A few days before India celebrated the 75th year of Independence, Union Minister of Education Dharmendra Pradhan said in reply to a debate in the Lok Sabha that people should let go of the idea that universities must be funded only by the government. His remarks are only a corollary to the General Financial Rules of 2017, which encourage all autonomous bodies to maximise generation of internal resources and attain self-sufficiency (Rule 229(iv)). Still, the Minister’s remarks shocked many, for only a week earlier, while launching education and skill development-related initiatives to mark two years of the launch of the National Education Policy (NEP), Home Minister Amit Shah had said that the public education system is the basis of a vibrant democratic society.
The National Education Policy’s vision
The NEP 2020 envisaged that it would “promote increased access, equity, and inclusion through a range of measures, including greater opportunities for outstanding public education.” It also provided an assurance that the autonomy of public institutions would be backed by adequate public funding. The NEP noted that public expenditure on education in India was nowhere close to the 6% of GDP envisaged by the 1968 policy, reiterated in the 1986 policy, and reaffirmed in the 1992 review of the policy. Against this backdrop, it was gratifying that the 2020 policy endorsed a substantial increase in public investment by the Central and State governments to reach 6% of GDP at the earliest. Elaborating on the reasons, NEP 2020 said this level of public funding was “extremely critical for achieving the high-quality and equitable public education system that is truly needed for India’s future economic, social, cultural, intellectual progress and growth.”
Going by the National Education Commission, also known as the Kothari Commission, which was the precursor to the 1968 policy, higher education should have been getting at least 2% of GDP. In contrast, the expenditure on higher education by the Centre and the States taken together nosedived from 0.86% of GDP in 2010-11 to a measly 0.52% in 2019-20 (Budge Estimates, or BE). It is disquieting that the Centre’s expenditure on higher education dropped from 0.33% of GDP in 2010-11 to a mere 0.16% in 2019-20 (BE). The decline in public investment in higher education does not appear due to the fall in the receipts of the Central government. The revenue receipt of the Union government went up three times from ₹7.51 lakh crore in 2011-12 to ₹22.04 lakh crore in 2022-23 (BE). So have total receipts, from ₹13.07 lakh crores in 2011-12 to ₹39.44 lakh crore in 2022-23 (BE). In contrast, the Union government’s expenditure on higher education as a percentage of revenue receipt saw a decline from 2.60% in 2011-12 to 1.85% in 2022-23 (BE). As a percentage of the total receipt, the allocation for higher education fell from 1.49% to 1.04% during the corresponding period.
Consequence of privitisation
Higher education in India is already highly privatised. Most private higher education institutions are run on a self-financed basis, a euphemism for full cost-recovering institutions. Besides, private tendencies have also penetrated deeply into public higher education. The thrust for resource mobilisation, internal revenue generation, cross-subsidisation, resource use efficiency, cost reduction, accelerated cost recovery and enhanced user charges may further exacerbate the trend. The most obvious consequence would be a substantial increase in fees and other charges from students. The idea that higher education could be funded fully by the students or their parents out of their savings or through bank borrowings appears grossly misplaced in the Indian context.
The NEP 2020 envisages enrolment in higher education to be nearly double by 2035. Considering the fact that the social and economic elites, the rich and the affluent, have already crossed a gross enrolment ratio of 100%, the future growth in higher education has to come from the socio-economically disadvantaged groups. Would these people be able to afford full-cost recovery from their higher education institutions?
Disputes about the levels of poverty apart, it is now a reality that 62.5% of our population have to be provided free ration to save them from destitution. No nation would want to deprive such a vast section of accessing higher education. Higher education in India may have had its failings, but it has served the nation rather well. It has played a critical role in sustaining the $2.8 trillion economy that India has become today. But for enhanced investment in higher education, our vision of a $5 trillion economy and the aspiration of becoming a high-income developed country could be jeopardised.
Furqan Qamar, a professor in the faculty of management studies of Jamia Millia Islamia, is a former Adviser for education in the Planning Commission