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Education in Budget: Plenty of promise, but will it pass practical exam?

education Updated: Mar 08, 2017 12:21 IST
Lavina Mulchandani
Budget 2017

(HT IILLUSTRATION: SIDDHANT JUMDE)

Your college may soon be able to draft its own curricula. You may be able to take more online courses from trusted, even elite, institutes. It may just become easier to secure a postgraduate (PG) seat if you are a medical student.

The Union Budget, presented last week by finance minister Arun Jaitley, had plenty in store for the education sector. The government promised a 9.9% increase in budget, for one thing. It has also promised to loosen the purse strings for on-campus research.

“Both moves will be helpful. In a country with around 41% of the population under 20, the measures will produce more employable graduates and enhance scientific innovation,” says Ajeenkya DY Patil, chairman of Ajeenkya DY Patil University, Pune.

But while the budget sounds like good news all around, there are questions over whether the Centre will fare well when it comes to implementation. In the immediate future, all eyes are on the reforming of the University Grants Commission (UGC), which will allow universities and institutes greater autonomy.

Read: National Testing Agency will lead to ‘big losses for IITs and IIMs’, say some experts

TEXTBOOKS TO TECHNOLOGY

“The redesign of the UGC will benefit the colleges striving for betterment,” says Apoorva Palkar, member of the higher education department at the Rashtriya Uchchatar Shiksha Abhiyan (RUSA). Palkar is also the former director of Mumbai university’s department of higher and technical education and believes the move will help teaching staff too. “Colleges and universities can now be academically and financially independent, which will let them hire better teachers and conduct more research,” she adds. “The institutes can also collaborate with students and industry experts to design modules and make lessons more contemporary.”

Many institutions have struggled to wrest autonomy from the government, but the process has been complicated. Selection is arbitrary and there are too many tests and much paperwork involved. The budget has simplified this. What will now happen is that colleges and universities will be evaluated on performance. “Those that do well will be granted autonomy without much hassle,” Palkar says.

For the first time, the budget has announced a 5,000-seat increase in medical seats at the post-graduate (PG) level. “Currently there are only 18,000 PG seats for clinical subjects across the country,” says Dr KK Aggarwal, president of Indian Medical association (IMA), a national voluntary organisation of doctors.

This means that only half the students that graduate in medicine secure a means to study further. Dr Aggarwal believes there should be more PG seats than undergraduate seats, “so students from abroad can study here”, making it a revenue source for India. “The US has 19,000 undergraduate seats and 32,000 post-graduate seats,” he points out.

A welcome plan this year has been the setting up of a system that measures annual learning outcomes which refers to the level of proficiency students get in the skills such as English, analytical thinking and creative thinking at educational institutions across India. We currently have no way of knowing, say, how proficient are the students in what they need to be and just exam marks are not the way of knowing.

“Every year, national surveys reveal the disparity in the skills between government and private institutions,” says Dhiraj Mathur, partner-Education, PwC India, a network that provides assurance, tax and advisory services. “The country needs an objective assessment of how students actually fare, to improve education quality.” The idea, though will take time to materialise, he says, given how much data will need to be analysed.

Students are particularly excited about the Swayam initiative mentioned by Jaitley. The portal, launched in November, is run by the Union HRD ministry and offers free online courses across the arts, sciences and other streams.

“The announcement that Swayam will have over 350 courses and will be linked to DTH channels will help it get more content and better features,” says Anil Sahasrabudhe, chairman of All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE), which developed the platform. “Soon, a student will be able to take the course online and have an option to transfer credits for the it to the university he or she studies at.”

Among other proposals is one to establish a national testing agency for all entrance exams. The move aims to relieve AICTE and Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) from conducting entrance exams so they can concentrate on academics. You will not need to write multiple entrance exams for engineering colleges and deemed universities once the national testing agency is established. “Students will have to write fewer exams for admissions,” says Sahasrabudhe. “We will also get engineers of uniform quality as the exam will be standard.”

Emphasis on learning foreign languages is greater than ever this year after the minister mentioned that 100 skill centres with courses in foreign languages will be set up. “Learning foreign languages helps in getting jobs at multinational companies in India and getting hired abroad,” says K Saicharan, founder of Vivekananda Institute of Foreign Languages, Hyderabad.

Read: From railways to education and health, 10 takeaways from Jaitley’s Budget 2017

A BUMPY RIDE?

The budget looks good on paper. Will it pass the practical exam?

Agnelo Menezes, principal of Mumbai’s St Xavier’s college, says that greater autonomy is a much-needed, long-overdue development, but there are loopholes that must be addressed.

“Along with autonomy, institutions should be allowed to appoint teachers as per international standards,” he says. He also believes that a differential fee structure (depending on a student’s economic background) be introduced so the instate can afford qualified teachers. Currently, St Xavier’s is facing a faculty crunch in seven departments, the gaps are filled by temporary, visiting faculty.

The budget does not also provide the kind of monetary benefits required to function in autonomy, says Menezes. “For the longest time, institutions like the UGC have been in control of our fee structure, which does not allow flexibility according to the economic and financial well-being of a student, rather relies on the quota and other systems,” he says, adding that because of this, there is always lack of funds to concentrate on bettering educational facilities for students. “As long as these pre-requisites are not properly met with, the autonomy will remain only on paper, failing to make any difference in effect,” he adds.

As for a unified way to study how students fare across India, that dream is a long way away from reality, says Mathur of PwC. “The US has been trying to implement it for a decade. We need adequate infrastructure and resources to implement it.”