On March 16, 2012, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee will present the Union Budget. Since direction of the national economy for next one year is broadly determined by the Union Budget, all sections of the society are anxious to know how the budget is going to affect their own economy. The organized section of the society viz. industrialists, traders, big farmers, trade unions etc try to influence the budget-making in their favour by sending their suggestions or meeting the Finance Minister directly. The Finance Minister also interacts with economists, business media and industry associations every year before finalizing the Union Budget.

Education, health and social welfare are crucially significant for the overall prosperity of the common man, but there is hardly any lobby to raise these pressing issues related to financial requirements for quality measurable level of education, health and social welfare. Teachers are organised at national, state and local levels but our student community has hardly any say on budget matters. Higher education in India directly affects future of 14.6 million youth in the age group of 18 to 23 years who are enrolled in our colleges, universities and institutions of higher learning. Their parents are also concerned about cost, quality and outcomes of higher education.

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 civil society 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 perceived to be less than adequate and recruiters have to spend large amounts 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 Mr. Pranab Mukherjee. 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 3 million additional seats for each age cohorts entering the higher education system. This would significantly increase the GER brining 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. According to a recent statement of Mr. Kapil Sibal “By 2020, about 45 million students would go in for higher education from the present level of 13-14 million.” To meet this target by the year 2020, we will have to admit additionally 3 million students each year from now on. It will call for 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 Plans.

The Union Government claims 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 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. Till March 31, 2011, only Rs 12964 crore could be sanctioned and utilized for higher education. This is a big failure in the governance of our higher education system and the MHRD should fix-up responsibilities for the utilization of a meatier 28 per cent of the allocation.

In spite of big expansion during last two decades, Indian higher education is facing variety of challenges at all levels. Out of these challenges, one major challenge is related to the poor quality of education delivered by state universities and its affiliated colleges. Currently there are 289 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. In the forthcoming Union Budget, higher education plans of state governments can 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 can 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 can 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 encrusted problems of higher education. But at least Mr. Pranab Mukherjee can be reminded a promise of UPA II to spend 6 percent of GDP on education out of which 1.5 percent was to be allocated for higher education. Currently only 1.12 percent of GDP is being spent on higher education. In the year 2010, Mr. Kapil Sibal had announced setting up a National Education Finance Bank (NEFB). Should we expect from Mr. Pranab Mukherjee an allocation of Rs.5000 crore for the equity capital of NEFB?

NEFB can be 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). Currently only 1.5 of the percent students are getting educational loans due to high interest rates and lengthy procedures to get a loan. 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. Mukherjee 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 world class education and aam aadmi be given degrees which do not have much intrinsic value.