New minister promises rise in education spending

India will strive to increase public spending on education to 6% of gross domestic product from less than 4% currently, new Human Resource Development Minister Smriti Irani announced during her maiden press conference last week. Irani took charge after the National Democratic Alliance government came to power, sweeping the recent Lok Sabha polls.

Amid controversy about the new education minister’s lack of academic qualifications, Irani, who belongs to the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, said the government would try to fulfill all promises the party made in its election manifesto.

Among them is setting up a national commission on education to devise ways to reform and revise the sector to make India a knowledge hub. The party intends to implement a national education policy in the context of changing education dynamics. Universal secondary education and restructuring the University Grants Commission are also part of the manifesto.

Notably, 38-year-old Irani, the youngest minister in new Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cabinet, is not a graduate – a fact that has been raised by opposition party leaders and experts.

Soon after Irani was given the education portfolio, General Secretary of the Indian National Congress Ajay Maken tweeted that ‘HRD Minister Smriti Irani was not even a graduate’.

The comment drew flak from the BJP and even Congress allies, who said that academic qualifications, ability and literacy were different things.

Breaking policy paralysis

Experts felt that the challenges facing the new education minister were many and she would have to be a better politician than her predecessors to break the policy paralysis in the ministry.

“To start with we would like some clarity on policy. There are several bills pending that the previous ministers had advocated. Several are genuine and needed in the education sector,” said Narayanan Ramaswamy, head of education at consultancy firm KPMG.

“We need resolution of these bills. Government should clearly say whether it wants these bills or not. Either the bills get passed or rejected so that policy can move ahead.”

The pending bills include one that proposes to allow foreign education institutes to open campuses in India. The other bills envisage: setting up a national accreditation regulatory authority for higher education institutions; a tribunal to fast-track adjudication of disputes in the higher education system; and a national academic depository to digitise educational credentials of students and curb forgery.

The repeated stalling of key education bills is believed to be due to the inability of previous minister Kapil Sibal to reach out to the main opposition party and allies within the government.

The education ministry has also faced criticism for taking arbitrary decisions without due consultation with concerned stakeholders in the last few years. Irani told reporters that all decisions would be taken after due consultation with all stakeholders.

Dr G Viswanathan, founder and chancellor of VIT University in Vellore and president of the Education Promotion Society for India, felt Irani had to succeed as a politician first.

“The last two education ministers were highly qualified academically. But as politicians they failed to get the job done. They could not persuade different stakeholders to support their policies.

“Irani can access the experts she needs. Her challenge will be to get everyone on board and frame some strong policies to improve the quality of education in India,” Viswanathan said.

Challenges galore

KPMG’s Ramaswamy welcomed Irani’s announcement that the government would increase spending on education.

“As a country India needs to spend much more on creating access to education, improving the quality of education and investing heavily in research,” he said.

“The last government has taken several steps to set up new institutions. It is time to consolidate them, improve their quality and clear the air on accreditation policy and means of accreditation for institutions and courses.

“Most importantly, as a young nation we cannot afford to ignore the importance of research. Investment in space research in the 1960s and 1970s has today ensured that India does not depend on the United States or Russia for technological know-how. We need the same commitment in other areas of science and society,” Ramaswamy said.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had raised all the right education issues during his election campaigns, saying that, if elected, his government would set up Indian institutes of technology and Indian institutes of management in all of the country’s states.

He had spoken of the need to link research and education to the development needs of the country, flagged the poor performance of Indian universities in global university rankings and compared them to China, and highlighted the need for skill building and creating jobs in a country where 65% of the population is below 35 years.

Nandita Narain, president of Delhi University Teachers' Association, said the new government had to focus on deeper issues such as teacher shortages in the state and central universities that had turned into a crisis.

“You can open all the new institutions you want but finding quality faculty for teaching and research is the key.”

India has a shortage of half-a-million teachers in schools. In higher education institutions, such as the Indian institutes of technology and central universities, the shortage ranges between 20% and 45% of the required faculty strength.

“There is a lot for the new education minister to address. We have to wait and watch her performance,” Narain said.