Who’s To Blame?

Crisis of Education

Prajanma Das

Education expenditure as a percentage of GDP was at an abysmal 2.8 per cent during 2014-2019 and increased to 3-3.5 per cent in the 2019-21 period, reported the Economic Survey 2020-21. The sector was allotted only Rs 93,224 crore for 2021, with Rs 54,873 crore for school education and literacy and Rs 38,350 crore for the higher education sector. The government rationalised this 6 per cent cut in allocation with the pandemic and its ensuing effects.

If one supposes that the government will increase education expenditure, the next question is which sector within education should get it. School and college education have the majority votes here. But why is spending on primary, secondary and even the first level of tertiary or higher education so important? Because it helps build an invaluable resource — human capital. A skilled and educated labour force takes the country faster on the path to development with a higher growth rate. The new age demands a highly skilled labour force and educating them is the only way towards growth, feel experts.

Research and studies said that India is on a revival path. But the country wasn’t at what one would call a great place even before the pandemic hit. Over the past few years, even pre-pandemic, India’s growth rate has been sub-par — lower than the long term average. “The strategy that the government followed after that included initiatives like Make in India and Aatmanirbhar Bharat, which are manufacturing-focused and have their mind set on infrastructural development like highways etc. This is a very standard approach. But manufacturing today has evolved. It's not as labour intensive as it used to be. The low-cost manufacturing China capitalised on is not possible now,” said Dr Partha Chatterjee, Professor and Head of the Department of Economics at Shiv Nadar University.

But launching schemes and programmes does not cut it, it needs to be implemented as well. Technology has evolved and has become an integral part of manufacturing as well. This has changed the demand for labour. Enterprises need more skilled labour now who can operate these sophisticated new-age setups. “Now, you need skilled labour and India is lagging in that front. So we need investment in skilling the labour force. There are two parts to this — a short term solution where we target the younger population who can learn and re-learn to advance in their career and a solution for long term sustainable growth. But to skill the labour force, they need fundamental education that is lacking,” Dr Chatterjee added.

For one thing India’s education system is too focused on examinations and marks, said Prateek Shukla, Co-founder and CEO of Masai School. “We are really not looking at skilling. All over the world, we see governments moving to outcome-based learning as the future of education. Over the last two years, school dropouts have increased. More and more Indian kids are not completing their school education. In the budget, we should see some interventions to keep students in school to at least complete their high school education,” he added.

 Primary education needs a boost — this seems to be the consensus. And India needs that boost right now before it's too late.

Dr Ramanand Nand, the Director, and founding member of a think tank named Center of Policy Research & Governance (CPRG) agreed that it is high time to investigate more in education. “We have missed too many trains when it comes to education. We missed it back in the 60s when countries like China, Japan and South Korea were investing a lot in education. Some countries started spending more on education in the 2000s. Now, we are living in a period when technology has become a driving force and it can push us towards development. It is a very natural expectation from the government that they invest more in the education sector,” Dr Nand said.

But the focus can be even refined. Eminent academician Dr Amit Bhaduri said that government should build toilets for girl children in primary schools on priority. Sounds odd? Why not recruit teachers? Dr Bhaduri’s proposition is long term. It has positive externalities. While improving their health and sanitary conditions is the immediate and direct effect, it will bring them to school and the indirect effects include, more educated girls, reduced population growth rate and much more. “One of the first things that the government should do in the primary education sector is building toilets for girl students. I think, in India, this is the first priority. If it is a functioning school then this is the priority when it comes to capital expenditure. This has lots of externalities,” he added.

A budget is always a competition between what one invests more in, which sector gets more — because there are constraints. “The government does not have resources,” said economist Dr Sugata Marjit. “After the pandemic, every country in the world is suffering due to scarcity of revenue resources. This government is suffering too and no amount of daydreaming can compensate for that. So I believe that the government should judiciously spend on primary, secondary and the first leg of the tertiary education which are the colleges,” said Dr Marjit, the First Distinguished Professor at the Indian Institute of Foreign Trade and the former VC of the University of Kolkata.

India, over the past few years, has gained IIMs, IITs and numerous centres of excellence across the country. But does that alone help boost the research ecosystem or development? “There’s no use of setting up very "hi-fi" research labs without any attention to primary, secondary and college education. But that is the attitude of our science and technology policy. We want to create excellence. There is no use in creating pockets of excellence in this country. A centre of excellence can’t just be created, it has to be achieved. There needs to be more focus on the quality of teachers and the teaching system,” said Dr Marjit.

Online education can, at best, supplement, but never be a substitute for physical classes, said Dr Chatterjee. "The sad thing that has happened is that we haven’t even tried hard to get kids back to school — we still don't have vaccines for people younger than 15 years. We need to think about getting more teachers. We obviously need to think of ways to get students back to school. Studies have shown that giving out tabs or smart phones does not help the learning outcome. To get students back to school maintaining SOPs we need to have more teachers so that the students can be taught in shifts. Investments should be made to make schools safer for the students,” he added.

Internet connectivity or the lack of it has been the biggest divider for the past two years. While classes went online, it created a huge gap between the upper and lower strata of society. While urban kids had great to decent access to the internet, rural and remote India suffered — India still has approximately 37 per cent internet penetration. “I think this attempt to digitise rural primary education was an utter failure and it should not have been done. But if you want to move to an online set-up, the first thing is internet access at home. But how many of them have that?” asked economist Dr Amit Bhaduri.

What can the government do to bridge this glaring connectivity gap? Aakash Chaudhry, Managing Director, Aakash Educational Services Limited (AESL) said that the government should announce an attractive stimulus package and provisions for the education industry to bridge the gap between urban and rural areas.

Experts have, time and again, said that educational expenditure should be 6 per cent of the GDP. The golden number. But how much can India afford right now? Dr Marjit said that a 1 per cent rise from where India stands right now would be a great step up.

But how much are others spending? “In most countries, basic education is nowadays perceived not only as a right but a duty. Governments around the world are nowadays widely perceived to be responsible for ensuring the provision of accessible quality education. As incomes—measured by GDP per capita—are increasing around the world, so are the global resources spent on education in absolute terms,” said Prashant Jain, CEO, Oswaal Books.

But it's not the developed countries alone who are spending big bucks on education. “While developed countries go for a six-plus percentage allocation, there are many developing and even poorer countries which have a greater allocation of education expenditure as a percentage of GDP. The country that put everybody to shame is Cuba with an allocation of close to 12 per cent. And they have been doing that for a long time. If you look at some of these countries in Africa which are in a similar position, also have close to 6 per cent allocation. So the developing country excuse does not work here,” said Dr Marjit.

The past two years have seen the government talk about education more than it has done in years. The National Education Policy became a major talking point. But it's been almost two years since. Not much has changed.

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Vol 54, No. 34, Feb 20 - 26, 2022