This week the finance minister will present the much-awaited Budget FY16. The government seems to be under pressure to fulfil some of its promises which would translate into quick results. But, in a rather serious business like education, any half-hearted attempts are no good. This is as much applicable to reforms and policies as it does to running educational institutions. Hence the policy-makers should have an agenda that can span across multiple years and use every occasion to strengthen their chosen policies.
While the regular budget allocation to SSA, RMSA and RUSA can be expected, we would like to see a shift in the government’s focus in reference to such initiatives. It is time the allocations are made on output measures rather than input measures and an implementation plan be announced along with the budget sanction. Rather than an annual review, we need to come up with a milestone-based plan for quarterly reviews. In an inherently complex sector like education, where multiple players are involved, an annual review could easily slip through the cracks.
K12: the building block
According to the estimates of the HRD ministry, close to 5 lakh positions are vacant in schools across India and this is to achieve a modest objective of 30:1 student:teacher ratio. And this is only with respect to government schools. If we add private sector schools’ demand for teachers, this number becomes even higher. We have to address this gap. Some progressive measures in the past few months look encouraging: The current BEd course has been revised to a two-year programme with at least 20 weeks of classroom teaching experience, a two-year diploma course for an individual who has passed the twelfth standard exam for the position as a primary school teacher, distance learning options for existing teachers to do their BEd, etc. We need radical measures to tackle this deficit and we need to do it quickly. With an estimated growth rate of 12% for primary school teachers, the problem will become acute in the coming years. We need more private players participating in faculty development. An online option for completing a major portion of the course should be considered. It should be made a part of the skill development initiatives.We hope this budget introduces special schemes and allots sufficient funding. Also imminent is a thorough re-look at the teacher development programme.
A significant allocation for measuring learning outcomes in schools is another announcement eagerly awaited. MHRD should have an independent assessment of the student learning outcomes such as ASER in primary and secondary schools. These studies have been a good means of measuring RoI that has gone into schooling. Over a period of time, these learning outcomes should be a key parameter for government funding and support. Another critical area that has been ignored is accreditation of schools. For universities, while it is not yet mandatory, there is at least a programme for accreditation (NAAC), whereas schools do not have a formal accreditation programme. With over a million schools and a need to differentiate, India should look at launching a simple, implementable accreditation programme for schools, ideally through empanelled third parties.
A focused effort to bring a compulsory vocational course or a livelihood skill as a part of secondary school curriculum is also needed. Introduction to a skill programme (a choice of few) should eventually lead to a level-1 certification (as per NSQF) at a school leaving stage which would ensure our youth have at least one employable skill. This has to be made compulsory, especially in rural and semi-urban schools, commencing from age 11. Introducing vocational education at grade 9, when the child is 14 years of age may not be as effective, as it becomes difficult to mould children as they get older. Also, with the burden of school leaving exams and competitive exams for university admissions, skills may not be getting the required attention. Private players can be gainfully engaged to provide this at schools. NSDC with its empanelled training providers can be entrusted to run this programme at a national level.
According to a UNESCO estimate, India has the maximum number of universities in the world. Yet we have an acute shortage of higher learning institutions, with the rapid strides we are making in the GER. As per our RMSA report, we are aspiring for 30% GER by 2020 (up from about 15% GER in 2011), more than doubling the population that is knocking at the doors of our universities in a less than 10 years. We need to look at an environment where a wide variety of aspirations are nurtured and catered to at the university level. There is a revival of sorts that is happening with the arts and humanities section, which is heartening. Few years ago we saw law schools making a comeback. While there are so many changes happening, our regulatory environment needs to equip itself to deal with this changed paradigm. We need an environment that will encourage new players to come into the system, with diverse offerings. It is time we invite private sector participation in a more direct fashion. It is not as if the private sector is not participating, but there is still reluctance from well meaning corporates to enter this sector, since these investments are one-way – with no means of access to the funds once they are deployed. We should develop means of returnable capital investments in the education sector. More than profit, it is the inflexibility of capital investment that is a big deterrent.
If we look at technology’s impact on our university system, it is far from comforting. We do not even recognise online varsities. Blended learning is still frowned upon. Distance learning as a poor camouflage is, at best, confusing. We need a policy regarding blending online learning (MOOCs et al) with regular university learning. This can help in better utilisation of assets and make room for more innovative courses to be offered.
It is time to recognise the role foreign universities can play. Universities globally are facing stiff funding challenges and are looking to a market like India for sustained growth. While it is mutually beneficial to invite these foreign universities, if the proposition is going to be a burden on their finances, we are not going to see much interest. Relevant changes to the foreign universities Act are needed.
While it is encouraging to setup IITs, IIMs, medical and sports varsities, etc, sufficient funding and an implementation roadmap is required. Without these, the foundations of these initiatives remains weak. Another suggestion is to look at PPP models for these institutions with appropriate stakeholders.
The need for skilling
A lot has been spoken about skilling. The new skills ministry has been very active and now it is time to engage with state governments in a big way. Mobilisation includes inspiring and sensitising youth on vocational training for building their careers. Communication and support from the states along with corporates will play a big role. This budget should give a special impetus on mobilisation programmes. Equally important is placement support. Given India’s diversity and size, relocating to a different state could be a frightful experience for many. Apart from preparing them for a new work environment, hand-holding support is critical for the success of the youth andthe programme. The skilling agenda should also include funds for corporate linkages, placement and post-placement support. The other aspect is a systematic and predictable format for recognising prior learning in line with the NSQF norms and QPs adopted by relevant SSCs.
The next two decades are expected to see an immediate benefit from these initiatives. Our demographic cycle has the ‘working age population bulge’ just about emerging. This means we are going to be the world’s workforce for the next two decades. It is a great opportunity.
By Narayanan Ramaswamy
The author is partner and head of Education & Skilling, KPMG in India.
Views are personal