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Wednesday, Nov 20, 2019

Cheques, balances, degrees: How will Budget 2018 impact higher education?

Major announcements included more funds, new schools for medicine, research fellowships. HT finds out if it’s enough to jumpstart the system.

education Updated: Feb 07, 2018 17:38 IST
Prakruti Maniar
Prakruti Maniar
Hindustan Times
(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

The union budget 2018 has big-ticket plans for higher education. It has earmarked Rs 85,000 crore. There are plans for 24 new medical colleges and hospitals, 18 schools of planning and architecture (SPA) and research fellowships. It has also introduced the Revitalising Infrastructure and Systems in Education scheme to grant loans to higher education institutions.

Is it enough to jumpstart India’s sometimes outdated and often sluggish systems of learning?

“The government has taken several steps in the right direction with this budget,” says Dhiraj Mathur, head of education services at PricewaterhouseCoopers, a professional services firm. “Especially with setting up the Higher Education Funding Agency (HEFA) and the move to launch schools of planning and architecture. India has a lot of engineers and engineering colleges, but not enough planners and architects.”

Karthick Sridhar, vice chairman of the Chennai-based Indian Centre for Academic Rankings & Excellence, says the move to nurture more planners is timely. “With targets such as smart cities, we need a breed of young thinkers who focus on smart urban planning and create cities suited to India,” he says.

Many have noted that the budget has touched upon new challenges, “like teacher training, and new medical schools,” says Sanjay Padode. He is the secretary of the central developmental education society at The Institute of Finance and International Management business school in Bengaluru. “This aims to benefit the education and the health sectors in the long run,” he adds. Research fellowship within the country may also help keep India’s brain drain in check.

The setting up of a Higher Education Funding Agency (HEFA) has been welcomed across the board. It will be used to provide loans to centrally funded institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) and National Institutes of Technology (NITs), for infrastructural and other development. “HEFA will make funds available more easily, because these will now be provided as loans, repayable by the institute,” says Bhaskar Ramamurthy, dean of IIT Madras. “This will make institutes accountable for the loans they take, and bring discipline to the system. IIT Madras has been planning an expansion of the academic centre and hostels since 2010. “Now we don’t have to wait for grants the University Grants Commission.” he says.

Scratching the surface?

Some worry that not enough is being done. HEFA, for instance, will only grant loans to institutions that are already in the top tier of India’s educational framework. “The problem is that in India, there are several levels of institutions, such as universities, deemed-to-be universities and central universities,” says Sanjay Padode, secretary of the central developmental education society at The Institute of Finance and International Management (IFIM) business school in Bengaluru. “They should be unified, so as to involve educational institutes at all levels to benefit from the union budget. While HEFA will bring discipline, it will not grant the much-need autonomy to these institutions, as the centre is still indirectly involved and it may even end up waiving the loans off.”

Dheeraj Sharma, director of IIM-Rohtak, also worries that the Prime Minister’s Research Fellow scheme isn’t doing enough. “A thousand scholarships are too few to make an impact,” he says. Joyanto Mukherjee, founder of education audit firm Tutored and Trained points out that a single college will have more students than that. “The scholarships should be directed at post-doctoral level, rather than to B.Tech students, so more meaningful research can be conducted,” he recommends.

Many educators advocate the need for more medical colleges. “There is definitely a need for more doctors in the country,” says Dr Vinayak Sabnis, dean of KJ Somaiya medical college. “But while setting up the new colleges, we also need enough qualified teachers and rural-friendly locations.” Mukherjee also believes that the teaching profession should come with tax benefits, to encourage more Indian to take it up.

Another problem that remains unaddressed is the varying fee structure for medical degrees across India. “For the same course, the fees differ vastly for state, deemed and private universities,” says Dr Anjali Narayan, currently in her final year in the master of physiotherapy programme at Dr DY Patil medical college.

A lot of the budget announcements haven’t come with explanations on how the promises will be met. Mukherjee points to the finance minister’s Blackboard to Smartboard plan, which pushes digitisation of education. “How will it be done? Where will the money come from?” he asks. “The Revitalising Infrastructure and Systems in Education scheme also puts 2022 as a target. Possible electoral changes may affect it negatively.”

You don’t have to be an expert to realise that India’s pressing needs include more universities and better quality education. “The USA has around 3000 universities for 300 million people. India has only about 800 universities for a population of more than a billion,” says Sharma. “At the end of the day, the budget can only allocate money. Bodies such as the UGC and AICTE need a wider role to ensure better implementation of funds. Alternatively, a committee could be set-up to play this coordinating role between the centre and the organisations.”