Budget 2021: Is the Education Sector Even a Priority?

The article is a commentary on the government’s continued apathy towards the education sector in the post pandemic world, the subsequent budget cut, and the impact of privatisation on the sector.

17-6-16Visakhapatnam:Girl students of Queens Mary Primary Government School in all smiles after receving free books at a programme organised by VPT as part of CSR activity in Visakhaparnam on Friday.Express Photo by R V K Rao.

The landscape of education in India has witnessed significant changes in the past year. From being rattled by the COVID-19 outbreak to the Union Cabinet giving a nod to the New Education Policy(NEP)in July 2020. A slew of changes continued, as the finance minister read out the budget for the financial year 2021-2022. As a political economy reeling under immense pressures from the devastation caused by COVID pandemic and a pre-pandemic economic rut, the budget 2021 has been viewed as a stabilising factor, redemption of sorts. According to Article 112 of the Indian Constitution, the Union Budget of a year, also referred to as the annual financial statement, is a statement of the estimated receipts and expenditure of the government for that particular year. It is also a testament of priorities of the government not only in terms of expenses allocated to a certain sector but also in terms ‘functionality’ of the same in the growth and development of a nation. Despite being a solid pillar of human growth and development, education has almost never occupied a place of dominance in the imagination of the budget. It is hardly a shock that he trend continued in the present year. This financial year the education ministry faces a budget cut of Rs. 6086.89 crore. While India’s record with respect to public spending on education has never been one to be proud of; what makes it appalling is the disregard for the damage caused to the education sector during the pandemic. 

Privatisation and its Impacts on the Indian Education System 

It is essential that the budget 2021 be viewed in the aftermath of the NEP 2020, which has liberalised the regulations which impact internationalisation and privatisation strategies of academia-industry partnerships and higher education of students. A tiger’s share of the budget is devoted to precisely this; increasing participation of the private enterprise in public schools to increase ‘access’ to quality education  in tribal areas and stoke inclusive growth of schools in general. There is however no mention of accountability of private organisations or nature of such organisations (profit or non-profit). This would make it difficult for the state to ensure that education remain a ‘right’ (RTE 2005) of its people rather than a fetishised ‘commodity’ to be traded in the free market. This is coupled with deafening silence regarding the nature of ‘inclusivity’ (at the level of culture, language and economy) at school level, given the diversity our nation offers in terms of its demography.  In lieu of the internationalisation measures mentioned in NEP 2020, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced partnerships with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to benchmark the skill levels of the Indian workforce and with Japan for skill transfer.  One cannot help but notice increased government spending in areas with an implicit agenda of bolstering private capital, enhancing their prospects in what has always been the ulterior motive of private enterprise: profit. It is highly likely that the loss would be borne by the millions of under-represented and dispossessed who continue to wait their turn for emancipation through ‘modern, liberal and democratic’ education.

Understanding the COVID Factor

The budget briefly touched upon certain ‘structural’ changes at the level of schooling.  It does so by giving a thrust to the NEP (2020), by prepping 15000 pilot schools to inculcate all components listed in the NEP, working towards qualitative strengthening. 

These exemplar pilot schools are expected to mentor neighbouring schools to achieve similar ends. Funds have been increased for Kendriya Vidyalyas and Navodaya Vidyalayas. About a  100 new Sainik schools will be set up in partnership with NGOs, private schools, and states. The finance minister also said that these 100 new Sainik schools will be set up in India as part of education for all. 

These policy decisions seek to complicate an already complex educational canvas by adding to a pre-existing hierarchy of government schools, private schools, aided schools among others. It also raises a plethora of concerns like whether concentrating on qualitative and infrastructural improvement of aforementioned schools would result in an indirect neglect of the rest; basis of admission into these fitter and better schools and teacher-training for the same.Increased hierarchisation amongst schools would ultimately translate into intensification of gaps in educational attainment of majority students; while using success stories of certain select students who were able to turn the tide in their favour. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu had once written about appropriation of unique success stories in education to glorify their emancipation and to justify the existing domination of those in control of capital, while the rest languish as casualties of an inherently unequal and competitive, modern education system.  The budget of 2021-2020 and its proposals with regards to education seem to be precise, concrete examples of the Bourdieu’s theoretical abstractions. 

The most striking announcement however, is the budget cut in the overall expenditure on education. The education ministry will receive Rs.93224.31 crore in 2021-2022 which is Rs. 6086.89 crore less than what it got in the previous fiscal year. This comes at a time when the UN Secretary General has warned of an ‘education catastrophe’ worldwide. 

To say the least, millions of students have had to drop out of formal schooling due to lack of access to remote learning or lack of an environment at home which would encourage the same. Many of these children have been pushed into the job market to augment the family income at a time when elders of the family have been rendered jobless. 

 Several schools have been locked shut for about a year now, with little or no level of preparedness to reopen. And when they do reopen, they face the daunting task of bridging the vast gap created between children who managed to cope with curriculum while away and those who could not. But first, one must wonder how many of these students are likely to return to schools after this testing year. Many of these students (who have now been out school for a year) had been pushed into formal education by social workers, civil right activists who have worked the ground level tirelessly for decades. Once excluded, how probable is the return of such students return? How likely are they to prioritise education in the current context, when concerns like dwindling family income, lack of food, medication, clean drinking water, affordable housing etc have taken precedence. The psycho-social impact and the nutritional impact of the past year on students are yet to be determined; needless to say that by all means they are likely to be huge and long lasting. 

With the above context in mind, the daunting task facing the education sector is to get those millions lost, back on grid and build a socio-economic infrastructure that not only brings the students back but also retains them in the face of other looming crisis. The socio-economic catastrophe bought about COVID is far from over. The need of the hour is to utilise the infrastructure of thousands of government schools (and their administrative staff) as nodal points (points of contact) which may be approached by students and their families for relief and enables them to get back on their feet. Schools need to function today, more than ever, not only as centres of academic instruction, but as centres capable of providing social support to families of enrolled students. Then only would education make sense to their children. A systematic integration of schools with households of its students must be the first step in rebuilding a society that has been ravaged by a pandemic. The government must mobilise funds towards strengthening its welfare facet, incentivise enrolment, attendance and participation in schools by providing a healthy and sustainable model of social security. 

The conspicuous absence of measures to tackle problems of a post-COVID education sector and a subsequent fund cut overshadows the little good that the budget 2021 has to offer. The government’s unwavering focus on privation and internationalisation puts the future of millions of students at stake. Above all, one wonders, how do we trust a government that has over the years mastered the art of turning a blind eye to burning issues and maintained a façade of good governance? 

Bhavya Kumar hails from Lucknow. She is a doctoral research scholar at the Centre for Studies in Sociology of Education at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. She is currently working on her doctoral thesis; Self & Multiple Others: Social Interactions in a Classroom Situation. She has eight years of training as a social scientist, having done a B.A (H) in Economics from the University of Delhi and a subsequent Masters in Sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University. 



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