New Delhi: Raising expenditure on education to 6% of gross domestic product (GDP), autonomy for institutions of higher learning and expansion of access to education—these were some of the promises the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) made at the start of its term in 2004.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s coalition government did increase outlays of funds for education, though nowhere close to the target it set for itself, and its report card five years on is marred by hurried and half-hearted implementation of its flagship programmes, critics say.
Poor showing: Exam-time at a government school in Faridabad. Little initiative has been taken to improve the quality of education. Rajkumar / Mint
In UPA’s Report to the People for the first three years of its tenure, the government outlined an increase in the total allocation for education to Rs32,352 crore in 2007-08, an increase of 34% over the previous year.
Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, or education for all movement, the government’s flagship programme for elementary education, received Rs13,000 crore in government support for fiscal 2008-09, up 22% from the year before.
Also See Spread of Education
But while the government didn’t stint in funding the programme and launching related initiatives, it failed to work out a way of assessing learning outcomes in schools, placing more stress on enrolment of children than the quality of education they were receiving, experts say.
An annual report on the status of education in the country, published by non-government organization Pratham since 2005, has repeatedly noted that increased enrolment in public schools was accompanied by poor learning levels.
Madhav Chavan, founder of Pratham, says the government’s approach has not been serious about evaluating the results of its education programmes. “Quality-wise, not much has happened,” Chavan said. “The government has not been able to give any direction to initiatives on quality.”
He added that higher fiscal support to state governments to fund education has been a singular achievement in the past five years. “It means they (states) could provide midday meals (to students), expand the education programme for children in pre-school, which in quantitative terms means bigger reach, and significant changes such as more enrolment and lesser number of dropouts.”
To be sure, the UPA government hasn’t attained its target of spending 6% of GDP on education. At last count, it was 3.5% of GDP, compared with 3.23% in 2000-01.
Still, plans for education weren’t constrained by lack of ambition. The government announced the setting up of eight Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), seven Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs), 20 National Institutes of Technology (NITs), 30 central universities, five Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research and 50 centres for training and research, among others.
At the end of the UPA tenure, two IITs, six IIMs, 10 NITs and 14 universities are still to be launched. Last year, three IITs were launched from makeshift campuses while another three are still being run from campuses of existing IITs, which are mentoring the technical institutes. “Many new IITs are yet to shift to new campuses while a fresh batch is ready to move in by the middle of this year,” said an IIT director, who didn’t want to be named.
A government move to hurriedly implement 27% reservation for so-called other backward classes in IITs ran into brief resistance.
“I can’t remember a single area in higher education sector where the government has performed well,” says Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of Centre for Policy Research, a New Delhi-based think tank. “My concern is bigger than the quotas, which is now a dead issue and at best a peripheral debate. Take any measure of institutional integrity and this government has failed. A consensus on what its real objectives are always eluded this government.”
The ministry of human resource development was involved in a standoff with the Prime Minister’s advisory panel, the National Knowledge Commission, over the extent of the government’s role in the running of higher educational institutions.
The commission said the appointments of vice-chancellors (VCs) should be free from any direct or indirect government intervention. The Central Universities Bill, 2008, promulgated as an ordinance last year, says the VCs to the new central universities would be appointed by the Visitor—the President. A panel appointed by the ministry to study the functioning of IIMs recommended a pan-IIM board led by a government representative to oversee the institutes.
“There is direct political control affecting autonomy of universities, discouraging diversity of experiments and stalling institutions of excellence,” says Mehta.
Graphics by Paras Jain / Mint