Schoolchildren walk on a railway line as they approach their school on the outskirts of Jammu. Photo: Reuters
Schoolchildren walk on a railway line as they approach their school on the outskirts of Jammu. Photo: Reuters

The Modi government’s last budget ahead of the 2019 election was a mixed bag for the education sector, which is plagued with many serious issues aside from the overall lack of funds.

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley allocated Rs 85,000 crore (US$13.26 billion) for education, with Rs 50,000 crore for schools and the rest for higher education. This was an increase of just 8% over last year. The allocation for secondary education rose by a similar ratio, from Rs 3,900 crore in 2017-18 to Rs 4,200 crore for the 2018-19 fiscal year.

In his budget speech, Jaitley expressed concern about the quality of education and announced an extensive training program to upgrade the skills of 1.3 million untrained teachers.

He also proposed treating education “holistically without segmentation from pre-nursery to Class 12”. This could only be possible by extending the Right to Education (RTE) Act 2009 up to the higher secondary level – something Jaitley did not address, seemingly because it would require huge funding.

Instead, he increased the 3% education tax to a 4% ‘health and education’ levy, which should bring an additional Rs 11,000 crore to government coffers. This shows the government is in no mood to prioritize education and has shifted that responsibility to the public.

Strangely, the levy collected in the past was mostly unused. A report by Hindu Businessline said more than Rs 830 billion lay idle in government coffers last year.

India spends least among BRICS nations

Despite the deeply concerning state of education in India, the sector still accounts for only 3.8% of gross domestic product (GDP). In fact, India’s overall allocation to this important sector over the last decade has hovered between 3.8-4.0% of total expenditure.

In its election manifesto for the 2014 election, the ruling Bhartiya Janta Party had promised to allocate 6% of GDP for education, yet India’s outlay on education remains the lowest among peers. A statistical publication put out by BRICS in 2015 reveals that Brazil spent 5.5% of its GDP, Russia 4.4%, China 4.3% and South Africa 6.5% on education in the year 2013.

“The demographic dividend will decide if India will emerge as the fastest growing nation over the next decade. But to ensure that it happens, Indian youths need a conducive regulatory framework and policy support,” educationist Dr Milind Wagh said.

Jaitley’s budget, however, failed to do this. Funds allocated for the government program to universalize elementary education – the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan – increased by just 11%. Funding rose from Rs 235 billion to Rs 261 billion, but that is still far below the resources required.

The midday meal scheme, aimed at improving school-age children’s nutrition, also saw a negligible increase.

No measures were announced either in regard to higher education loans despite Indian banks getting increasingly skeptical about disbursing funds, given the rising number of defaulters.

Jaitley did announce a new “Prime Minister’s scholarship” project, with the aim of keeping highly skilled engineers in the country. However, activists called it an “eyewash” as a large number of scholarships were abolished last year.

Public education grappling with serious issues

Overall, the budget allocation seems minuscule considering the issues the education sector faces. According to Census 2011, there are around 84 million children not even getting to school.

A quarter of public schools lack classrooms, electricity and/or toilets – and 200,000 government schools across the country have been closed. In some states, schools have even been handed over indiscriminately to private players under public-private partnerships.

According to the Annual Survey of Education Report (ASER) 2017, enrolment in secondary schools almost doubled from 11 million to 22 million over the last decade. But children demonstrated poor learning outcomes despite years of schooling. One in four in standard-eight were unable to read standard-two level text. And 42% children could not carry out basic tasks like reading simple sentences in English, division or subtraction.

Pre-primary children have also been neglected. Prof Wagh said: “Despite repeated demands, the government has not bothered to address the needs of pre-primary education. This would require political will and huge money, as the government will have to strengthen its anganwadis [rural shelters] too.”

The number of positions for government teachers that remain unfilled at the secondary level is a staggering 17.5%.

More funds are also needed to implement the basics of the RTE Act in schools but this has largely been ignored, with budget focused more to catchy announcements.

The higher education sector faces similar quality issues with the mushrooming of private institutions, poorly paid under-qualified teachers and a lack of regulation. This has lead to unemployment and under-employment of most graduates.

Sadly, major initiatives announced in Budget 2017 such as a National Testing Agency to conduct all entrance exams and a major push for quality of education are yet to take off.

“Slogans like ‘Upgrading education infrastructure by 2022’ and from ‘blackboard to digital boards’ will [only] work when fundamental concerns of public education are addressed first,” CS Kulkarni, a professor at Mumbai university said.

For the BJP, already struggling to provide jobs to millions of youths, the education budget could be a millstone around its neck next year.

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