Given that India will have a working age population of 869 million by 2020 and the fact that this was the first budget after the draft National Education Policy (NEP) of 2016, expectations were high that education would be a key priority. The outlay for education in this year's budget is ₹79,686 crores, an increase of about 10%. The Finance Minister began the education section of his budget speech with a quote from Swami Vivekananda: "The education that does not help the common mass of people to equip themselves for the struggle for life ...is it worth the name?" This gave a clear indication of a budgetary and governmental focus on skill-building and empowerment.
Quality of education
Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan's success in ensuring near universal educational access is marred by a decrease in quality. According to the ASER reports, the percentage of government school students in standard five capable of simple division has nearly halved from 41% in 2007 to a dismal 20.7% in 2014.
Less than one-third of the overall resources for education come from the Centre. Therefore, much depends on how the states allocate and implement schemes for school education.
The Finance Minister emphasised the need for ensuring quality by measuring annual learning outcomes. While there is no specific allocation, it's possible that the emphasis on learning outcomes could become a part of the Sarva Siksha Abhiyan, whose budget has increased by a 1000 crores to ₹23,500 crores. It's expected that relieving the CBSE and NCERT from conducting examinations will enable them to focus on quality and learning outcomes. Funds for student scholarships have increased significantly from ₹80 crore last year to ₹600 crore this year.
The lack of trained teachers is worrying, with over 17% of teaching positions vacant country-wide, even with employing over 5 lakh contractual teachers. Of these, only 60% have formal training. Half our rural schools have less than three teachers and less than half have regular teacher attendance. The NEP emphasises on filling vacancies, conducting regular training and recommends that teacher evaluation be strongly linked to student outcomes. The Economic Survey 2017 suggests using biometric attendance systems monitored by local committees for tracking teacher attendance. Funds for teacher training have increased from ₹830 crore to ₹925 crore this year. Further, funds can come from the teacher component of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, which is almost 60%. There is also a budget allocation of ₹125 crore for appointing language teachers.
Experimentation and innovation
The NEP notes the pressing demand for innovation in pedagogy and teaching methodology by involving local stakeholders. The budget speech mentions setting up of an innovation fund for secondary education to foster local innovation in ICT, quality improvement etc with a special focus on the 3479 educationally backward blocks. This could be designed along the lines of the Atal Innovation Mission, which gave broad guidelines and invited schools to submit proposals suited to their needs, involving parents, organisations and local firms.
National Testing Agency
Following National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET), the government was expected to standardise all examinations. The NEP recognised the burden faced by students writing multiple exams and recommended setting up a unified national examination for each stream. Towards this, the Finance Minister announced the formation of a National Testing Agency to conduct all entrances for higher-secondary institutes. A key advantage of this measure is that it relieves CBSE and other bodies from testing responsibilities thereby increasing their academic focus.
The budget gives a thrust for medical education with 5000 PG medical seats being created and two new AIIMS announced. Last year's budget gave a vision for having 20 Indian universities in the top 100 worldwide. Toward this, there has been an increase in funding for all central institutes. The budget for IITs has increased from ₹4983.71 crores last year to ₹7856 crores while funding for IIMs has gone up from ₹730 crores to ₹1030 crores. There is also a separate allocation of ₹50 crores for world-class universities.
Improving the quality of institutions seems to be a key focus area with increase of funds to premier central institutes and allocations for HEFA.
A potential game-changer approved by the cabinet last year was the formation of the Higher Education Financing Agency (HEFA) to mobilise funds from markets and corporate CSR for developing world-class infrastructure in Indian universities. HEFA will allow institutions to borrow over five times their annual income, with a repayment period of 10 years—₹25 crores has been allocated to get the project off the ground. In line with NEP recommendations that high-quality institutions must be given greater academic freedom, the budget speech noted that an outcome-based accreditation and ranking system will be developed based on which colleges would qualify for autonomy.
In an increasingly digital world, the NEP strongly pushes for ICT in schools as a central part of the teaching-learning process. At the university level, it emphasises on MOOCs to ensure that students across the country gain access to the best courses and professors. With less than 34.2 million students in higher education, MOOCS become great levellers, enabling access to education. The Finance Minister promised the launch of 350 new courses on SWAYAM, a MOOC platform where students could learn, take tests and earn academic credit. Dedicated DTH channels would be created for education, widening the reach of SWAYAM. However, the overall e-learning budget has reduced from ₹550 crores to ₹497 crores.
The current government's effort to empower the working population with skills saw the announcement of multiple measures. There is a proposal to start Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Kendras, best-in-class training centres for skill development schemes, in each of the 600 districts in the country. With the aim of supplying workforce to the rest of the world, 100 India International Skills Centres will be set up to offer advanced industrial training and courses in foreign languages. A key promise is the allocation of ₹400 crores for Skill Acquisition and Knowledge Awareness for Livelihood Promotion programme (SANKALP) to train over 3.5 crore youth. Then, ₹2000 crore has been promised for Skill Strengthening for Industrial Value Enhancement (STRIVE) to improve the quality of Industrial Training Institutes (ITIs) by strengthening apprenticeship programmes through an industry cluster approach. A scheme for generating employment in the leather and footwear industries has also been promised.
Overall, there is a strong emphasis on tertiary education. The skill-building measures introduced in the budget carry the promise of creating employment for millions. But with entire industries becoming automated, it's vital that the skills chosen are relevant a decade later.
While the budget for education does show incremental improvements, it falls short of being the much-needed game changer in the education space.
Improving the quality of institutions seems to be a key focus area with increase of funds to premier central institutes and allocations for HEFA. While there are some measures for improving education quality and innovation in pedagogy, they do not seem to do adequate justice to the pressing demands in the primary and secondary education space. A key thing to understand, though, is that education is in the Concurrent List i.e. the joint responsibility of both the Union and state governments. Less than one-third of the overall resources for education come from the Centre. Therefore, much depends on how the states allocate and implement schemes for school education.
As interventions in education take time to manifest, there is a strong need for a long-term educational framework with financial planning to ensure that consistent effort and resources are dedicated to delivering outcomes. While the budget for education does show incremental improvements, it falls short of being the much-needed game changer in the education space.