The UPA has picked job-oriented skills over traditional education as its silver bullet to target youth aspirations in an election year, the budget announced by finance minister P Chidambaram on Thursday suggests, echoing a key focus of Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi.
The finance minister has increased the nation's education budget only marginally, from Rs. 74, 056 cr last year to Rs. 79, 451 cr, the 7% hike - the lowest year-on-year increment in a decade - mainly on account of special, one-time grants to select institutions than for any new initiatives.
Instead, he announced that he was setting aside Rs. 1000 crore under a new plan to encourage youth to take up job-oriented skills courses, with the lure of a Rs. 10,000 award on completing the course. Chidambaram said he would also ask the National Skills Development Council to formulate curriculum and standards for training in different skills.
"My budget for 2013-14 has before it one overarching goal: to create opportunities for our youth to acquire education and skills that will get them decent jobs or self-employment that will bring them adequate incomes that will enable them to live with their families in a safe and secure environment," Chidambaram said.
At a time when the economic slowdown is threatening job opportunities for the world's youngest major economy - with over 600 million under the age of 35 - the finance minister's new focus reflects a shift in priorities that first became apparent with the cabinet reshuffle last October, widely believed to carry a Rahul Gandhi stamp.
Education minister MM Pallam Raju has frequently spoken about "employable education" as his goal, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh earlier this month warned vice chancellors of central universities that they were running many courses out of tune with the demands of the job market.
"While overall the budget has nothing much to give to higher education, it gave substantive encouragement to skill development initiatives," Dr Rajan Saxena, Vice Chancellor of Mumbai-based Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies University said.
Within the school education budget of Rs. 52,701 cr - up from Rs. 48, 781 cr - the funding the government provides for the flagship Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), in addition to the amount earned through the dedicated primary education cess, has come down for the first time from Rs. 8293 cr to Rs. 8097 cr.
But the funding for the Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan - to universalize secondary education -- has marginally increased.
As reported by HT on February 18, the government has clubbed together multiple higher education programmes under a new scheme called the Rashtriya Ucchatar Shiksha Abhiyan instead of launching any new initiatives.
The funding for the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) has increased substantially, from Rs. 2528 cr to Rs. 3670 cr, and the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) have benefited from a 150% hike in their budget allocation.
The finance minister also announced Rs. 100 cr grants to the Aligarh Muslim University, Banaras Hindu University, the Guwahati campus of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences and the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH).
At the end of his speech too, Chidambaram invoked the aspirations of India's youth, alongside the demands of women and the country's poor.
"He is impatient, she is ambitious," the finance minister said, speaking about the youth. "And both represent the aspirations of a new generation."