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Budget 2019 Exclusive: India needs to spend 8% of GDP to scale up RTE to higher secondary

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By Resmi Bhaskaran

Expert Opinion on Union Budget 2019 Expectations: The government has plans to extend free and compulsory education up to higher secondary level. A determined government can bring policies towards it, but the question is, whether it has done the basic homework to implement it.

India completed eight years of the Right to Education (RTE) Act. The time-bound goals set under the RTE have been extended many times over these years. For example, India still needs close to a million teachers to meet RTE norms in government elementary (classes 1 to VIII) schools. According to answers given in Lok Sabha in March 2018, out of the 52 lakh total sanctioned vacancies (as per the pupil teacher ratio prescribed in the RTE Act), 9.3 lakhs are not filled yet. When teacher shortage in secondary (classes IX to X) schools was added to it, the total shortage reaches at 12 lakhs. A staggering variation can be seen between states, i.e., high shortage in Jharkhand and excess teachers in Kerala.

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Teacher education institutions in India produce around 5 lakh teachers annually. But, our government schools function with inadequate number of teachers. One major reason is that only 2-30% teachers qualify Teacher Eligibility Test (TET), which is mandatory for recruitment. Interestingly, the qualifying scores are only between 60-50%. When 6% cleared TET in Maharashtra in 2018, it was a record. Teachers with poor academic background and poor training can be blamed for the scenario. About 90 per cent of teacher training institutes are in the private sector, mostly unregulated and substandard. The government institutions suffer from various infrastructure deficiencies due to lack of funds. Another major issue is that due to budget constraints, many state governments have stopped recruitment and prefer to function with contract teachers or existing teachers.

Schooling in India continues to be a disaster. Average years of schooling is 6.4 years as per UNDP Human Development Report 2017. Report of ASER 2018 says that only 50% of class V students can read books meant for class II and 50% of class VIII students are unable to solve a problem that involves basic division. This situation prevails despite a lot of initiatives to improve the quality of school education under Sarva Siksha Abhyan and RTE Act.

Our education system produces unemployable and semi-literate citizens. Economy, society, and family suffer due to poor educational outcomes. However, this is not a new challenge, yet hardly any serious attempt has been taken to address it.

First generation literates are often taught by untrained and unqualified teachers. Currently, a good number of enrolments in primary classes are children of second or third generation literates. To meet their aspiration and educational objectives, trained and qualified teachers are essential. It is high time to set standards for teacher education with more quality teacher education institutes at state level. Also, an environment needs to be created for good students to opt for teaching as a profession.

Another major challenge that impedes the extension of RTE to higher secondary level is inadequate infrastructure. We don t have sufficient number of institutions to enroll students from one level to the next level. According to MHRD statistics, in 2015-16, there were only 15 secondary schools and only 6 higher secondary schools for every 100 elementary schools in rural India. Moreover, private schools outnumber government institutions at secondary to higher secondary level.

Extension of RTE to higher secondary level will be a revolution. If 50% of total primary enrolment, i.e., 12 crore students in 2015-16, reaches higher secondary level in another 6-8 years, there will be a 300% rise in higher secondary enrolment. It is not clear if the government has any plan to develop infrastructure and resources to provide basic secondary school amenities to such a large number of students.

India has examples to show that a strong political leadership can allocate financial resources and develop infrastructure and improve teaching quality on a war footing. Kerala and Delhi proved that a determined state government can transform school education. Kerala upgraded its special investment vehicle, KIIFB, to fund infrastructure including school buildings. It used innovative fund raising methods.

Finally, the question on budget allocation. Will the budget 2019 initiate measures to allocate 6% of GDP for education? But the expenses on elementary education constitute 50% of the total educational expenditure and just 32% is given for secondary education. Any change in this expenditure composition would be a disaster for other segments of education.

Even if the government spends 6% of ‘the GDP for education, India will not be able to extend RTE up to higher secondly level. It needs almost doubling of what we spend right now, i.e., minimum Rs 10 lakh crore which is almost 8% of the GDP. The central budget has to go up at least by 30% to achieve this goal. Also, the Centre has to convince and guide states to invest accordingly to improve and expand school education to new levels. Otherwise, 30% of the children enrolled in elementary will continue to drop out when they reach secondary level and another 50% at higher secondary level. Only 20-30% privileged few will attain higher education.

(Resmi P Bhaskaran is an independent economist and a social sector policy analyst. Views expressed are personal.)