The government’s focus on health and welfare spending in the pandemic years has had the unintended consequence of a decline in public expenditure on education in recent years. Such spending has fallen even in absolute terms. The share of school education in Centre’s spending on education has taken a hit in FY23 (see graphic).
As foundational education is critical for future learning, there needs to be a renewed focus from the government on getting education in the early years right. While school education is largely the prerogative of the states, the Centre can also do a fair bit to help recover the lost ground.
Budget FY24 would therefore not only need to increase allocations for the Samagra Shiksha under the National Education Mission (NEM), but also ensure effective implementation of the mission.
The FY22 revised estimate (RE) on Samagra Shiksha expenditure was Rs 30,000 crore, marginally lower than the budget estimate Rs 31,050 crore. While the spend budgeted for FY23 is Rs 37,383 crore, up by 20% from the BE of 2021-22, it was still lower than the budget estimate for FY21.
The latest iteration of the Annual Status of Education Report (Aser) highlights certain erosion in learning outcomes due to the disruption because of the Covid-19 pandemic―reading ability has fallen to the pre-2012 levels, while arithmetic skills have also seen a marginal decline. These findings indicate the challenge that faces the Union government, with regards to National Initiative for Proficiency in Reading with Understanding and Numeracy (NIPUN) Bharat, the national mission to enable all children at the end of Grade 3 to attain foundational skills by the year 2026-2027.
One of the key interventions that has led to better school enrolment and attendance is the mid-day meal scheme. But allocation towards this fell from the FY21 actual spend of Rs 12,878 crore―this was the first year of the pandemic―to Rs 10,233 crore in FY22 (RE) against a budgeted Rs 11,500 crore in FY22. The budgeted amount for FY23 had been retained at the FY22 RE level. While school enrolment is at an all-time high despite the pandemic, there needs to be careful bolstering of school education.
The Centre’s spending on teacher’s training and adult education had almost been halved from the FY22 level (BE
250 crore) in FY23 (BE127 crore). The expert consensus is that this needs to be remedied, especially given the pandemic shadow on in-person training has largely receded.
Digitally-delivered education was one of the factors propping learning in the first two years of the pandemic, when the related disruption was the most severe―as Pratham founder Madhav Chavan has pointed out in the latest Aser report, some learning seems to have happened despite the school closures, as evident in reading levels remaining at 30% for Grade 3 students (most of whom missed a large part of the classroom learning for the first two grades).
Against this backdrop, there is a clamour from the ed-tech industry for, among other things, a reduction of the GST rate applicable. While the Budget won’t be able to do this, with such a decision being the remit of the GST Council, whether there is some other form of relief for the deep pain the segment has seen as education delivery approaches the pre-pandemic normal, remains to be seen.