20 Feb 2016 14:12 IST

The JNU case: How much does India spend on higher education?

Public expenditure per student as a percentage of GDP in India is higher than the world average

Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) has hogged the headlines this week. Even as the president of its student body is behind bars on sedition charges, most students and teachers of the well-acclaimed university are up in arms over this move.

One section of the population outside the campus came down extremely hard on JNU, alleging that the seat of higher education was wasting tax-payers’ money. The most talked-about reaction was that of Mohandas Pai, the former CFO and HR head of Infosys. Following is the most controversial part of what Pai, now Chairman of Aarin Capital Partners, said:

“As for JNU, it is time the government asked students to pay the full cost of education; in case students wish to focus on politics and not on their studies, there is no case for taxpayers to subsidise extreme views or an archaic Left. Freedom does not include the right to misuse tax payers’ monies.”

Some countered Pai’s reasoning, alleging that corporate India (in the belief that Pai represented India Inc), which keeps harping for subsidies, shouldn’t point at others when it comes to wasting public money.

The dough debate

The comment set off a debate on government expenditure on universities such as JNU. Some of the figures, actively shared on social media, were telling. Though yet to be verified, the numbers showed that the government does spend quite a lot on higher education.

But is it really true? At a time when private school education and capitation fees are breaking records every year, shouldn’t the government, in fact, spend more to make education affordable to all sections of the population?

Squeezing the pipe

It will be useful to look at a few numbers to understand how much the Indian government spends on education.

In Budget 2015, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley had reduced government spending on education by 16 per cent. Even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi advocated skill training, his government reduced its budget for education by over ₹10,000 crore.

That cut made India’s case even weaker in global pecking order of spend on education, as a percentage of GDP. According to the World Bank, the world on an average spent 4.9 per cent of its GDP on education, and India’s share was just 3.3 per cent, in 2010. It is the lowest spender on education among the BRICS countries. Interestingly, India’s public expenditure on schools, colleges, and teachers had peaked at 4.3 per cent of the GDP in 1999.

Unfair comparison?

Pawan Agarwal, Joint Secretary at Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship, Government of India, wrote a book on higher education in 2007. He noted that higher education spending in India was 0.7 per cent of GDP in 2005, faring well compared with countries such as China and Japan. But other nations such as France (1.1 per cent) and the US (1.3 per cent) did better.

But Agarwal reiterates that the GDP comparison is not fair, and goes on to compare the public expenditure per student. While developed countries spent close to $10,000 per student every year, India spent $400 for each of its students in a year. Even Philippines and Indonesia fared better.

But when it comes to public expenditure per student as a per cent of GDP per capita (derived by dividing the GDP by the number of people in the country), India’s spend on higher education goes much higher than the world average.

Dependent on funds

In India, primary education is tilting towards the private sector, especially in the cities. But when it comes to universities and colleges, public expenditure is still dominant.

Internationally, governments, especially those of the developed countries, have heavily funded education from the primary level onwards. Many famous international names in higher education depend on government funds and private grants to run their classes. Few, despite having excellent track records in research, can generate enough money by themselves to sustain. Still, the present global crisis has put pressure on public funding of higher education in the developed countries.

JNU could do better in generating funds through research and consultation services. But its dependence on government money to survive is not unique in the higher education space.