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Photo: HT
Photo: HT

Let’s not starve our national education policy of funds

Achieving the NEP’s goals would call upon India to channel much greater resources into the sector

Now that the finance ministry’s pre-budget consultations have commenced, it may be pertinent to keep watch of the government’s plan on funding the National Education Policy 2020 (NEP) that was announced with much fanfare. Given the covid crisis and state of the economy, no sensible person would hope for the moon. However, even signals symbolize intent, especially at a time when the education sector remains largely paralysed.

The NEP “commits to significantly raising educational investment, as there is no better investment towards a society’s future than the high quality of education of our young people". This broadly reflects the thinking of Amartya Sen and others on education having both intrinsic and instrumental value. The NEP iterates that current public expenditure on education by the central and state governments put together is of the order of 4.43% of gross domestic product (GDP), amounting to about 10% of total spending by the government as a whole. This figure is near the world average, but is not in sync with and is much higher than what the Economic Survey of 2018-19 shows. Even if this figure is presumed correct, our spend per student, especially at the primary and secondary levels, is abysmally low. The NEP admits that our figures are much lower than what most other countries spend on education. Hence, it aims to raise spending on education to 6% of GDP, which our national policies from 1968 onwards have been recommending.

According to Narendra Jadhav in Future of the Indian Education System, even 6% of GDP may be inadequate, given the ambitious scope of the NEP. Nevertheless, enhancing it to this committed level over the next five years, with covid vaccines expected to help the economy achieve normalcy, would be a progressive step.

Increasing public expenditure has to proceed in tandem with private investment in this field. Ambiguity on the latter has helped none and often been questioned. As Jadhav argues “…instead of promoting disguised trusts and pseudo non-profit entities…", one could perhaps think in terms of allowing private participation for profit, with proper regulation and subject to “reasonable supervision". However, this crucial aspect has been dealt with in the NEP rather half-heartedly. Terms like “private philanthropic activity in the education sector" and a “light but tight" regulatory approach have been liberally used, but offer little clarity.

The important question, therefore, is to ask where additional financial resources would come from. While it is convenient to criticize government agencies for inadequate allocation to this sector, no economist or education administrator offers much of a clue about balancing the income and expenditure of the government. Which are the sectors that can manage with substantial budgetary cuts in the form of subsidy removals or the like? Increasing tax rates further (except for the super-rich) is difficult, mobilizing resources through privatization is fraught with risk (with officials being hauled up by investigating agencies and courts even after a decade or more of their actions), and even perceptions of a potential subsidy reduction tend to provoke agitations by groups that fear being adversely affected. Unfortunately, social sectors have no strong and unified lobbies to voice their demands and concerns, and make the government stick to its promise.

Here are some suggestions for the government to consider.

First, concentrate on setting up the institutions and bodies, including the new regulatory architecture, envisioned by the NEP, with non-controversial men and women of proven merit appointed at the helm of affairs. Much of this can be accomplished before March this year.

Second, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman should hold exclusive consultations with educationists, planners and other stakeholders over how the NEP’s requirements can best be met, as part of her pre-budget exercises.

Third, in order for the central and state governments to be equally involved in the proceedings, reconsider setting up the Rashtriya Shiksha Aayog and its state-level counterparts, as envisaged in the draft NEP. This is important since state government expenditure as a proportion of total government expenditure seems to be declining. The need for much higher public spending on primary and secondary education, and for an expanding role of the private sector in tertiary education, should also be addressed by such empowered bodies.

Fourth, enhance the financial allocation to this sector in real terms. This would show the seriousness of the government’s intent and commitment. To start with, it may be a good idea to consider reducing the allocation, for example, to the expensive Central Vista project for the time being, and re-allot that money to the country’s education budget. The project may be a priority of the Union government, but education is a much higher national priority.

Finally, for the NEP to make a difference, and a non-incremental one at that, Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself should lead the effort.

Left to the education ministry, the NEP of 2020 is likely to meet the same fate as the earlier ones. Unless education receives the kind of importance that internal security or defence is accorded in India, the chances of this policy turning out to be a game-changer do not appear particularly bright.

Amitabha Bhattacharya is former principal adviser (Education and Culture), Planning Commission.

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