India is still not fully ready for the digitisation of education, especially school education, as has been the thrust of this year’s budget on education. Laying down bare statistics, Dr Protiva Kundu highlighted that 67% of schools in India have functional electricity and its connection ranges from about 25% in Manipur to 100 % in Delhi. Only 16% of schools have digital access and barely 1.2% of schools have digital libraries. About 40% of teachers have computer literacy. Dr Kundu was speaking at a panel discussion titled ‘Education and Union Budget, 2023-24’, organised by IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute, New Delhi on February 5, 2023 under #IMPRI Center for ICT for Development (CICTD).
As part of #Education Dialogue, the event was organised as part of IMPRI’s third Annual Series of Thematic Deliberations and Analysis of Union Budget, 2023-24. This discussion was to debate the pros and cons of the budgetary provisions laid down by the government in the education sector. The Chairman and Moderator of the session, Dr Sachidanand Sinha, a retired professor of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi and a Visiting Professor at IMPRI.
The other panellists included Prof Mona Khare, Professor and Head of Department of Educational Finance, National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration (NIEPA), New Delhi; Dr Suresh Y Reddy, Director, SRF Foundation, Gurugram; Professor Soumen Chattopadhyay, Chairperson of Zakir Husain Centre for Educational Studies, JNU; Advocate Anubha Srivastav Sahay, President, India Wide Parents Association, and Child Rights Activist and Dr Protiva Kundu, Thematic lead, Social Sectors, Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability, New Delhi.
Initiating the discussion, Dr Sinha said although the impetus given to teachers’ training in this Budget is encouraging, we do not have much idea or figures about how DIET (District Institute of Education and Training), is actually providing academic and resource support at the grassroots level. Also, there is no clarity on the allocation of tribal education and questions remain on the provisioning of the schemes within the budgetary framework. Dr Kundu said the education Budget should keep in mind three things before fund allocation and beginning new schemes, These being analysis of the current socio-economic situation, the scenario likely to prevail in future and the direction in which education is taking. Other priority areas are inclusive development and reaching out to the last mile.
Focusing on the size of school education, Dr Kundu informed that there are 15 lakh schools, 27 crore students and 95 lakh teachers in government schools in India. Although this year’s Budget has set aside ₹1.12 lakh crore for education — said to be the highest ever allocation and an increase of around 8.2% over 2022-23 budgetary provisions, there are several lacunae. Dr Kundu pointed out that the additional money would actually go to the Kendriya Vidyalayas, Navodaya Vidyalayas and the Prime Minister (PM) Shree Schools, which are supposed to be exemplary schools to implement the National Education Policy (NEP) so the focus is primarily on the central government’s model schools. But these cater to only about 21 lakh students.
She questioned what about the 15 crore students in government schools. Although these students are covered under Samagra Shiksha Abhiyan, (SSA) which is also a vehicle for NEP, focused on fundamental literacy and numeracy, there has been drastic degeneration in reading and mathematical ability due to the pandemic in the last two years. Moreover, 20,000 schools have closed down and more than 5.6 lakh teacher positions remain vacant. So now, the government is still struggling with the basic inputs into school education like teachers and schools, so more resources are clearly required. Also, the SSA has been allocated almost the same amount as last year — Rs 37,453 crore compared to Rs 37,383 crore (budget estimate) in 2022-23.
This is when students and teachers are still trying to recover the learning losses incurred during the pandemic. Dr Kundu said the government is now going to go for result-based financing for select schemes. But for educational schemes, we have not reached the stage where we can link outcomes with finance. Also under revised SSA guidelines, provisions have been made for in-service teachers’ training in a blended form that is both online and office. But there are reservations about online training. Considering the socio-economic situation in different parts of India, accessing basic education should be made more important than accessing online education. This thrust on digitisation for school education should now be utilised for administrative work rather than for teaching, according to Dr Kundu.
Another important lapse in the budget is the stopping of the pre-matric scholarship for students of classes 1 to 8. The logic is elementary education is free for all and hence scholarships are not required. But according to National Sample Survey data, even for a government school child, parents have to incur Rs 1000 to Rs 2000 per child per year on copies and other things. For a student of class 9 and above, the expenditure is Rs 2000 per child per year. So scholarships are still required to reach the last mile and to create a level playing field. Echoing her thoughts, Dr Suresh Y Reddy said the digitisation of schools and their curriculum is welcome but schools require digital infrastructure, internet connectivity, LCDs, Monitors and enhanced teacher capability to become functional.
But the government has levied GST from 18% to 28 % for the procurement of IT equipment which is a hindrance. And no provision has been made for waiving off GST in this Budget. Waiving off GST would bring more money into the system and more e-content and development of software can be advanced. Apart from GST, Dr Reddy pointed out that in the last decade, the annual school education growth rate has been a mere 2% while annual growth in higher education has been 6%, i,e actual spending is not enough. So in every aspect of schooling, there is a deficit. And there is a dire need to remodel the DIET.
Also, Rs 25,000 crore Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) budget is available which can be utilised to build up model schools. So, leveraging corporates’ help can transform school education but the Budget is not saying anything about this aspect. Touching upon vocationalisation of education, Dr Soumen Chattopadhyay said the enrolment in vocational education is aimed at 50% by 2025 and the gross enrolment ratio is targeted at 50% by 2030. There is also an emphasis on digitisation which means there is bound to be a fall in average cost, and the Budget would not commensurately grow with the rise in the enrolment ratio.
Speaking on skilling India, Dr Chattopadhya said there has been a budgetary increase of 12.5%, basically due to the National Apprenticeship Training Scheme (NATS) but it is linked with Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME), which is currently not doing very well. There is also an intent showing in the budget that individuals and institutions should borrow, spend and fund their own education if it is to compete with world-class universities. If this concept is being proposed, there is bound to be an increase in tuition fees. Also, there is no funding for research and innovation. Thinking on the same line, Dr Mona Khare said there is literally no talk about multi-disciplinary universities, research universities, social sciences and humanities subjects.
She said this year’s Budget focuses mainly on Engineering, Technology, Medical and Nursing sectors but there is little continuity on vocationalisation of higher education in this Budget, although it has been the major thrust point of NEP. Talking about the revenue component of higher education, Dr Khare said the higher education institutes have depended on HEFA (Higher Education Financing Agency) but from the last Budget there has been a fall in HEFA allocation and this Budget does not talk about HEFA. Dr Khare questioned whether the government now believes that our higher education sector has reached a certain threshold in good quality infrastructure and does not need any more funding or are we going to leave out public institutions to the markets.
The underlying thought is that public institutions should manage 30% of their expenditure on their own. She also stressed that NEP has vociferously talked about inclusion and equity but this Budget does not talk about Socio-Economic Disadvantaged Groups (SEDG), transgender or gifted children. Also, there has been no talk about training teachers in the higher education sector. There has been under-utilisation of funds in most schemes. Advocate Anubha Srivastava touched upon access, equity, quality and accountability under the NEP and emphasised the dearth of funds and aid for school education. She also said the mentoring scheme is an important part of the process.