Acountry with nearly 50 per cent of its population below 25, India needs extra emphasis on education as a key to economic progress. Education, that happens to be on the Concurrent List, has seldom been a priority of either the Centre or state governments. The allocation for education in the budget for 2020-21 reflects the same trend and, like the previous budgetary exercises, lacks the components that can help the Indian education sector take a giant leap forward.

Apparently, however, it tries to please by delving into more reforms by deploying less than expected resources. Thanks to the GDP growth rate dropping much faster than what economists would have thought, the current share of public spending on education – that never rose to even 4 per cent of the GDP – keeps falling steadily. Ironically, India as an emerging nation has been involved in spreading education at all levels since Independence. While India has done better than most countries in higher education, the picture in the spheres of elementary and secondary education is not so bright.

Quite the most positive feature of the educational component of the 2020 Union budget is to provide quality education to students of deprived sections of society as well as those who do not have access to higher education. It is proposed to start a degree level full-fledged online educational programme. Such programmes will be offered by the top 100 institutions. Also to be welcomed is the Rs 3,000 crore skill development fund to fix the mismatch between education and employability. Hopefully, this will address the problem of “unemployment”.

Hopefully again, 150 higher education institutions will start apprenticeship embedded degreediploma courses in the financial year 2020-21. The budget has proposed steps to enable sourcing External Commercial borrowings and Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) so as to be able to deliver high quality education. Under its “Study in India” programme, a new examination in the name of Ind-SAT has been envisaged to be held in Asian and African countries. A total of Rs 65 crore has been allocated for the “Study in India” programme in the financial year 2020-21 compared to Rs 32 crore in revised estimate of 2020.

Also, an investment of Rs 200 crore over the next 5 years for a new national mission on quantum technology is to be made. Budget 2020 has enhanced the allocation for the education sector to Rs 99,311.52 crore in financial year 2020-21. Of this, higher education has been allocated Rs 39,466.52 crore and literary development Rs 59,845 crore. However, it is observed that the marginal 3 per cent hike in the allocation for education is less than the rate of inflation.

Obviously, an elevated fund allocation would have provided a much more important outlook of India as a nation keen on building its human capital. Despite the government allowing 100 per cent FDI in the education sector in the past, it did not experience great success. A liberal model seemed to be suitable and academia was eager to have some budgetary provisions. A positive vibrant signal to global worldclass campuses could have been sent for building strong tie ups with existing institutions of higher education or bringing new infrastructure to the country.

Another alternative coming up from the budget in this direction could be to put more focus on exploring the possibility of Public-Private partnerships in the education sector to provide more access to qualitative higher education in our country’s present scenario. In Budget 2020, it is noted that allocations for education and skill development differ by a big margin. This may not be useful for the future of the education sector, especially for technical development, in accordance with the government’s own plan of integrating vocational and general education.

The budget emphasizes the government’s move for different kinds of improvements under the flagship National Education Programme (NEP). Also envisaged are opening up of various initiatives to enable overseas students to be involved, setting up of medical colleges with district level hospitals supported by funding by the government. It is feared that the framework for its implementation might be fraught with difficulties. The budget also does not cater to the needs of making higher education affordable by subsidising education loans. It lacks the mention of any scholarship funding scheme for higher education level.

Overall, it is not encouraging to reflect that the education budget might hinder rather than facilitate the advancement of learning. While the Right to Information depends almost wholly on the government’s will, the Right to Education hinges equally on the will of the state and appropriate funding. Unfortunately, the spending on education in terms of its share in GDP has been declining. In fact, it touched a peak of 3.3 per cent of GDP in 2012. It has been declining since.

The Kothari Commission had in 1966 recommended an increase in the expenditure on education to 6 per cent of the GDP. It does not appear anyway acceptable to continue with poor spending on education. Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister had been nurturing a dream of building a workforce of 50 million people by 2022. It seems we have miles to go before the government succeeds in giving shape to this cherished goal. No clear pronouncement has been made in Budget 2020 in respect of putting a greater stress on vocational training or for providing easy access to education for rural children who are unable to afford expensive private institutions.

In 2013-14, 9 per cent of the 13 lakh government schools were RTE Act-compliant. The percentage increased to 13 in 2017-18. Then, it has increased by 1 percentile every year. At this rate, it will take a long time to achieve 100 per cent RTE-compliant schools. Sadly, the budget for 2020-21 hardly addresses this serious concern.

(The writer, a former Associate Professor, Department of English, Gurudas College, Kolkata, is presently associated with Rabindra Bharati University)