The Union Budget, to be presented by the Finance Minister, Arun Jaitley on July 10, 2014 has created a lot of excitement, expectations and aspirations among all sections of the society. It is natural because the outcomes of the last general election have demonstrated a serious disenchantment of middle classes, farmers, workers, traders, industrialists and youth. We have 27 million youth enrolled for higher education. They are studying in 36,000 colleges and 610 universities. Assuming the country’s current GER 22 percent, there may be around 100 million youth (in the age group of 18-23 years) who are not getting higher education. This substantial size of young population will be eager to know in what way the Union Budget will deal with the allocation of resources for higher education and job creation in the economy.

Indian youth and their families will be curious to know which of the promises made by the BJP in its election manifesto, are likely to be fulfilled in the Union Budget. BJP has promised that the public spending on education will be raised from 3.31 per cent to 6 per cent of GDP. It has also promised to restructure UGC into a Higher Education Commission. There were promises about girls education, e-learning, shortage of teachers, setting of National Multi-skill Mission and also setting up of IITs and IIMs in each state which does not have the one at present.

Our public spending on higher education was 1.22 per cent of GDP in 2011-12 which need to be raised up to 1.5 per cent in the coming budget. We are facing a huge challenge to provide sufficient funds for India’s rapidly growing higher education sector. Government spending, particularly, spending by state governments has fallen short of rising expectations of masses about more access, equity and better quality in higher education. Higher education is in concurrent list of the constitution and both the Union and State governments jointly fund the higher education. The shares of the Union Government and state governments under the non-plan head are 30 per cent and 70 per cent respectively

Since higher education caters to manpower needs of almost all sectors of economy, our industries, government services, hospitals, armed forces, police, R&D labs, schools, media, and retailers expect from colleges and universities to supply them manpower with required skills, competencies and abilities. There have been complaints about the competence level of graduates and postgraduates coming out from our universities and colleges which are perceived to be less than desirable level and recruiters have to spend a large amount on training freshly recruited manpower. NASSCOM and Merit Track have surveyed the employability of fresh BE/B.Techs and MBAs and found that hardly one fourth of them are employable by the industry.

In the above background, it is very important to debate the likely financial allocations to be made for higher education in the Union Budget to be presented by the Finance Minister, Arun Jaitley. These allocations will largely determine how we are going to attain higher education targets set under the 12th Five year plan. The Approach Paper for 12th plan says , “During the 12th Plan period, an additional enrollment of 10 million could be targeted in higher education equivalent to three million additional seats for each age cohorts entering the higher education system. This would significantly increase the GER bringing it broadly in line with the global average.”

It has been proposed by the UGC that under the 12th Plan, the GER should be increased from 17.21 percent to 25 percent. About 45 million students would go for higher education by 2020 from the present level of 27 million. To meet this target by the year 2020, we will have to admit additionally three million students each year from now on. It will call for a sizable expansion of infrastructure, faculty and funds. The Union Budget for the next financial year will indicate whether the Union Government will be able to provide huge funds to achieve GER targets for 12th as well as the 13th Five Year Plans.

The UPA – II Government claimed that it has provided sufficient funds for higher education during the 11th Plan. The allocation for higher and technical education during the 11th FYP was Rs 84,943 crores (as compared to Rs 9600 crores during the 10th FYP). Out of this unprecedented rise in allocation, higher education was allotted Rs 46,449 crores. It is ironical that much of this huge allocation could not be utilized fully due to various reasons including bureaucratic delays and political compulsions. Only Rs 12964 crore could be sanctioned and utilized for higher education till March 31, 2011,. This was a big failure in the governance of higher education system and the MHRD should have fixed up responsibilities for the non utilization of 72 per cent of the allocation.

In spite of big expansion during last the two decades, Indian higher education is facing variety of challenges at all levels. Out of these challenges, one major challenge is related to poor quality of education delivered by state universities and its affiliated colleges. Currently there are 316 state universities and 31,935 colleges which account for more than 90 percent of total enrollment in higher education. These state universities suffer from poor governance, high level of corruption and severe shortage of funds which ultimately lead to low standards. Last year, MHRD launched the Rashtriya Uchchatar Shiksha Abhiyan (RUSA) under which Rs.70,000/- crore grants were to be disbursed to state public universities during the 12th and 13th Five Year Plan. In the forthcoming Union Budget, higher education plans of state governments may be allocated funds by the Union Budget for academics reforms, better governance and infrastructural upgradations. Incentives can be offered to state universities for raising their own funds through upward revision in tuition fees and other legitimate means.

To deal with the low level of employability both in professional and general streams of higher education, special funding may be given for curriculum modernization, pedagogical innovations, and examination reforms. Our graduates now require skills beyond the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic (the 3Rs). Now there is need to focus on the 4 Cs (critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity).

The problems of Indian Higher Education are endemic and are well entrenched in our socio-political system. Prof. Craig Jeffrey of Oxford University, UK has done extensive researches on Indian campuses and published a book “Time pass : Youth, Class and Politics of Waiting in India”. In this book, he has termed Indian Higher Education as a “time pass” for the idle middle class youth who are unable to get a decent job on the basis of their degrees. They take admission in courses after courses for “killing” time and always look for a Jugad to grab a government job!

We cannot expect miracles from the Finance Minister for solving all the problems of higher education. But at least Mr Arun Jaitley can be reminded a promise of BJP to spend six percent of GDP on education out of which 1.5 percent was to be allocated for higher education. For providing better access to higher education for under privileged sections and even middle class youth, there is a dire need of expansion in educational loan facilities in the country. Currently, only 1.5 of the percent students are getting educational loans due to high interest rates and lengthy procedures to get a loan

In the year 2010 Mr Kapil Sibal had announced setting up a National Education Finance Bank (NEFB). Should we expect from Mr Arun Jaitley an allocation of Rs.5000 crore for the equity capital of NEFB? NEFB can play the catalyst in designing a new scheme of educational loans with low interest rates (say 5 to 7 percent annually) and long payment period (15-20 years). Bank can also provide loans at low rate of interest to young entrepreneur for setting up schools, colleges and skill centers in small towns, cities and backward districts of the country.

Knowing well the severe resource constraints and political compulsions in budget making, we cannot expect big announcements and huge funds for higher education in the upcoming Union Budget. But we expect from Mr. Arun Jaitley that his budget should ensure that no deserving youth from poor or middle class family should be deprived of quality higher education for want of funds. We also expect that the academic standards of state universities and affiliated colleges should be raised up to the level of IITs and IIMs so that benefits of quality higher education are not confined to a tiny minority of the Indian youth. In a democratic and plural society, it will not be fair that only a privileged class should get the world class education and aam aadmi be given degrees which do not have much intrinsic value.