The shape of things to come

Written by Narayanan Ramaswamy | Updated: Jul 14 2014, 17:39pm hrs
The much awaited maiden Budget of the new government is behind us now. It could have been an Interim Budget and in that sense only an augmentation for the yearbut it had all the fanfare associated with a regular Budget. Across the globe, education as a sector needs government patronage to flourish and so Union Budget is always watched with keen interest by the sector.

There are many interesting and forward looking aspects in this Budget. I am glad that the government has taken notice of the huge deficit in the faculty/teacher availability. The Madan Mohan Malviya Scheme for Teacher Training is a welcome initiative. This would bring the much needed attention to this important profession. The details of the scheme and the extent of its influence in the existing scheme is to be seen. Along the same lines is the allocation of R100 crore for setting up virtual classrooms. This is the age of MOOCs and Khan Academy and it is heartening to see something along the lines planned to leverage technology. This could well, partly at least, solve the faculty shortage issuebut more importantly, it breaks the geography barrier for education, provided it is done in the right fashion. Else, it will also become another investment along the lines of National Mission in Education through Information and Communication Technology (NMEICT).

The NDA has also stuck to its inclusive development agenda. The allocation of R300 crore for National Center for Himalayan Studies in Uttarakand and R100 crore Sports University in Manipur as well as an allocation of R500 crore for plans to set up 5 IITs (Jammu, Chhattisgarh, Goa, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala) and 5 IIMs (HP, Punjab, Bihar, Odisha and Maharashtra)all of them clearly underline the effort to spread out institutes of national importance far and wide. So is the announcement on four AIIMS like institutions to be built in Bengal, AP, Purvanchal and Jharkhand and 12 government medical colleges across India.Similar on the development agenda are the following two announcementsthe oft-repeated poll promise on upgrading Madarasas with an allocation of R100 crore and skill programme for youth to be trained in traditional trades with an allocation of R100 crore. In my view, this signifies the importance of continuing traditions and nurturing them. This also would mean some of the uniqueness of these institutionswho are not a part of the main stream development, is protected.

The provision of R365 crore to State Skill Missions (SSMs) is a welcome beginning and one hopes the government will provide more resources to them given the critical role SSMs are expected to play to achieve Indias ambitious target of training 500 million youth by 2022.

This Budget has also signaled a strong emphasis towards primary and secondary education. A further allocation of R4,966 crore for Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan (RMSA) and R38,635 crore allocation for Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) clearly underlines this. It is good to see that strengthening the grass-roots continues as a big agenda for this government.

Interesting to note is the absolutely essential School Assessment Programme that is being initiated at a cost of R30 crore. There is also a mention of government initiative to provide toilets, drinking water in all girls' schoolsnow this is an important feature as many reports have pointed to this as the key reason for girl child drop-outs.

On the other hand, some significant misses as well. Given the major quality and infrastructure issues in elementary schools a substantial increase was announced for SSA and RMSA, though the government could have driven quality reforms in primary education by providing necessary resources. A strong mechanism for evaluation and monitoring of these schemes is required so that their full potential could be realised. Besides infrastructure, what plagues the schools is quality and focus on curriculum development. A case in point is even though the enrollment at primary level is nearly 100% year after year, reports suggest that the students fail to do basic arithmetic or read a sentence. A big thrust towards learning outcomes is critical and anything along that direction would have been a great move to building the next generation of school curriculum. So while a School Assessment Programme is being initiated at a cost of R30 crore, it is too little a sum to uplift the quality of schools in the country.

Larger skilling agenda has been ignored for any additional allocation. There is no mention on continuance/reforms on the popular Standard Training and Assessment Reward (STAR) scheme. With the formation of a unified ministry for skilling, a significant thrust to the skilling agenda was expectedit is unclear now as to what will be the budgetary allocations for the various skills programmes under different departments/ministries. This could be clarified outside the Budget as well. It is an important and immediate agenda and given the importance that the government has (rightly) given to skilling, we should expect some clear direction in this area soon. Similarly, we could find no announcement to upgrade the Industrial Training Institutes (ITIs) who are one of the most important stakeholders when it comes to training students in vocational skills for manufacturing sector. Added to that is the lack of clarity on allocation of funds to National Skill Development Corporation given its critical role in the last few years in skill development initiatives and the demand for skilled workforce that India is expected to witness.

Except the Lok Nayak National Centre for Excellence in Humanities to be set up in Madhya Pradesh and a massive allocation in medical research, there is no larger agenda for research in this Budgetbe it institutes of higher learning or standalone research centers. The fate of many institutes of national importancesuch as that in aviation, oil & gas, miningannounced in previous government is also unclear.

While it is true that higher education has got a huge boost with announcement of five IITs and IIMs each in some of the tier II cities which signals a positive change, a PPP mode to set up these institutions would have ensured greater leverage of the money spent through participation from private sector. Private sector participation in higher education becomes critical given that the amount allocated for the just announced IITs and IIMs is merely R500 crore whereas each of these institutions will cost over a R1,000 crore which is a significant gap between the governments goal and the resources allocated. Besides this, no attempt has

been made to enhance the quality of existing higher education institutions, be it on input parameters such as incentives for students or teachers to take up research or focus on faculty development or output parameters such as accreditation, rating and benchmarking.

It is early to pass a judgment, but it seems to be a bit of an experimentative Budget! There are some good, bold initiatives but they seem to be a bit tentative and under-allocated. Many initiatives seem to have the standard R100 crore allocations almost to highlight the direction in which the government wants to look rather than a full blow plan. It could be because of the interim nature of the Budget. I see this more like a teaser of future initiatives (and allocations to come later). It seems like these teaser initiatives will be field-tested, fine-tuned and then put on tracks for the larger reform. I am positive and upbeat about these teasers; but actions in the next few months would tell us if these teaser experiments will really work.

The author is Partner and National Head of Education Sector, KPMG in India