Much like the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government’s Budgets, Union Budget 2016-17 has failed to address the concerns of the education sector. According to experts, the slew of new announcements Finance Minister Arun Jaitley made in the Budget yet again focusses on vocational training and not on the systemic issues that plague the education system. Vocational training has been one of the priorities of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government to complement Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Skill India and Make in India campaigns, and much of the allocations in the last two Budgets have given primacy to this aspect. While vocational training of youth may be an important socio-economic need, the sole focus on it can at best be described as a cosmetic step to address the structural problems that the education system faces at present.
A sluggish growth in literacy rates, inadequate infrastructure, shortage of teaching staff and schools and colleges, and limited access to education in rural areas are some of the problems that need immediate attention, education experts say. Since the Indian Education Commission, popularly known as the Kothari Commission, of 1966, many government committees have stressed the need to allocate at least 6 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP) to education. However, successive governments in the past two decades have chosen to decrease public spending on education in their bid to control fiscal deficit. This has led to further qualitative and quantitative deprivation of the education system. To offset this, the governments have been trying to privatise the system gradually, at the cost of alienating a large majority of the people from education.
The need of the hour is to strengthen the public education system, with the focus on making quality education accessible to the majority of the people. Experts feel that at a time when the basic structure of the education system—right from the primary school to the higher education level—needs a significant budgetary push, the sole focus on vocational training seems more like an apology for a Budget.
In his Budget speech, Jaitley said that his focus would be on improving the quality of education. However, the announcements centred on skill development. He made four important announcements. One, he said that entrepreneurship education and training would be provided in 2,200 colleges, 300 schools, 500 government industrial training institutes (ITIs) and 50 vocational training centres through online courses. In addition, he said 10 public and private educational institutes would be made world class. Two, he proposed a Higher Education Financial Agency with a capital base of Rs.1,000 crore to leverage funds from the market and supplement them with donations and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) funds. Three, he allocated Rs.1,700 crore for multi-skill development centres with an objective to skill one crore youth in the next three years under the Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana. Four, he proposed 62 new Navodaya Vidyalayas, the only announcement that seemed to focus on his claim of promoting quality education.
Clearly, the focus on entrepreneurship shows the government’s intentions to be seen as business-friendly. “Skill development is fine. But we must remember that the vast majority of Indian people are outside the purview of any education. The Budget does not refer to the problem of access at all. The government is looking to provide cheap labour for corporates through our educational institutes. It does not seem to be thinking about how more and more people should be able to get education. The number of schools is alarmingly low for a country like India. The teacher-pupil ratio in government schools is abysmal. The Bharatiya Janata Party promised to implement the Kothari Commission recommendations in its manifesto. But it has looked far away from that direction. This year’s Budget too looks like a case of misplaced priorities,” said Ambarish Rai, the national convener of the Right to Education Forum, a civil society collective comprising more than 10,000 organisations.
To top it all, the Union government’s expenditure on education as percentage of the GDP has come down constantly. From 3.8 per cent (Revised Estimates, or R.E.) in 2015-16, it has come down to 3.7 per cent (Budget Estimates or B.E.) this year. In terms of expenditure as percentage of the Budget, the share of education has reduced from an already low 0.5 per cent (R.E.) in 2015-16 to 0.48 per cent (B.E.) this year.
In terms of actual figures, the expenditure on education has increased slightly from Rs.67,586 crore (R.E.) in 2015-16 to Rs.72,394 crore (B.E.) this year if we take into account the expenditure on both school and higher education. However, this increase is negligible if inflationary pressures and the programmes introduced by the government this year are taken into account. In any case, the expenditure is a gross underestimation, if the Kothari Commission recommendations are considered.
How the system works
A cursory understanding of how the Indian education system works is necessary to know what the fallout of such low public spending on education will be. The bulk of the budgetary expenditure is allocated by the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) to three heads—Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), which takes care of education for children from six to 14 years; Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan (RMSA) for junior and higher secondary education; and Rashtriya Uchchatar Shiksha Abhiyan (RUSA) for all higher education. These are the flagship programmes to fund all levels of education. Of the three, the SSA, the main arm to implement the Right to Education (RTE) Act, gets the maximum allocation as its scale is much larger in terms of basic literacy. the SSA has been affected the most by the reduced expenditure. In 2014-15, the UPA government allocated Rs.24,097 crore for the SSA, a meagre amount by any estimate given the scale of its operations. The NDA government reduced this amount to Rs.22,015 crore (R.E.) in 2015-16. This year it has increased the SSA’s allocation to Rs.22,500 crore, a 2.2 per cent increase over last year but grossly insufficient by all standards. The NDA government has substantially reduced the expenditure on the midday meal scheme, which complements the SSA, from Rs.10,523 crore in 2014-15 to Rs.9,236 crore in 2015-16 and Rs.9,700 crore this year.
The overall allocation for the Department of Higher Education is Rs.28,840 crore, up from Rs.25,399 crore last year. The RMSA’s budgetary expenditure has increased from Rs.3,398 crore in 2014-15 to Rs.3,700 crore this year. In 2015-16, it was Rs.3,565 crore. The RUSA’s expenditure is up from Rs.417 crore in 2014-15 to Rs.1,300 crore this year. In 2015-16, it was Rs.1,055 crore (R.E.). The RUSA was created in 2013 to provide strategic funding to higher educational institutions if they met certain conditions. But experts and academics believe that this increase can be attributed to the NDA government’s focus on skill development and setting up technical institutes.
UGC budget cut by 55 per cent
They believe that strengthening institutions like the RUSA, which advocate privatised education, naturally amounts to a condition where the state can withdraw gradually from funding higher education. The signs of such a trend are evident in this year’s Budget. The traditional administrative bodies for higher education, such as the University Grants Commission (UGC), have got a much smaller part of the pie than in the previous Budgets. The budget for the UGC, which is the governing body for all Central universities, has been cut by almost 55 per cent. It will now get Rs.4,286.94 crore, down from Rs.9,315.45 crore in 2015-16. The proposal to set up a Higher Education Financing Agency, which is supposed to generate funds from the market, under the RUSA clearly indicates that the government plans to depend more on market capital instead of increasing public spending on universities. Despite a slight increase in the expenditure in higher education, all estimates count it as only marginal and insufficient to address the infrastructural and other more basic issues of higher education.
The reduced expenditure in the SSA will directly impact the implementation of the RTE. When the RTE was implemented in 2009, the MHRD estimated the need for Rs.45,000 crore every year for the next 10 years to implement the Act. The National University of Educational Planning and Administration under the MHRD estimated some Rs.75,000 crore to implement it. The implementation of the RTE, therefore, has suffered because of the declining public spending on education. According to the government’s own data, only 8 per cent of the schools comply with all the infrastructural norms mentioned under the RTE Act. And 8.3 per cent of the schools have a single teacher. Census 2011 shows that around 4.3 crore children of the 6-14 age group are still out of school; they constitute 18 per cent of the total 6-14 age group children.
When the RTE Act was introduced, the UPA government set itself two deadlines. One, to fulfil all infrastructural norms mentioned under the RTE by 2013. Some of these infrastructural requirements are as basic as having a permanent classroom structure, a boundary wall, separate toilets, drinking water facilities, and so on. Two, all contractual teachers had to be trained and regularised by 2015, after which no teacher could be recruited as a contract worker.
Both UPA and NDA governments have missed the deadlines. As of now, with the low budgetary allocations, it may take years to fulfil the norms of RTE. “There are only 1.4 million primary and secondary schools in India. In these, almost 9.4 lakh existing positions for schoolteachers—5.86 lakh in primary schools and 3.5 lakh in upper primary schools—are lying vacant. As a result, the teacher-pupil ratio in schools is appalling. The dropout rate from primary to secondary school is huge because there aren’t enough secondary schools. There should be at least 20 times more secondary schools to accommodate children passing out of the existing primary schools,” said Ambarish Rai.
The spending on training teachers has also been declining, especially under the NDA government. The expenditure on Teachers’ Training and Saakshar Bharat (TTSB) has come down from Rs.1,158 crore in 2014-15 to Rs.879 crore in 2016-17, out of which only Rs.510 crore has been allocated to teachers’ training. The expenditure on TTSB was Rs.1,203 crore (R.E.) in 2015-16. According to the RTE status report published by the MHRD, approximately 83 per cent of teachers have professional qualifications. And about 6.3 lakh teachers are unqualified.
“In such a scenario, private teachers’ training institutes have flourished, where the quality is really poor. In many places, people bribe the institutes to buy degrees and get a job. If you look at the success rate of teacher recruitment examinations, it is not more than 3 per cent. That is why the Finance Minister emphasised universalisation of primary education and said that quality of education was the government’s next big step forward; it sounded flimsy,” said Ambarish Rai.
Moreover, the Rs.22,500 crore announced for education in this year’s Budget is apparently not a real figure, and this leads to added uncertainty. “Of this total amount, 65 per cent is financed through education cess (Prarambhik Shiksha Kosh), 29 per cent as Gross Budgetary Support (GBS) and 6 per cent through externally aided project. As per the new funding pattern, Union government Budget for SSA constitutes 60 per cent of the total SSA budget, as most of the States (except north-eastern and three Himalayan States) will allocate 40 per cent matching grant for SSA,” states a report brought out by the Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability, a New Delhi-based policy research organisation.
On the aspect of quality education, following the UPA, the NDA government seems to have focussed selectively on Kendriya Vidyalayas (K.Vs) and Navodaya Vidyalayas (N.Vs). Together these two chains of schools will receive Rs.6,266 crore with separate expenditure heads. “The government spends at least 10 times more money on K.Vs and N.Vs than on a normal public school. It is welcome. The average performance of these schools is much better than that of private schools, according to the data we have. The only problem is that these schools are too few in number. We want the government to follow the same model in all other schools too,” said Ambarish Rai.
In such a context, experts believe that the government’s focus on skill development cannot be isolated from the most important aspect of quality education. This may lead to ineffective implementation of both education sector programmes and the skill development of youth. As of now, the problem of multiplicity of authorities and resultant duplication of work has rendered the Skill India programme ineffective.
“There are at least 20 different government bodies in India running skill development programmes with no synergies and with considerable duplication of work. For instance, both the Ministry of Labour and Employment (MoLE) and the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) created their own sector skill councils last year to identify skill development needs in the country, even as the National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC) has been setting up Sector Skill Councils since 2011. A Labour Market Information System (LMIS) that should have been one centralised resource has been developed in different forms by at least five government agencies,” state Kumar Vivek and Radhika Kapoor, development sector professionals who worked with the erstwhile Office of Adviser to the Prime Minister on Skill Development, in the article “The Nuts and Bolts of Skill Development”, published in TheHindu . These problems, they say, has led to a lack of standardisation of procedures and outcomes. They go on to say that the government does not even have a unified definition of “skill”. “Skill development efforts today cover everything from personality development, 40-hour long ‘outreach and awareness programmes’ conducted for farmers by the Ministry of Agriculture, 3-6 month courses encouraged by the NSDC and the National Skill Development Agency (NSDA), as well as two-year programmes in Industrial Training Institutes (ITIs),” the article states.
The government’s ambitious announcements for skill development look more like sops in this context. When public expenditure on education should be significantly upped, the government has either been reducing the allocations or increasing them only marginally. In addition, the promotion of private investment in the sector has made education inaccessible for the vast majority of the people. In the absence of any regulation, private educational institutes have become money-minting factories that pay hardly any attention to the quality of education. Stories abound about the appointment of poorly paid, unqualified teachers and substantially ill-staffed private institutes.
The lack of political will to address these basic problems is becoming starker by the day. That the government has deviated from its responsibility to ensure mass education has been clear in the past two decades. The budgetary announcements on education clearly indicate that the government wants to rely on private sources such as CSR funds and external donors, instead of directly spending more on education. This may only pave the way for the government to outsource education to the private sector fully. Unfortunately, the casualty of such a policy will be the vast majority of the people for whom education still remains a distant dream.