When Benjamin Franklin, the American polymath and a founding father of the United States of America said that “an investment in knowledge pays the best interest”, he had referred to its uses and not to its mere accumulation. Franklin said it more than two centuries ago and his concept of the use of knowledge differed completely from what it means today.
Education today is largely considered as a mean to obtain gainful employment. Indeed, many organisations that evaluate the return on investment in education often do it on the basis of the employability quotient.
The data with regard to India are, unfortunately, quite alarming. According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), India will again see its unemployment rate at 3.5% in 2018 and 2019, the same which was seen in 2017 and 2016. According to the latest data, there will be 18.9 million jobless people in India next year which will be a little more than 18.6 million for 2018.
One of the reasons behind this is that India has a small number of quality institutions in spite of the growth in the number of higher education providers. Consequently, a large number of self-financed private institutions have mushroomed to cater to the growing demand from the aspiring students. Many of these institutions lack requisite infrastructure facilities and qualified faculty. As a result, a large number of the students coming out of these institutions often lack the aptitude and skills which the employers, particularly in the corporate sector, are looking for.
The big challenge the country faces today is how education can be rewired to focus on imparting knowledge that responds to market demand. That is, how can education make students future-ready? It is critical for India to develop workable paradigms that addresses the knowledge revolution and the challenges the future workforce would need to address. Unless it happens, education and employability cannot be correlated.
But while one cannot deny the aspiration of educated youths to get jobs – they often choose courses which have better prospects of getting jobs – education has a different role to play in a society as well. In fact, this must be the prime force that has led governments across the world to spend huge amounts of money to build educational infrastructure.
A stable and democratic society needs widespread acceptance of some common set of values and this needs a minimum degree of literacy and knowledge on the part of most citizens. The gain from education of a child accrues not to the child alone or to his parents but to other members of society as well; it contributes to people’s welfare by promoting a stable and democratic society.
The exercise begins at the primary level and India has made significant progress on access to schooling and enrollment rates in primary education. Primary school enrollment in India has been a success story, largely due to various programmes and drives to increase enrollment even in remote areas. However, dropout rates and low levels of learning remain challenges for the state and the central governments.
Despite ground level problems the universal enrolment has been achieved in India at the elementary level (Classes I-VIII). Gross enrollment ratio (GER) is the student enrollment as a proportion of the corresponding eligible age group in a given year. And if GER in Classes I-V has gone down somewhat from 114% in 2008-09 to 100% in 2014-15, it has still remained high. The above-100% enrollment rate in 2008-09 indicates that students enrolled in Classes I-V included those younger than six or older than 10 years. In 2014-15, enrolment in Classes I-V was about 100%, which signals a more age-appropriate class composition.
The enrollment in higher education too has increased steadily over the past decade, reaching a GER of 25.4% for male and 23.5% for female students in 2015-16. However, there still remains a significant distance to catch up with tertiary education enrollment levels of developed nations, a challenge that will be necessary to overcome in order to continue to reap a demographic dividend from India's comparatively young population.
At the primary and secondary level, India has a large private school system complementing the government run schools, with 29% of students receiving private education in the 6 to 14 age group. The role of the private sector has gone up significantly over the years and a large number of private universities for higher education and research have come up across the country.
The major issues in education in the country, however, relates to the role of the government. Education was a state subject but there were some provisions in the Constitution itself which contradicted the absolute delegation of authority to the states. A lot of controversy continued for some time regarding the constitutional provisions of education. In 1976, this controversy was put to rest by a Constitutional Amendment. Education was put on the Concurrent list. The implications of making education a concurrent subject is that both the Centre and the states can legislate on any aspect of education from the primary to the university level. By having education in the Concurrent list, the Centre can implement directly any policy decision in the states.
Backed by constitutional provisions, the central government has shown unprecedented activity and interest in the field of education over the years. Funds-struck states have acceded to centre’s increasing monitoring and involvement.
Education is now largely paid for and administered by government bodies or so-called non-profit organisations in the country. This situation has developed gradually over the years and is now taken so much for granted that the dependence on the government has resulted in an indiscriminate extension of governmental responsibilities.
The central government on its part has increased allocation on education regularly but not as much as required. In fact, in last eight years, between 2012-13 and 2019-20, spending on education as a share of the central government’s total budgeted expenditure declined by more than one percentage point from 4.68% to 3.40%. And this fall has been steady over the years except in 2017-18 when it had gone up by a paltry 0.04% over the previous year. There is, however, a catch that this was only a budget estimate subject to a change during the year.
Although the budget allocation on education has increased by about 12% in 2019-20 over the revised estimates of 2018-19, this was largely illusory because an inflation of about 4-5% would neutralize much of it.
Since 2016-17, the government has rejigged the sharing pattern of central schemes in key sectors including secondary and higher secondary education with lower outlays in the Budget and more direct transfers in keeping with the recommendation of the 14th Finance Commission. This may have contributed marginally to a decline in the total education outlay as allocation for two schemes concerning secondary and higher education – the Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan and the Rashtriya Uchchtar Shiksha Abhiyan – were made beyond the budget allocation on education. These two schemes together accounted for about 7% of the total education outlay in 2015-16.
But more than the share in budget allocation, what will probably give a better idea of the government’s initiative in furthering education is the share of expenditure on education in Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Looking at the education spend as a share of the GDP which is what most of the international trackers do, the trend is disappointing to say the least. Like in the share of budgetary allocation, here too the share has been declining unchecked. From 3.3% in 2012-13 the share has gone down to 2.9% in 2017-18.
NITI Aayog, the think tank of the government too has highlighted that India spends less on education. In its 'Strategy for New India @ 75' report' last December, it has recommended that spending on education should be increased to at least 6% of GDP by 2022.
And when compared globally this would look really poor. While most of the developed countries spend 5% or more of their GDP on education some of the less developed African nations have scored over this figure in recent times. According to World Bank data, Ghana spent about 8.2% of its GDP in education in 2013. Congo spent 6.2% during the same period. India’s fellow BRICS countries like Brazil and South Africa spent 5.8% and 6.2% respectively during the same period. The US, Germany and France spent in excess of 5% of their GDP on education.
One may remember that almost half a century ago the Kothari Commission first recommended increasing the public spending on education to 6% of India’s GDP. But despite repeated mentions in successive National Education Policies and in the poll promises of various governments — the country is far behind the target.
Indian states at the other end are, however, allocating a considerably higher share of their total budgetary outlay on education – they are spending on infrastructure, maintaining them and paying for mostly for the teachers and other education related employees for both schools and higher level education. About a sixth of the total budgetary expenditure of the Indian states now goes to pay for education. Some states such as Chhattisgarh (19%), Maharashtra (18.6%), Assam (18.3%), Himachal Pradesh (18%) and Uttarakhand (17.3%) allocated considerably higher share of their total expenditure on education in 2017-18 budget compared to 14.8% of the average allocation of all states.
The stake is high as the public spending in education is a must in India for making it available for all and in a better quality. While the government has been congratulating itself time and again for bringing almost all the children aged 6-13 years to elementary schools, little attention has been paid to the fact that after this stage, it is downhill all the way. Gross enrollment ratios (number of students in school at a particular stage as a percentage of all children in the concerned age group) rapidly deteriorate after elementary school, going down to just 54% by senior secondary level. In other words, roughly half the children are out of school by the time they are senior school age. This works out to about 35 million children out of school. In higher education, the situation is much worse, with an enrollment ratio of just 24% for the 18-23 age groups. This includes distance education students.
There are worse indications coming from UNESCO’s Global Education Monitoring Report. The last report has warned that India will be half a century late in achieving its universal education goals. The 2030 deadline for achieving sustainable development goals will be possible only if the country introduces fundamental changes in the education sector.