M Rajivlochan Nudge. That is the strategy with which Nirmala Sitharaman’s parsimonious Budget hopes to transform education in India as it allocates considerably more money than in previous years for education. Today, Indian students spend up to $7 billion per year to study abroad. If the transformation that Sitharaman’s Budget hopes for happens, much of this money would be saved and the Study in India programme would make the country an attractive educational destination for foreign students. But for that, Indian education needs a reboot of the sort that the Budget is incentivising. The Rs 94,854 crore allocated to education in this Budget is 18 per cent more as compared to the 2017-18 allocation. The allocation has been made in such a way that academics and managers of education would have to compete for this money, show demonstrable outcomes, and convince the government that the money would be spent meaningfully. This is a dramatic shift from previous decades when funds were cornered by a handful and accountability was shunned by all. In effect, the Budget provides heft to the policy initiatives of the Modi government, metamorphose education in India, rouse it from what is best understood as policy-induced indolence and torpor of three decades. It pushes to transform Indian education by freeing the students to read whatever course combination they wish to study and make education, especially higher education, more autonomous. The mess that is school education is planned to be sorted out by, among other means, improving the professional skills of teachers by training over 35 lakh schoolteachers in the year and giving remedial training to over 2.1 crore schoolchildren, supplemented by providing training to almost 4,000 educational administrators. A little more than 10 per cent of the total allocation for education has been earmarked for the Mid-Day Meal scheme that has been singly the most important reason for parents to send their children to school. The Budget provides for Rs 2,100 crore to the Higher Education Financing Agency (HEFA) for creating state-of-the-art research laboratories and other infrastructure in the universities. The push here is to encourage higher education institutions to get out of the slothful habit of surviving on grants-in-aid. Another Rs 2,100 crore is available through the Rashtriya Uchhatar Shiksha Abhiyan (RUSA) as a grant, but for which, too, the universities will have to compete. Some of this is allowed for upgrading an existing autonomous college to a degree-granting university, some for colleges to cluster together to form a university, some for universities to float courses of the sort that they deem fit. From now on, it is up to the universities to define their goal, their objective and their path into the future. There has been recognition that while education should provide enduring life-skills, it also needs to be in constant touch with the market. Through HEFA, universities are being persuaded to take over the responsibility for improving their productivity and connect with society and industry. The institutions now have to compete for money to fund their research and academic activity. This money, available in the form of a loan for creating infrastructure to boost research and teaching, puts corresponding pressure on the institution to create more internal resources, better manage their budgets and move more quickly to marketable fields of learning and research. Today, there are huge employment and research opportunities coming up in the areas of data analytics, artificial intelligence, geographical information systems etc. which have been left almost unexplored by the existing institutions of higher education. The Budget prods the universities to re-establish contact with civil society and other stakeholders, focus on translational research and encourage their students to seek out PhD training in highly ranked foreign universities. By pushing universities into competing in international rankings, the Budget also persuades them to improve their outreach and diversity by reducing in-breeding and bringing in faculty trained abroad. Currently, the only institutions that seem to do all this are the IITs and the IIMs. And it is this which enables them to excel. The setting aside of Rs 400 crore, three times more than previously, for empowering a handful of universities to become Institutions of Excellence is a good idea. However, limiting those funds only to central educational institutions for improving their rankings will be extraordinarily unfair to Panjab University, which is perfectly placed to break into the top-500 of international rankings, has been shortlisted by the committee of experts created to handhold Indian universities on their path to excellence, but is being held back by a paucity of funds and uncertain support from the state government.
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