Additional funds critical

NEP & Budget

By Dhurjati Mukherjee

The National Education Policy (NEP) continues to solicit much debate and educationists will be eagerly looking forward to the Budget today, in the hope that funds no longer remain low despite lofty promises. The policy is based on the foundational pillars access, affordability, equity, quality and accountability. However, while the government is interested in giving a thrust in education, it appears it’s unwilling to arrange at least some enhanced resources for implementing the NEP, which also includes funds for research and development.

India has been expanding on higher education system without proportionate increase in budgets. In comparison, China spends more money on two of its premier institutions – Tsinghua and Peking Universities — than the entire higher education budget of the Ministry of Human Resource Development. It is generally believed by educationists that while NEP may be a step in the right direction, without additional fund allocation for its implementation, it’s going to be a herculean task to implement the policy in the right spirit in our institutions. More so, as NEP sought public investment on education to be 6% of GDP, but regrettably it hasn’t been the case.

On the other hand, it appears that the public university system is being dismantled by policy makers. A handful of universities, such as Jadavpur, Pune, Punjab, Calcutta, Anna, miraculously retain high rankings, vying with IITs and other centres with exponentially greater funding. The kingpin of UGCs multi-pronged funding strategy was the now-defunct five-year plan, affording fresh capital infusion. Universities with virtually zero resources like Jadavpur acquired substantial infrastructure and academic standing.

Lately, the ministry decided to offer Rs 1000 crore grant to institutes of eminence. Of the first 10 identified, were state-run Jadavpur and Anna University. The ministry then sprang a shock – the state must pledge 40% of the funds and the impasse remains unresolved till date. The Jadavpur University has been forced to scout for funds from its alumni, some of whom occupy high positions in India and abroad. Experts are of the opinion that universities now function like government departments – precisely what they were designed to avoid.

Public universities have been robbed both of resources and the means to acquire these. This has shattered their morale which, in turn, has subverted teacher-student relations. While universities control their own affairs, student unrest can be tackled through underlying checks and balances. The plight of public universities leaves the privileged classes unmoved — they are turning to a new generation of private foundations of which only a handful meet any rigorous criteria. The same might be said of public universities but given the realities of our vernacular schooling system and the economic condition of the masses, private universities cannot possibly acquire the critical mass to be chief knowledge providers to an India-sized population.

While public universities are suffering due to lack of resources, private universities are coming up which charge high fees which is beyond the reach of low-income groups. Improving the quality of education is, no doubt, very much desirable but it has also to be ensured that students from low-income sections and the economically weaker groups get proper education at affordable rates. Further, it’s distressing to note the government has stopped many scholarships and research grants.

Another important aspect is the low spending on R&D. If India aspires to occupy the third in the world position for knowledge generation, dwindling grants for research will not help and Indian scientists cannot reach global heights. The National Research Foundation (NRF) is yet to be established, as formulated in the NEP, and it is necessary that funds must be found from various sources. While basic research must be encouraged to a higher level, the fund for addressing societal problems must come from various ministries and industries.

It is worthwhile to refer to a recent conference organised by the Indian Chamber of Commerce where Prof. Suranjan Das, eminent historian, and Jadavpur University Vice Chancellor, stressed that NEP should take into account the legal discrepancies between setting up of foreign universities in India and pre-existing Indian ones. Outlining some caveats that could democratise the global education platform in India, Das suggested that foreign universities should be able to penetrate rural areas and not only be limited to the metropolises and should be affordable and accessible. Otherwise, ‘new further class divisions could creep up in the student community, creating socio-educational problems.’

Going by present trends it appears that with the spread of neoliberal capitalism, the privileged section will acquire quality education that will enable it to fill executive and official positions whereas others excluded from such education will be given skills and will join the vast segment of the workforce among whom limited number of available positions is rationed out. The globalisation of capital, characteristic of neoliberal capitalism, has also created a global market that requires a homogeneous education across countries. This detaches education, say in India, completely from its Indian setting. Thus, a student of economics in the country cannot simply understand the Indian economy without reckoning with the legacy of colonialism.

It needs to be pointed out here that economic growth and development takes place where educational and awareness levels are quite high, and this is manifest in the southern States compared to the north. This once again proves the need for education to spread all over the country – not just in metro and big cities, as is being manifest now.

Can the government not ensure that for any private university opened in cities and metros, one college must be started in the backward districts or sub-divisions of the country? Opening more and more colleges and universities in big cities, higher education cannot spread and reach the struggling student community, which also aspires to get good education nearer home. In this context, good laboratories need to be opened in each sub-division of the country so that science education reaches the bottom segments of society.

Surveys indicate that educational levels, either in secondary or college or university levels is not improving. The vast public university system is now on the verge of destruction in the hands of unsystematic governments at the Centre and in various states. Classes are run by a hapless army of ad hoc teachers in private universities without adequate benefits. Unfortunately, State funding is steadily drying up everywhere. But with a booming youth population and an expanding urge to gain higher education, there has been an emergence of profiteers, keen to exploit this by setting up private universities.

There is thus the need to focus on rural areas to improve the quality of education at all levels through coordinated planning and prompt implementation. In fact, it would be prudent on the part of the government to appoint a high-power committee to select some sub-divisions or big blocks and transform the quality of higher education in the coming years.

With quality, innovation and research to be the pillars on which India is aiming to become a knowledge super power, the immediate plan should be to ensure there is one college with facilities in sub-divisions where advanced skill development is imparted.  Moreover, there must be one public university in every district with emphasis on science education so that rural people, can avail of higher education like their urban counterparts. It can be a serious beginning to achieve the aim of NEP—100% youth and adult literacy one day. — INFA