INDIA: Budget hikes spending on higher education

Aiming to provide greater tertiary opportunities for its young population, India has increased its higher education budget by 34% to US$2.9 billion for 2011-12. But most of the allocation is for projects already in the pipeline rather than for ambitious plans to expand the number of higher education institutions in the coming years.

Overall, the education sector received a hike of 24% compared to last year in order to provide universal access to secondary education, increase the number of students in higher education, and grow skills training for youth.

"Our demographic dividend of a relatively younger population compared with developed countries is as much of an opportunity as it is a challenge. Over 70% of Indians will be of working age in 2025," Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee said while proposing the allocation for education on 28 February.

India wants to increase its university enrolment rate from around 12% at present to 30% of the 18-24 year population by 2025, approaching the levels of many Western countries.

A major portion of the money for higher education will go to the 15 Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), which will receive $1.25 billion, followed by the University Grants Commission, the regulatory body for higher education, which will receive $1.16 billion.

However, the increase falls short of the nearly 100% hike in higher education funding that the Education Ministry was pushing for to meet a slew of promises made under the country's 2007-12 Five Year Plan.

The 2011-12 financial year is the last under the Plan, and the budgetary allocations will not be enough to finance many promises made, senior official sources said.

"The entire budget money will go to existing institutions or to institutions that have been set up in the last couple of years. There is no provision for building new institutions this year. Perhaps the government wants to wait for the 12th Five Year Plan," said a government source.

India's National Knowledge Commission has estimated that India needs 1,500 universities compared to around 370 now.

The unfulfilled promises under the 11th Plan include proposals to establish 20 new Indian Institutes of Information Technology, and more recent pledges like the National Education Finance Corporation. The NEFC is expected to provide loans and bank guarantees for students seeking study loans, and easy loans for new institutions.

The government had also promised to set up 50 centres for cutting-edge research in science. A proposal to give incentives to state governments that set up new higher education institutions, also spelt out in the 11th Plan, is yet to obtain cabinet approval. A senior official said that project alone would require close to Rs9 billion (US$0.2 billion).

Meanwhile KN Panikkar, vice-chairman of Kerala's higher education council, told University World News the government was paying attention to prestigious institutions such as IITs while "90% of the country's students are studying in less endowed institutions. These disparities must be bridged if higher education is to have the desired effect on the national economy."

With an eye on the upcoming state elections in West Bengal and Kerala, Mukherjee announced sops for a few higher educational institutions in the two states including Rs2 billion for IIT-Kharagpur and special grants for the Indian Institute of Management-Calcutta and Aligarh Muslim University centres in West Bengal and Kerala.

The private higher education sector welcomed the additional allocation of funds but said it was disappointed by lack of policy support for private participation.

"I would have liked to see additional policy support for individual and corporate contributions to endowments for scholarships, for enhancing faculty numbers and quality, and also for technology investments in furthering the cause of education," said Anand Sudarshan, CEO of Manipal Education, one of the largest private sector groups in higher education in India.

While I am pleased with the promise of significant investments in the higher education, our country needs to invest heavily in non-Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) institutions which are serving the educational aspirations of larger society. India must improve its quality of education at the grass roots without undermining IITs.

Vijendra Agarwal