The education sector highlights in Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s Budget speech “had no numbers” or clear allocations to specific schemes, leaving many educationists and activists disappointed.

Barring the Rs 4,000 crores allocated to the Skill Acquisition and Knowledge Awareness for Livelihood Promotion Programme and another Rs 2,200 crores for Skill Strengthening for Industrial Value Enhancement, the Budget had few details on actual allocations to the sector.

“The superficiality with which the education budget has been dealt with in the speech is probably a sign that it is not a priority area,” said Kiran Bhatty of the Centre for Policy Research. “There is actually no change and no new thrust. For education, it is a completely lacklustre budget.”

Added Ambarish Rai of the Right to Education Forum: “The speech had nothing on funds for schemes such as the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan [for universal elementary education] or the mid-day meal scheme. There was no word on pre-primary or secondary education or training of teachers either. It was very disappointing.”

Reactions to the few announcements that Jaitley made were mixed at best.

Autonomy to colleges

Jaitley’s statement that “good quality institutions” of higher education will be granted “greater administrative and academic autonomy…based on accreditation and ranking” stoked fears of government funds being withdrawn from public education.

Course structure and curriculum, over which universities such as Delhi University once enjoyed near-complete autonomy, are now centrally decided by the University Grants Commission. The National Democratic Alliance government made all central universities adopt a common Choice-based Credit System in 2015.
“Universities already have no autonomy in matters of academics or even administration so what is this autonomy about if it is not financial?” asked Abha Dev Habib, member of the Democratic Teachers’ Front, and a former executive council member of Delhi University.

Teachers groups have been suspicious of the National Assessment and Accreditation Council ever since the University Grants Commission in 2012 made it compulsory for all institutions of higher educuation to be accredited to this organisation. The teachers groups argue that this was intended to bring public and private institutions within the framework of a single ranking system and facilitate private funding of public institutions.

In his Budget speech, Jaitley also promised that the government “will undertake reforms in the UGC [University Grants commission]” and that a “revised framework will be put in place for outcome-based accreditation and credit-based programmes”.

“Colleges with high ranks could be made autonomous and asked to find funds on their own,” said Habib. “This could lead to an increase in fees too.”

National Testing Agency

To take the pressure off bodies such as the Central Board of Secondary Education and the All India Council for Technical Education, Jaitley announced that a National Testing Agency would be set up to “conduct all entrance examinations for higher education institutions”. This agency would be “autonomous and self-sustained”, he said.

The Central Board of Secondary Education is the school examination board that also conducts several entrance tests for higher educational institutions including the Joint Entrance Examination for engineering and the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test for medical education.

The All India Council for Technical Education oversees technical education in the country.

Bhatty of the Centre for Policy Research said that adding yet another body may not help as “eventually our institutions have to function better”.

Innovation in secondary school

Jaitley announced an Innovation Fund for Secondary Education that will “encourage local innovation for ensuring universal access, gender parity and quality improvement”. No specific allocation was mentioned but only that the focus will be on the 3,479 educationally backward blocks.

“Innovation is nothing new,” said Rai of the Right to Education Forum. “What is needed is infrastructure, the basics.”

He also pointed out that the government has not made any preparations to handle the increase in enrollment in secondary schools due to the growth in the number of students after the Right to Education Act, 2009, which made primary education free and compulsory, was implemented.

The Rasthriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan was not mentioned in the Budget speech and the increase in allocation to it is nominal.

Skills education

The only sector that had an allocation made for it in the speech was skills education. Jaitley proposed to launch a Skill Acquisition and Knowledge Awareness for Livelihood Promotion Programme for “market relevant training” to 3.5-crore youth. Rs 4,000 crores has been allocated to it. Another Rs 2,200 crores has been allocated to the Skill Strengthening for Industrial Value Enhancement for 2017-’18 for improving the quality of vocational training in Industrial Training Institutes and to “strengthen the apprenticeship programmes.”

Jaitley also repeated last year’s promise to focus on learning outcomes – class and subject-wise minimum standards of learning children are expected to achieve in school. But Bhatty said that this was “like putting the cart before the horse”.

A list of expected outcomes has been developed and likely to be incorporated into the central rules of the Right to Education Act.

“We have proposed to introduce a system of measuring annual learning outcomes in our schools,” said Jaitley.

But, as Bhatty observed, “Improving measurement of outcomes will not fix the problem.”