Union Budget 2017: The good, the missing and the hidden

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Updated: February 20, 2017 5:33:00 AM

The budget for education and skill development scores high on intent, but we don’t find many new initiatives and innovative measures. Or do we?

eduOn skill development, a framework for Skills Universities and an increased spend all around, especially for short-term skill development courses, were expected.

This year’s Budget was unique in more ways than one. Apart from collapsing the Rail Budget and pushing the date of presentation by a month, the Budget also has more that is unsaid than explicit—at least for education and skill development.

There were expectations that the social sector—skill development and livelihood—will see a big thrust, partly from the gains of demonetisation. It may also be justified given the reported loss of employment from many quarters. There are some interesting announcements and forward-looking measures which are welcome. At the same time, the institutional backing and fund allocation is not clear—which are critical to the success of these initiatives. So, we greet this Budget—for the education and skill development sectors—with the cliched ‘cautious optimism’.

Before we dive into the details, let’s look at general expectations. On the higher education front, incentives for private sector participation were expected. Given the impact of technology on education, incentivising institutions that focus on technology-led innovation expected funds. There was enough ground for introducing online varsities and digital education reforms. On tax front, 100% tax deduction for donations to qualified higher education institutes, as against the current 50%, could encourage philanthropy.

On skill development, a framework for Skills Universities and an increased spend all around, especially for short-term skill development courses, were expected. Other expectations were along policy reforms and clarity on incentives to corporates providing on-the-job training, internship, skilling opportunities to students as a part of the amended Apprenticeship Act and clarity on National Board for Skills Assessment and Certification (NBSAC).

On school education, the roll-out of the New Education Policy (NEP), teacher development, pedagogical reforms and curriculum changes to include learning outcomes and a learner-centric ecosystem were expected.
Overall, the government continues to express its intent to improve the quality of outcome in education and skilling sectors with a focus on job creation.

In line with earlier measures such as development of NEP, introduction of National Institute Ranking Framework (NIRF) and proposal for NBSAC, the announcement on a National Testing Agency (NTA) is welcome.

Primary, secondary education

The allocation towards school education and literacy has increased from Rs 43,896 crore (Budget 2016-17) to Rs 46,356 crore—a rise of 5.6%. The government has announced a system to measure learning outcomes in schools, and there is said to be increased emphasis on science education and flexibility in curriculum to promote creativity through local innovative content. While specifics have not been defined, this is a welcome move given the poor learning outcomes highlighted by various studies.

The Innovative Fund for Secondary Education aimed at 3,479 educationally-backward blocks will encourage local innovation for ensuring gender parity, universal access and quality improvement. It can lead to ICT-enabled learning transformation, aligned with Digital India.

Preschools didn’t find a mention. Nationwide security and safety norms (and enforcement mechanisms) would have helped streamline state governments in having a uniform approach in handling this sensitive area.
Higher education

The allocation towards higher education rose from Rs 29,703 crore (Budget 2016-17) to Rs 33,330 crore—a rise of 12.2%. There is a proposal to reform the UGC and provide more administrative and academic autonomy to quality higher education institutions—we await more details and a time-bound plan for this.

The FM announced establishing two more AIIMS in Gujarat and Jharkhand; a word of caution on announcements of such prestigious institutions is the need to have a multi-year funding outlay with a time-bound plan. But there is no mention of World-Class Universities, foreign university participation and linkages with standalone research institutions.

Skills & vocational education

A total of Rs 17,273 crore was allocated for employment generation, skill development and livelihood. This signals a clear emphasis on youth and human resources development. There are more funds for the skill development ministry—an increase from Rs 2,173 crore (Budget 2016-17) to Rs 3,016 crore. Also, Rs 4,500 crore was allocated towards the Deen Dayal Antyodaya Yojana—National Rural Livelihood Mission, and mason skill training will be given to 5 lakh people by 2022 with an immediate target of 20,000 by 2017-18.

There is a proposal to expand the Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Kendras (PMKK) to over 600 districts from the current 60 districts. Again, if innovative means are not developed for the roll-out of such institutions, they will take years, negating the benefit that would accrue to youth from such a well-meaning initiative.

The 100 India International Skill Centres will target the youth seeking job opportunities outside the country and offer advanced training courses as per global standards and in foreign languages. This good step must be backed up by conducive policy for tying up with established skill development institutions such as Community Colleges (the US), Further Education Colleges (the UK) and Technical and Further Education, or TAFE, (Australia).

The government would launch the next phase of Skills Strengthening for Industrial Value Enhancement (STRIVE) at a cost of Rs 2,200 crore. It will focus on improving the quality and market relevance of training provided in ITIs and strengthen the apprenticeship programmes through industry cluster approach.

Setting aside Rs 4,000 crore towards Skill Acquisition and Knowledge Awareness for Livelihood Promotion (SANKALP) is welcome. It will provide market relevant training to 3.5 crore youth. A close industry linkage and a regional approach must be taken up during implementation.

Skills Universities and NBSAC are two initiatives that don’t find a mention; hopefully, they will be taken up appropriately. Similarly, Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) could give a positive impetus on creating skilled workforce in a short duration and will provide traditional industries a shot in the arm; it was missing in the Budget, but possibly will be taken up by the department.

Digital education

The FM announced the expansion of SWAYAM—India’s MOOC platform—to include at least 350 online courses. The government also envisioned for the platform to be more widely available, through linkages with DTH channels dedicated to education. A word of caution is how this powerful medium is treated. If it is a passive repository of content, it is not going to find takers. Instead, if this is seen as an alternate or complimentary pedagogical measure and the curriculum, lessons and assessments are designed to suit this medium, it could be a game-changer.

The shortage of teachers, particularly in government schools, clubbed with the challenge of inadequate training for existing teachers is a critical issue that didn’t find necessary attention.

Overall, the Budget scores high on intent and an increase in outlay, but we don’t find many new initiatives and innovative measures. Also unclear is the implementation modalities to sustain some of the good initiatives till results are achieved. Possibly, these are now to be taken up by the relevant ministries and think tanks.

The author is partner & head, Education & Skill Development, KPMG in India. Views are personal

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