The pandemic makes visible the fault-lines in public education

Covid-19 reinforces the need for public provisioning in education

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The nationwide school closure due to Covid-19 has affected more than 32 crore (320 million) children in India (UNESCO, 2020). To assure the continuity of learning during this period, both Union and State Governments have adopted a variety of hi-tech, low-tech, and no-tech solutions of teaching for children. In spite of these, only 3.7 crore (37 million) children are actually continuing classes (UNICEF, 2020). 

The shift from face to face learning to remote learning has left out many children who do not have access to the basic infrastructure required for availing online education. There is fear that many children who have been excluded from school education during this pandemic might never be able to return to schools again. The pandemic has exposed the pre-existing fault lines in public provisioning of school education in India. 

In India’s federal constitution, education appears in the concurrent list — accordingly, provisioning of resources for education becomes a shared responsibility of the Union and State governments. At present, the Union or central government and the States together spend around 4.4% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on education overall and about 2.9% of GDP on school education (MOE, 2020). However, India’s prevailing quantum of budgetary spending on education is miserly compared to the benchmark 6% of GDP recommended by the Kothari Commission 50 years ago in 1966. In fact, the global weighted average of government spending on education is 4.9% of GDP, substantially higher than that of India (UNESCO Database 2020).

Indian budget on education
In the total budgetary spending on education, the States account for 75% of the total expenditure, while the remaining 25% comes from the Union government. Over the years, the Union government has been shifting its responsibility increasingly towards the States.Though the Union Ministry of Education’s budget has been increased …

In this total budgetary spending on education, the States account for 75% of the total expenditure, while the remaining 25% comes from the Union government. Over the years, the Union government has been shifting its responsibility increasingly towards the States. Though the Union Ministry of Education’s budget has been increased in absolute terms, its share in total government expenditure has decreased from 4.1% in FY 2014-15 to 3.3% in FY 2020-21 (Budget Estimate). In this period, State governments have increased their spending on education, but due to their limited revenue generation capacities, the States could not expand the resource envelope as much as required for providing quality education to all.

Figure 2: Though the Union Ministry of Education’s budget has been increased over the years, the Union government has been shifting its responsibility increasingly towards the States
Figure 2: Though the Union Ministry of Education’s budget has been increased over the years, the Union government has been shifting its responsibility increasingly towards the States

This under-allocation of resources is observed across all key education components, starting from teachers, infrastructure, incentives to students, monitoring and evaluation. For example, teachers are one of the critical pillars of the education system. However, the shortage of professionally qualified teachers is a common feature of the Indian education system. 

A shortage of 5 lakh teachers in elementary schools alone

As per government records, there is a shortage of more than 5 lakh (0.5 million) teachers in elementary schools; and, out of a total number of 6.64 million teachers at the elementary level, 1.1 million are still untrained. While teachers’ salaries constitute the largest share of the education budget, given their huge shortage, the sector requires more resources for teacher recruitment and training at regular intervals. 

The pandemic has also highlighted the immediate need for professionally qualified teachers. After school reopening, implementing physical distancing guidelines like classes with no more than 30% of students in one day or classes in several shifts means additional teaching time. Moreover, while children will eventually return to school, many of them would not find a level playing field. This requires either extra effort from the existing teachers or new recruitment. 

Only 13% of school infrastructure in compliance with RTE Act norms

School reopening also demands some basic school infrastructure in place for maintaining physical distancing. The Right to Education (RTE) Act has clearly specified norms for school infrastructure. Unfortunately, even after ten years of the RTE act’s inception, only 13% of India’s schools are compliant with all RTE norms (UDISE+, 2018). Across the States, there are gaps in school buildings, classrooms, and other physical infrastructure like drinking water facility, separate toilets for girls, and playgrounds.

The digital inclination requires a substantial investment

Covid-19 has also revealed the poor state of the digital infrastructure in India. Online education is a challenge for most students given the vast differences in access to necessary digital infrastructure, including electricity, devices like smartphones and computers, and internet connectivity. In the last few years, the Government of India and several states have shown an inclination towards digital education. However, there was not enough spending on improving the digital infrastructure. If digital education is the new normal, then along with strengthening basic infrastructure in schools, the government needs to invest substantially in creating a robust digital infrastructure for education.

On 29 July 2020, the much-awaited National Education Policy (NEP), 2020, received cabinet approval. The NEP 2020 has acknowledged the need for higher public investment for a holistic education system and identified specific critical components of education like recruiting teachers, teacher education, digital infrastructure, etc. that need immediate financial support. It is high time that the government starts working on the resources and increases the spending on education to at least 6% of GDP at the earliest as stated in the National Education PolicY 2020.