22 Jan 2021 19:52 IST

Budget 2021 must focus on improving education spend

Centre has to invest directly and encourage States to significantly enhance their higher education budget

It’s insipid to begin with a cliché. But it has to be said: Higher education is at the crossroads. While the higher education sector is beset with multiple challenges in terms of access, equity, and excellence, the New Education Policy (NEP) 2020 aims for ambitious improvements. However, the pandemic has attenuated the traditional higher education system, introduced many abrupt changes into the sector, and strained the fiscal muscle of the governments.

The sector has enough appetite for more resources to enhance access, with only 26.3 per cent of the population in 18 to 23 age cohort enrolled for higher education, and 153 districts still having less than ten colleges each. Boosting quality of higher education needs humongous investment as only 0.69 per cent of GDP goes into research and innovation and less than 0.5 of the total enrolled students pursue PhD. Physical infrastructure requires attention too, as over 15 per cent of the colleges have less than 100 students enrolled and over one-third of the colleges have less than 200 students, partly due to paucity of infrastructure. While quality of teachers necessitates exclusive focus, the Seventh Pay recommendations for compensation and incentives for teachers have either not been implemented at all or fully implemented in some States.

Cost of quality education

With quality as its core objective, the NEP advocates for converting all the institutions into multi-disciplinary units; making universities more research oriented; authorising top colleges to award degrees; revamping accreditation mechanism; adopting technology to bring in blended mode of teaching-learning; seamlessly integrating general higher education with professional, technical and vocational education; offering additional student benefits including medical support; and creating new organisations, among others things. Quality and excellence are long term pursuits, demanding time, dedication and, of course, resources. The business as usual in terms of funding and efforts would not induce any real change.

In terms of overall budgetary expenditure of education ministries of both the Central and State governments combined, the expenditure on education hovers around 10.5 per cent, at least since 2014-15. The budgeted expenditure as a percentage of GDP is 3.1 for 2019-20. However, if the total expenditure on education incurred by education ministries /departments and other ministries/departments of both the Union and State governments are considered, then the budgeted expenditure as a percentage of GDP clocked 4.43 per cent of the GDP in 2017-18 itself, up from 3.86 per cent in 2013-14.

Dips and drops

Fifteen States spent less than the national average of 4.43 per cent of the GDP on education, including five states that spent less than three per cent. Of the total education spend, Centre contributes a tad lower than one-fourth, with the remaining three-fourths coming from the States and UTs. For 2017-18, higher education expenditure as a proportion of GDP stood at 1.45 per cent.

Though the budget of the Department of Higher Education (DoHE) has increased at around 6 per cent on average (CAGR) during the last decade, the budget of DoHE as a proportion of the total budget provision of the Centre has dipped steadily, dropping from around 1.74 per cent in 2011-12 to 1.30 per cent in 2020-21. This, despite the introduction of the DoHE’s only Centrally Sponsored Scheme of Rashtriya Uchchatar Shiksha Abhiyan (RUSA), a mission-mode programme for improving state level higher education institutions, in 2013-14.

The drop in the budget of DoHE coincided with the reduction in the budget of University Grants Commission (UGC), post the launch of RUSA, indicating inter-institutional transfer of fund rather than increase in the overall budget.

Increasing education spend

Absorption of funds by the sector or the States do not pose any issue, as evidenced by the data of approvals, disbursals and utilisation. DoHE has spent over 90 per cent of its budget during the last decade. Even for the current year, where the governments and educational institutions were not fully operational due to the pandemic, the total expenditure of DoHE for the two quarters ending September, 2020, reached 33 per cent, as against around 50 per cent during the three previous normal years. Under RUSA, the approvals in its second phase of 2017-20 was over 94 per cent compared to 33 per cent in the first phase of 2017-20. Disbursals and utilisation of funds for projects approved under the first phase are around 88 per cent and 78 per cent respectively.

To make the higher education sector quality driven and more equitable and accessible, a strategic plan based on the NEP is required for the administrative ministries, along with matching budget, so that the public expenditure on higher education reaches at least two per cent of the GDP and the overall education spend clocks at 6 per cent.

The way forward is to spend more from the Central funds and also encourage States, that contribute three-fourths of the total education expenditure, to finance more. Firstly, the Centre has to invest more directly. Secondly, it needs to cheer up States by partnering them in funding all the State government universities and colleges, on the condition that the States significantly enhance their higher education budget.

It is hoped that the Budget 2021 sends the green signal for a new beginning for the higher education sector by allocating profusely to DoHE and earmarking funds to the UGC or its successor at least at the pre-2016 level.

(The writer is a Delhi-based education consultant.)