Clipped from: https://www.financialexpress.com/opinion/wheres-the-money/2985139/
Private participation in higher education has become inevitable, but without much larger public investment, the goals of expansion, equity and excellence can’t be achieved
Central universities have reasons to be jubilant. Budgetary support to them has been jacked up by 25%.
Commentators were excited about the perceived increase in allocation for higher education in Budget FY24—of about 8%, taking it from Rs 40,828 crore in FY23 to Rs 44,094 crore. Budgetary support (total allocation minus provisions for payment of interest and repayment of principal of loan taken under the Higher Education Funding Agency, or HEFA) to the Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISERs), National Institutes of Technology (NITs) and the IITs has been increased by 7.8%, 14.5% and 16.5%, respectively. Central universities have reasons to be jubilant. Budgetary support to them has been jacked up by 25%. They can expect to receive Rs 11,252.56 crore in the coming fiscal, compared to Rs 8,990 crore in FY23.
The Union government-promoted deemed universities must have been delighted to see that budgetary support to them has gone up from Rs 393.25 crore to Rs 500 crore, an increase of 27.15%. They have reasons to be euphoric, considering the prospects of the timely release of enhanced funds. They can now expect to disburse salaries and pensions to employees on time. Their students would be able to get due enhancements in their scholarships and fellowships. They can now hope to spend adequately on their academic activities and maintenance of physical facilities. They would at least be able to meet the annual maintenance cost of equipment, making them functional once again. They would also be able to get their buildings refurbished with a fresh coat of paint and polish that many of them haven’t been able to afford for about a decade. IISc Bengaluru, the best-ranked and the most prestigious of all general and technical higher education institutions of the country, and the National Institutes of Technical Teacher Training and Research (NITTTRs) might have felt somewhat deprived as budgetary support to them in FY24 is lower than the revised estimates (RE) of FY23.
Budgetary support to the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) has come down from Rs 323.5 crore in FY23 to Rs 15.17 crore in FY24. But none would sympathise with them, for they have themselves hiked their fees too high to be able justify any demand for larger public funding. How has this impacted equity, we know; the IIMs themselves don’t seem too concerned, except maybe for gender equity to some extent. The fine-print of the Budget documents has a lot more than meets the eye. Most glaringly, the increase in allocation for higher education is only due to a reduction in cost-recovery from Rs 14,250 crore in FY23 to Rs 6,000 crore. In reality, the allocation for higher education has gone down from Rs 55,078 crore in FY23 to Rs 50,094 crore in FY24.
Moreover, Budget FY24 proposes no allocation for HEFA. Does this mean that no loans would be sanctioned for the infrastructure development of centrally-funded higher educational institutions? It doesn’t augur well if that is so. Allocation for capital expenditure in the Budget is a measly Rs 12.5 crore. Provisions for world-class universities stood slashed from Rs 1,700 crore to Rs 1,500 crore. Even the allocation for the PM’s girls’ hostel programme was cut to half of what it was this year.
Three schemes for higher education—the interest subsidy and contribution for the guarantee funds, scholarship for college and university students, and special scholarship for Jammu and Kashmir—have now been subsumed into PM Uchchatar Shiksha Protsahan (PM-USP) Yojana, which has an allocation of Rs 1,554 crore. In the current fiscal, these three schemes had been allocated a total of Rs 1,877.85 crore. Thus, the allocations for scholarships and student support has been reduced by a whopping Rs 323.85 crore in Budget FY24. The focus on research, innovation, incubation and startups notwithstanding, budgetary allocation for these activities has either been slashed or done away with totally.
The Startup India initiative in higher educational institutions saw a reduction from Rs 60 crore in 2022-23 to Rs 11.21 crore, whereas the provisions for the National Initiative for Design Innovation was down from Rs 17.8 crore to Rs 10 crore. Allocations for Impacting Research Innovation and Technology (IMPRINT) as well as the Scheme for Promotion of Academic Research Collaboration (SPARC) were drastically reduced. Budget FY24 made no allocation for the Impactful Policy Research in Social Sciences (IMPRESS). These three schemes were launched only a few years ago with a lot of fanfare. Provisions for National Mission in Education through ICT (NMEICT) was kept unaltered at Rs 400 crore, but no money had been provided for the past two years for activities like setting up of virtual classrooms and massive open online courses (MOOCs), e-Shodh Sindhu, national digital library and national academic depository.
As per Economic Survey 2023, the combined expenditure on education by the Centre and states, as a percentage of GDP, remained stagnant at 2.9% during FY20 to FY23 (BE). As a percentage of total Union government expenditure, it slid from 10.7% in FY20 to 9.5% in FY23(BE), whereas the share of education in social services nosedived from 42.5% to 35.5% during the same period. These figures are likely to remain as disquieting in the survey of 2024. India has a lot of potential as far as higher education is concerned. Private participation has become inevitable in higher education, but it would fall quite short when it comes to attaining the three intertwining imminent objectives of expansion, equity, and excellence in higher education. But for massive public investment, these shall remain unrealised, leaving aspirational India in the lurch rather than leapfrogging in the future.
(Former advisor (education), Planning Commission, and professor, Jamia Millia Islamia. Views are personal)