Budget 2021: What does a dip in budget allocation mean for the future of education?

While the sector sees a significant drop in allocation, the finance minister focuses on increasing access to education and lays down a broad implementation plan for the NEP

Published: Feb 1, 2021 05:46:52 PM IST
Updated: Feb 1, 2021 05:52:17 PM IST

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Students access e-learning contents on mobile phones during a class in Imamwada, Mumbai/ Shutterstock 

Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on Monday highlighted the government’s intent to increase access to education across the country. During her Budget speech, she mentioned a number of key developments in line with the National Education Policy introduced by the government last year.

The sector received a total allocation of Rs 93,224 crore this year—a drop from last year’s Rs 99,300 crore. "We would like to see more investments and budget allocation for the education sector to enhance it with more trending technologies which will make education accessible to students in the farthest corners of the country," says Vamsi Krishna, CEO & co-founder, Vedantu, an online tutoring platform.

Given the hardships faced by teachers and students because of the coronavirus pandemic and lack of access to digital technologies throughout India, more was expected from the Budget. Many of the key points laid out do not have an action plan, undermining the implementation of these proposed initiatives. The New Education Policy (NEP) is one of them.

NEP was introduced last year with the aim to structurally alter the Indian education system and make it in line with global standards—from pre-school to higher education. The NEP— that has till now been a vision board—saw a probable initiation plan with 15,000 schools being the torchbearers of implementation of all components of NEP. "More than 15,000 schools will be qualitatively strengthened to include all components of the NEP. They shall emerge as exemplar schools in their regions, handholding and mentoring other schools to achieve the ideals of the policy," said Sitharaman, adding that 100 new Sainik Schools will be set up in partnership with NGOs/private schools/states.

Students expected to hear more on the NEP plan in the minister’s speech. "I would have expected a clearer implementation plan for the NEP… there are so many provisions mentioned in the NEP document but the Budget saw no mention for most of them," says Shreya Sharma, an undergraduate student in Ludhiana.

The Pandemic Impact
Given how the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted schooling and education, the government has proposed steps to strengthen the digital education landscape. It has proposed the setting up of a National Digital Educational Architecture (NDEAR) to support teaching and learning activities, educational planning, and governance and administrative activities of the Centre and states/Union Territories. 

The architecture aims to provide a diverse education ecosystem for the development of digital infrastructure. "The complete shift from using assessments to not only judge the cognitive levels of the learner but also using it as an opportunity to identify the unique strengths and the potential is a student-centric approach that will lead to a holistic development of a child and provide them a greater edge, globally," says Krishna.

While claiming to have trained more than 30 lakh elementary school teachers digitally during the Covid-19 pandemic, the government plans to train another 56 lakh school teachers through the National Initiative for School Heads and Teachers for Holistic Advancement (NISTHA) this year.

What next?
The Higher Education Commission of India that was introduced in the 2019-20 Budget will be implemented this fiscal. "It will be an umbrella body having four separate vehicles for standard-setting, accreditation, regulation, and funding," said Sitharaman. The commission will be responsible for the accreditation and regular funding of associated colleges and universities.

Focusing on the cities that have a number of research institutions, universities, and colleges supported by the government of India, the minister proposed the setting up of an umbrella structure to maintain synergy and improve standards of education being imparted. Mentioning Hyderabad as an example of 40 educational institutions within a city, Sitharaman said, "In nine such cities, we will create formal umbrella structures so that these institutions can have better synergy, while also retaining their internal autonomy. A Glue Grant will be set aside for this purpose."

The government plans to envision 'a holistic progress card' to provide students with valuable information on their strengths, areas of interest, needed areas of focus, with the aim of aiding them in making optimal career choices. "It’s good to see that this is being mentioned in the Budget, while our report cards are already structured this way… I think there will be an increased focus on all-round development now,” says Sharma. The Budget proposes testing students on the basis of their conceptual clarity, analytical skills and application of knowledge to real-life situations. Sitharaman did not mention how the government plans to do that. She also proposed the setting up of a central university in Leh, for accessible higher education in Ladakh.

Keeping the vision of universalised higher education of NEP intact, the Budget focuses on creating a regulatory mechanism to permit dual degrees, joint degrees, twinning arrangements and other such mechanisms. While collaborations with the United Arab Emirates and Japan, adding more rural schools and strengthening the national apprenticeship programme have been welcome changes, industry experts expected more. Says Akhil Shahani, managing director, Thadomal Shahani Centre for Management, Shahani Group and Ask.Careers, "A lot more could have been done to build India's education sector as per the goals set out by NEP 2020. For instance, increased allocation of funds up to six percent of GDP (as recommended by expert committees), opening the sector to private for-profit investors and allowing foreign universities to set up campuses in India were great opportunities which were missed in this Budget."

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