By the time you read this editorial, the Union Budget 2021-22 will have been done, dusted and presented to Parliament and the people. Although the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 presented last July firmly resolved to double the national (Centre plus states) annual outlay for education to 6 percent — a recommendation first made and accepted in 1967 but unimplemented for seven decades — this statement of intent is certain to be deferred to next year. Again.
According to the Reserve Bank of India, because of the pandemic lockdown of business and industry, GDP is likely to contract by 7.7 percent in 2020-21 which means that NPAs (non-performing assets) of banks will soar, and nationalised banks in particular will need budgetary provision to recapitalise. All this means that provision for public education is not likely be increased.
However, even if the BJP/NDA government at the Centre cannot double its education budget which is the prerequisite of making good the 6 percent of GDP promise of NEP 2020, it can introduce education reforms to ensure that the country’s children and youth receive good quality education that is their fundamental right. For a start, it could direct public sector banks to set aside Rs.5,000 crore to provide bridge loans to the country’s unique budget private schools (BPS) which have an estimated 60 million children on their muster rolls, as demanded by NISA (National Independent Schools Alliance). BPS provide education to children of lower middle class households who’ve opted out of dysfunctional government schools defined by rock-bottom learning outcomes and English language aversion.
Secondly, the BJP which professes a free markets and free enterprise ideology could liberalise the over-regulated education sector to smooth the way for private initiatives in preschool to higher education. Currently, 1,005 duly completed documents need to be officially approved by the Directorate of Education of the Delhi state government to promote a greenfield school in the national capital. In state capitals, bureaucratic requirements are even more onerous. But for this disincentive, there would be no shortage of well-intentioned edupreneurs driven by enlightened self-interest, willing and able to develop India’s neglected human capital.
The third child-centric education reform that the cash-strapped government at the Centre could initiate is to introduce the well-debated voucher scheme for primary-secondary children. It’s common knowledge that per-child expenditure incurred by state and local governments well exceeds tuition fees charged by many private, especially budget schools. Therefore, it makes perfectly good sense for government to provide education vouchers which would empower parents to enrol their children in schools of their choice, government or private. Introduction of a school vouchers programme will also have the socially beneficial outcome of compelling government schools to improve educational standards.
Admittedly, the grim post-pandemic economic scenario doesn’t allow the BJP/NDA government the fiscal space to ramp up investment in public education. However, it can introduce systemic reforms by shedding the dog-in-manger attitude of officialdom. If government can’t lead or follow, it must get out of the way.