Budget bolsters top institutions’ bid for world-class status

The Indian government will put more money into quality higher education – especially its prestigious medical, technological and management institutes, in a bid to propel them towards ‘world-class’ status – according to budget plans announced by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley last week.

Under the just-announced budget for the fiscal year 2017-18, higher education will receive close to US$5 billion of India’s overall education budget of US$11.8 billion – a 9.8% increase over last year.

Elite institutes benefit

The main beneficiaries are the 23 Indian Institutes of Technology or IITs and 23 National Institutes of Technology, which are slated to get US$1.1 billion, a significant rise on last year’s allocation of US$742 million.

While these institutions normally receive 25% of total higher education spending, it will rise to a third of the higher education budget for the fiscal year beginning in April under the proposals presented in Parliament on 1 February.

Although not specifically mentioned in the new budget, Jaitley’s previous budget unveiled last year included plans to set up 20 ‘world-class’ universities. Several IITs are expected to be candidates for this status, and are likely to be dubbed ‘Institutes of Eminence’, according to sources in the Human Resource Development Ministry.

Last week’s budget proposal also allocated US$153 million to the Indian Institutes of Management or IIMs compared to last year’s US$127 million. This includes provision for the creation of two more new IIMs.

Similarly, the budgets of the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences or AIIMS, New Delhi, and several other top centrally-run medical institutes have been hiked by 25%, with two new AIIMS to be set up in the states of Gujarat and Jharkhand.

An additional 5,000 seats will also be created for postgraduate studies in medicine. The idea, said Jaitley, is to ensure availability of specialist doctors at the graduate and postgraduate levels.

According to Professor Rajiv Lochan, a member of Punjab State Higher Education Council, the additional outlays indicate faith in the ability of these organisations to perform well and make good use of the money. “The hope is that in the next few years these already good quality institutes will be capable of boosting their quality further,” he said.

Challenges ahead

But the increased allocations are not unbridled good news for the sector.

“There are challenges and one of them is this: that the government, while making bigger allocations to quality institutes, also insists that they increase their intake by 100% or more in the next five years,” said Lochan, adding: “None of these institutes have experience in dealing with such humongous student bodies. These top-notch institutes have, so far, had strong face-to-face linkage between student and faculty or mentors.”

Such a large increase in the student body could raise questions about quality, Lochan continued. It could also affect the staff-to-student ratio, which could hold back any bid for world-class status as this is a key quality indicator worldwide.

Last week’s budget proposals also refer to restructuring the University Grants Commission or UGC – the statutory body which supervises higher education. Good quality institutions have been promised greater administrative and academic autonomy based on accreditation and ranking accorded by the National Institutional Ranking Framework.

“In higher education, we will undertake reforms in UGC and give autonomy to colleges and institutions,” Jaitley pledged.

M Jagadesh Kumar, vice-chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi and a professor at IIT Delhi, wrote via twitter that it was a good move in the budget to improve the quality of higher education. He noted that greater autonomy for institutions under plans by the government to set up excellence initiatives, would be based on accreditation and ranking.

In contrast to the professional institutions, the seven Indian Institutes of Science, Education and Research will see massive cuts in their allocation – from US$116 million last fiscal year to US$96 million – which some say shows a government bias against basic science and research in favour of the more applied research carried out by IITs.

Online learning

In additional announcements, free access to the government’s SWAYAM online education portal will be enhanced to include 350 high-quality courses streamed over dedicated DTH – Direct to Home – channels, Jaitley said.

Students will be able to virtually attend courses run by the best faculties, participate in discussion forums, take tests and earn academic grades.

SWAYAM, meaning ‘self’ in Indian languages, is the acronym for Study Webs of Active-Learning for Young Aspiring Minds.

Other allocations in the budget contributing to the government’s plans to boost quality higher education include US$37 million for capital expenditure to set up a new Higher Education Financing Agency, already unveiled in Jaitley’s 2016 budget as part of the plan to provide additional resources to more autonomous ‘world-class’ institutions.