Education: Budget 2021 fails the exam again

Poorly-funded education pays heavy price for Covid-19

Society

February 16, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

Education: Budget 2021 fails the exam again

India ranks 62nd in total public expenditure on education per student and measures of the quality of education (MIG Photos/Aman Kanojiya)

India, a historical laggard in public spending on key social sectors like education, health and housing, cuts allocation for education in Budget 2021, despite the heavy price that students and parents from marginal sections have paid for Covid19.

Right from the time that the ill-advised and horribly implemented lockdown to tackle Covid19 pandemic was imposed in late March 2020, students from lower middle class and poor families have been paying a heavy price as various reports indicate.

A recent study done by British charity, Oxfam, released before the budget said that Indian school teachers feared that over a third of children, almost all of them from the poorer families, may not return to schools when they reopen. The study went on to say that impact was going to be even more severe for the girls as the dropout rates of the girl child was set to rise sharply, upending all the work that the successive governments have done to bring a semblance of gender equity in India’s heavily lopsided education system.

It had been suggested that to bring students back, especially from the marginalised sections of the society, it was crucial for the governments to allocate adequate funds for a back to school campaign, with some incentives thrown in for the poorest families to ensure that their children turn up at the schools.

However, it seems that the government, notably finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman and the education minister Ramesh Pokhriyal have been sleep walking for the past year or so, first into the school closures when the pandemic hit India last year and now when the government has finally decided to reopen the schools all over the country. Over the past year, the government and its officials have been pushing online classes as the mantra and magic potion in response to the criticism over shutting down schools, dozens of studies since then have only highlighted what was common knowledge for all, except for the mandarins of the Education ministry. Most students or their families, not just the poorest third of India, are not equipped for online classes – either due to lack of a laptop or even a smartphone at home or absence of internet connection at home or even both.

Even those students who had access to telephones, computers and internet have been severely handicapped in their efforts to study online due to the poor network that has become the hallmark of the Indian telecom sector.

Not just online classes, the closing down of schools, which are yet to reopen fully nearly a year after the lockdown, also hit the marginal families in another very crucial manner. For the past couple of decades, hundreds of millions of Indian children have been fed in the much-applauded mid-day meal scheme where warm, nutritious diets are supplied to the school going children during lunch break and for a very large chunk of these students, this meal is by far the best that they get. Hence, midday meals have played an important part in the efforts to tackle malnutrition, yet another area where India fares extremely poorly in comparison even with low income countries.

In a tweet days before the budget, World Food Programme urged the Indian government to restart the mid-day meals programme as soon as schools reopened.

Slash and burn

In a report, as early in the pandemic period as May 2020, the World Bank had warned that low- and middle-income countries would slash education spending in order to make room for the requisite increase in expenditure on health and social security. The report had warned that instead of slashing, the education budgets, governments would be well advised to significantly increasing the public spending in order “to implement new health and safety requirements, to undertake the outreach activities needed to persuade students to return,” increased financing is vital for institutions now.

However, while preparing the budget, Indian finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman seems to have totally ignored these warnings and pleas. For Samagra Shiksha Abhiyan, the government’s flagship initiative for school education, the budget allocation for the coming year is much smaller than it was last year, falling from INR 387.5 billion to INR 310.5 billion, a drastic fall of 20 pc.

Not just the World Bank but also the WFP may have heartburn due to the budget as the finance minister has also cut the budget for mid-day meal programme, from INR 129 billion to INR 115 bn, a drop of nearly 11 pc. The budget also failed to address the issue of keeping schools safe to return to, or educating teachers to cope with a post-pandemic crisis, or getting children back to school, or resolving the potential food crisis.

How low is low?

India has for long been underspending in education, even though the government’s own policy guidelines suggest just the opposite. Every national education policy formulated since 1968 has called for at least 6 pc of the Indian GDP to be spent on education. Instead, even last year the government spent a mere 3.1 pc of the GDP.

When the government announced its New Education Policy last year, trying to modernise the education system across the country and bring it at par with developments across the world, it was praised for its forward-looking policy. However, there were concerns about whether the government was simply not seeking to exit the education sector almost entirely leaving the field for the private sector, for whom money matters more than the mind, as has been witnessed in the catastrophic fall in knowledge levels of Indian students, even graduates or beyond, with the corresponding rise in costs of education as each school loaded the tuition bill with a large number of unnecessary and exploitative charges.

Whether it exits education or not, the government has failed to provide adequate funding even for a proper roll out of NEP that calls for early learning for all children, a revamp of the curriculum and a clear focus on foundational numeracy and literacy in early years. It also underlines need to move away from rote learning and bringing a new assessment system that measures skills and learning rather than memorisation. All of these call for a much higher spending on education than a sharp cut that the finance minister has delivered. However, sidestepping these issues, Sitharaman simply said 15,000 schools, or less than 1 pc of all schools, will be adapted for NEP, raising questions about the extremely slow pace of the NEP roll out as well as creating yet another divide in India’s highly split education system.

The results of severe paucity of public funding of education have been evident for a long while. One was the rather shameful outcome in the last time that India participated in PISA, an international benchmark test developed by the OECD to test students from around the world on their learning. In 2009, when India participated in PISA, it finished 72nd out of 73 countries, outranking only Kyrgyzstan. Since then, India has strayed away from the test until now, though it would participate in the PISA test slated for 2021. As a result of underfunding, over 1 million government schools where over 52 pc of about 250 million students learn, have been long starved of funds. With Covid19 pushing tens of millions of Indian households to below the poverty line, the number of students dependent upon government schools for their education is set to rise. The government schools would need more money not just for a higher number of students but also for new equipment like computers and broadband connectivity.

India’s public education spending has not been enough to either attract foreign talent to the country or develop indigenous top brains, a recent World Talent ranking report by IMD showed. India spends less on education per student, and the quality of education also remains dismal in the country with a big pupil-teacher ratio in primary and secondary education, according to the IMD report. This has resulted in a massive dip in India’s world talent ranking and the country is just ahead of four other nations in attracting and retaining top talent. “India ranks 62nd in total public expenditure on education per student and measures of the quality of education (pupil-teacher ratio in primary and in secondary education,” IMD said.

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