To convey a sense of reaching a breaking point with too much tech, Samyukta Subramanian uses the analogy of an elastic band. "We have stretched it to as much as we could and now we are waiting to get back to normal," says Subramanian who leads early childhood education (ECE) and early grades programs on Pratham, one of the leading NGOs in India for improving the quality of education and learning.
To compensate for the learning loss in the last two years without face-to-face interactions, to go back to the level of competencies that existed in the pre-Covid era, to even operationalise the forward-thinking parts of NEP 2020, there is a crucial need to step up fund allocation for the education sector. Subramanian points out how six months after promulgating the showstopper that was the new National Education Policy 2020, the Ministry of Education actually suffered a cut in budgetary allocation for the fiscal year 2021-22. From 99,300 crore (BE) in 2020-21, the education sector—possibly the hardest hit in the pandemic, especially in the way it exposed the digital divide in the country—received Rs93,224 crore (BE) in the 2021-22 budget last year, a drop of more than 6 per cent in allocation. It is no wonder that Subramanian often hears this one refrain from her field visits, especially when reviewing new programs for children from three to six years of age: but where are the funds to implement the changes. "There's a big focus on improving the foundational skills across age groups, but to actually do that in the way they have envisaged in the NEP in terms of content, curriculum and pedagogy, the budget allocation has to improve. The two go hand in hand," says Subramanian, getting down to the brass tacks of it.
According to research group Accountability Initiative (AI) which studied the Union government's flagship scheme for school education, Samagra Sikhsha, in a pre-budget brief for 2022, there is a similar pattern of decline in allocation. "The last two years have seen a decrease in the quantum of funds approved for most states we analysed. The release of funds has also been slow, with only 38 per cent of allocations released to states till the end of October 2021," AI's report observes. The budget allocation for Samagra Siksha for FY 2021-22 was Rs31,050 crore.
So while most educationists and academicians are hoping for a definite, much-needed loosening of purse strings this year, the sector is also expecting a revision of tax slabs and high-GST in education-related services. "The expectation from the budget is a reduction in the GST slab for education from 18% to 5% so that more people can invest in education and help shape a brighter future. EdTech platforms attract 18% GST. The government in this Union Budget must unburden a load of excessive taxes by abolishing GST on eLearning," said Sunil H Talati from Services Export Promotion Council, an apex trade body set up by the Ministry of Commerce and Industry. Again, emphasising the need for resource mobilisation to get NEP off the ground in the real sense, Talati added, "The NEP 2020 emphasizes the need for at least 6% of the total budget to be allocated to education with financial support for critical components of education such as provision of adequate teachers, teacher training, etc., without which the indented effectiveness is impossible to achieve."
Accessing teaching and training at one's own individual pace and time have ushered in a host of ed-tech companies. Whether they manage to keep students engaged in a post-Covid scenario remains to be seen. Ali Sait, CEO, Tech Avant-Garde, an ed-tech firm says, "The Union Budget outlay for digital transformation in education should be $1 billion for the year 2022-23. For immediate results, a school might require an investment of Rs 10 lakh, students Rs 15,000 each, teachers Rs 50,000. The schools should get funds to upgrade their digital infrastructure and become hybrid. This will make our schooling system robust, and learning can be from anywhere, any place and on any device."
Most schools and colleges have begun accepting the provisions of the NEP, hoping it would mark a turnaround and usher in a qualitative change in the Indian education system. "All these can only be achieved if the education sector is allocated the budget as proposed in the NEP i.e., 6% of GDP. The proposed National Research Foundation needs to be created with adequate funds to promote research & development in the country and faculty are eagerly waiting for this initiative," says Prof Manoj K Arora, vice-chancellor of BML Munjal University. "The mandate of nine science and technology mega clusters announced in Budget 2021, may be expanded to include teaching and learning in addition to research and development. This will lead to the optimal use of faculty and laboratory resources, and also quality in pedagogy, given that the Academic Bank of Credits is in place. This may require incentivising faculty and staff, for which a separate endowment can be envisaged," added Arora.