Building high-quality human capital, however, is not just about improved GER across levels of education but also about improved corresponding learning levels.
Taking on China, the government should have long realised, is not just about military might or beating China in global trade. India will also need to rival it as an R&D powerhouse—this paper has talked about how, while India has improved its showing on R&D spending and impact, it still lags China by miles—and as a supplier of globally-competitive talent in areas of future import such as AI, biotechnology, data science, social sciences, etc, apart from competing for soft power in the global academia.
All this will require stepping up investment in education—at all levels, from schools to research institutions. So, it is quite welcome that the government has woken up to human-resource gap with China—tertiary GER of the two countries was in the low 20s just a decade back; it has reached over 50% for China now, while, for India, it has crawled up to just over 28%—and has signalled an intent to work on closing this. As per The Economic Times, the HRD ministry, in a presentation before the 15th Finance Commission, has asked for Rs 4 lakh crore to work on putting India on an equal footing with China. This is four times the budgetary allocation for this year. Given India’s overall expenditure on education—the Centre plus the states plus private sector—is Rs 5.6 lakh crore, or 3% of the GDP, a Rs 4 lakh crore infusion by the Centre, assuming the expenditure by the others remains the same, will take education expenditure to 5% of the GDP.
Building high-quality human capital, however, is not just about improved GER across levels of education but also about improved corresponding learning levels. A lot of the legwork has to happen at the school level—as data from ASER reports over the years show, learning levels are consistently poorer amongst students in government schools than what is expected at the level of the class they are enrolled in. Indeed, while nearly half the students in Class V could read Standard 2 text in 2011, this was down to 44% in 2018. Only a third enrolled in Class 3 could read a word in 2010; this had fallen to one in five by 2018.
The pandemic has forced India to consider increased adoption of digital, online, and on-air education. The Centre is planning to launch a Rs 60,900 crore scheme to provide laptops to over 4 crore college students—but this will only work if students are reasonably dexterous with online and digital education from the school level itself. ASER shows only 6.5% of the sampled students had access to computers in 2018—so, that is a colossal gap to bridge. Doing this will not only mean access in terms of devices but also in terms of data infrastructure. All this will need serious commitment to implementing existing plans better; for instance, under the National Optical Fibre Network, connectivity has been rolled out for just 140,000 gram panchayats against the targeted 250,000, with wi-fi services available in just 23,000.