Originally published in The Wire.
Usually, an increased allocation for higher education would be a reason to cheer but that is not the case this year. The Union budget 2017-18 declared an allocation of approximately Rs 33,000 crore for the Department of Higher Education. This was an improvement of about 12%, or Rs 3,600 crore, over last year’s revised estimate. Sadly, more than Rs 3,000 crore of that increased allocation goes directly to the 23 Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and 31 National Institutes of Technology (NITs). Along with this, the budget provides for a Rs-75-crore Prime Minister Research Fellowship that will be provided to 1,000 B.Tech students from the IITs who receive a cumulative grade-point average of 8.5 or higher. Another Rs 35 crore has been set aside for 1,000 teaching assistantships for M.Tech students at the IITs. Altogether, this comes to about 87% of the increase of Rs 3,600 crore.
This focus on premier engineering institutions is not a new phenomenon. They regularly account for more than 25% of the entire outlay for higher education. This year, they accounted for more than 33% of the total higher education budget. This increase is partially necessitated because of the rushed manner in which IITs have been set up of late – as sops to appease states – without any thought to the cost of running them. This has led to these ‘premier’ institutes operating out of rented premises with inadequate staff and borrowed facilities. This is euphemistically referred to as ‘incubation’, i.e., an older, well-established institute will incubate a new one.
Our national obsession with these premier engineering institutions has come under criticism in the past. Besides the personal pressure that it puts on the students, resulting in ‘a spate of suicides’, there has been much ink spilt over the economic benefits of investing so much money in them as well. Some have argued that the majority of IITians inevitably leave the country or work for foreign companies and only a few take up any of the large-scale engineering challenges plaguing us. In a response to this sort of criticism, the IIT alumni association commissioned a study that calculated their contribution to India’s economy at Rs 20 lakh crore.
What has been discussed far less is how the back-and-forth over the quality of these select institutes hides a remarkable national disinterest in improving the quality of the average engineering college. After all, they, by a vast majority, are private, of poor quality and unregulated. Even the budget reflects this, with the All India Council for Technical Education, the regulator of engineering education in India, receiving only a negligible hike in allocation. Without increased funding or bold reforms, the status quo will persist.
The flipside of this blinkered focus is the long list of institutions that did not see funding improvements. The budgetary increase for the 43 central universities was only 2%, not even keeping up with inflation (3.4% in December 2016). These universities, such as Delhi University and Hyderabad University, offer a diverse array of subjects, ranging across the sciences, social sciences, business and humanities, and cater to much larger student bodies. In the same vein, the Indira Gandhi National Open University, which has more than three million students enrolled in its wide assortment of distance-education courses, saw a minor decrease in its budget. The Indian Institutes of Science, Education and Research saw their allocation massively slashed: from Rs 780 crore to Rs 650 crore, a drop of almost 17%. The Indian Institute of Science saw a minor increase in its outlay while the Indian Institutes of Management saw their budget rise to Rs 1,030 crore from Rs 860 crore.
One project that lived and died with last year’s budget was the Indian National Digital Library in Engineering Science and Technology Consortium, under which centrally-funded government institutions including all IITs and IISc and government and government-aided engineering colleges would get access to more full-text electronic resources and bibliographic databases. It was initially allocated Rs 22 crore last year, but this was revised down to Rs 11 crore. It has also been discontinued from this year.
The University Grants Commission received a 4% increase but there was an ominous ring to Arun Jaitley’s promise in his budget speech to ‘undertake reforms’. These reforms might come in the form of two small items in the expenditure budget that were first mentioned last year with no sign of them since: the Higher Education Financing Authority (HEFA) and the ‘world-class institutions’. According to the budget, the Rs-250-crore HEFA will be "a not-for profit organisation that will leverage funds from the market and supplement them with donations and CSR funds. These funds will be used to finance improvement in infrastructure in our top institutions and will be serviced through internal accruals". Another Rs 50 crore has been set aside for “establishing ten world class institutions each in public and private sector in a reasonable time by providing an enabling regulatory environment that will allow them to achieve the highest levels of global excellence in teaching and research.” It remains to be seen whether these programmes will alleviate or exacerbate the growing inequality in India’s higher education system.