Budget 2018: While presenting this year’s Economic Survey, the Chief Economic Advisor had pre-warned there was not enough fiscal space to increase public spending in the social sector. So our expectations from the Union Budget 2018 were rather muted from education and skill development perspectives, even though a large number of people were expecting an ‘election’ Budget. Quite commendably, the finance minister has stuck to market-orientation, in alignment with his previous editions, and still manages to bring in an inclusiveness and social flavour.
But the defining feature of this project, though subtle, is the attempt to address and strengthen the basic elements or building blocks of the economy and society—agriculture, infrastructure, healthcare, employability, etc. At the outset, the allocation to social sector seemed very little—almost a customary reference—but a deeper analysis would reveal that Budget 2018 has a social orientation in almost all expenditure items announced. Let us see some of the differentiating approaches in this Budget.
Traditionally, Budget 2018 allocation to education has been more input-oriented than outcome-based. It marked the much-needed divergence and focused on quality of education. The government has defined learning outcomes and a national survey of 20 lakh children has been conducted to assess the status on the ground. This can help in devising a district-wise strategy for improving the quality of education. Integrated approach to K12 education with no segmentation from pre-nursery to Std 12 could mean students receive a structured curriculum. I guess there was practical wisdom in having nursery, primary, elementary, secondary and higher secondary divisions.
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Five to six decades ago, it was critical to have basic enrolment; more primary schools were commissioned and they became the source to elementary and secondary schools. Higher secondary was, in fact, seen as a selection criteria for tertiary education. In many parts of India, even today, the Secondary School Leaving Certificate (SSLC) is called matriculation—the qualifying exam for college admission. Now, with GER rapidly getting into early 20s and showing signs of improvement, it is time we ensure the students do not drop off due to readmission into a different school. Having said that, we need to see what does this mean practically—would all primary schools be upgraded?
The challenge of quality of teachers has plagued the education system and Budget 2018 mentioned that the government has amended the Right to Education Act (2010) to enable over 13 lakh untrained teachers to get trained. However, sustainability of these trainings and provisions for in-service trainings have been left out. The Union Budget 2018 proposed to move gradually from blackboard to digital board. Technology will also be used to upgrade skills of teachers through DIKSHA digital portal. We hope this will not become another ‘hardware’ upgrade, but a genuine transformation in pedagogy, assessment, etc. Adopting an inclusive approach, Budget 2018 announced that, by 2022, every block with more than 50% ST population and at least 20,000 tribal persons will have an Eklavya Model Residential School, at par with Navodaya Vidyalayas, and have special facilities for preserving local art and culture, besides providing training in sports and skills. This is admirable, given that we still have reservation after seven decades of independence. Clearly, the approach of having quotas in mainstream schools has not been an unqualified success since we have large pockets of tribal population without access to education.
To boost R&D in higher education and step up investments in research and related infrastructure in premier educational institutions, including health, the Revitalising Infrastructure and Systems in Education (RISE) scheme with an investment of Rs 1 lakh crore over four years was announced. The Higher Education Financing Agency (HEFA) would be suitably structured for funding this initiative. Lack of incentives to pursue research has been a problem and the Prime Minister’s Research Fellows scheme, which will be launched in FY19, is partly to address this. Under this, 1,000 BTech students will be identified each year from premier institutions and facilities will be provided to pursue PhD in IITs and IISc, with a handsome fellowship. It is expected they will voluntarily commit few hours every week for teaching in institutions, in return. No new universities—save the two Schools of Planning and Architecture and 18 SPAs in IITs and NITs as autonomous schools—were announced. The previous concept of upgrading existing district hospitals to government medical colleges was proposed in 24 districts.
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The Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Kendra scheme was reinforced and the National Apprenticeship Scheme with a stipend support and sharing of cost of basic training by the government to give training to 50 lakh youth by 2020 was announced. Around 450 farm-level training centres under the Department of Agricultural Research and Education were announced. Skill training in domains such as AI, robotics, digital manufacturing, Big Data Analytics, quantum communication and Internet of Things will take place through a centre of excellence established under the Mission on Cyber Physical Systems. To boost employment in the formal sector, the government will contribute 12% EPF for new employees joining the formal sector and 8% EPF for women employees for the first three years.
From all angles, Budget 2018 dealt with basic aspects. Learning outcomes, integrated curriculum, teacher development, digital literacy, inclusiveness (Eklavya schools), research focus, agriculture training, skilling in digital domain, boost for formal employment … all point to a positive shift in the approach towards education spending in Budget 2018. As always, the implementation at grass-roots level and sustenance of these initiatives will define the benefits from these announcements.
The author is partner & head, Education & Skill Development, KPMG in India