education— the implications for not doing so would be dire for our economy and the future of our demographic dividend.
With these points in mind, we are hopeful for a big, optimistic and transformational Union Budget 2017-18.
– This post was co-authored by Apoorva Shankar.
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