Election 2024: Evaluating poll promises on education

The ongoing Lok Sabha elections in India will see nearly 970 million registered voters voting this year. Given that India has a median age of 27, the demographic dividend, the opinions, aspirations, and priorities of the young Indians assume even more significance. Over 40% of the Indian population is less than 25 years of age. Thereby, education, skill development, and employment assume priority during this year’s electoral campaigns.

India’s education sector has seen a significant improvement in access however there has not been a commensurate improvement in quality. The divide between the rich and poor has widened sharply in enrolment rates in secondary and higher education. The dropout rates in secondary education also continue to be high, especially for young girls. Shortages in teaching staff, inadequacies in infrastructure, and basic sanitation continue to plague the sector. Moreover, India’s expenditure on education as a percentage of GDP continues to be fixated at around 3%, significantly lower than that of countries like Rwanda and Bangladesh.

All contesting parties have made education-related promises a prominent part of their manifestos. While the Congress manifesto talks about education as a public good, the focus is largely on making education more affordable and accessible while ensuring quality. The BJP manifesto is more inclined towards building a future-ready education system.

MS Education Academy

Redefining higher education is a common plank advocated by all parties. BJP’s focus is more on establishing new national institutes as well as upgrading the existing medical and engineering colleges. The Congress manifesto talks about reducing dropouts by way of offering scholarships in higher education to marginalized groups. They also have promised to write off student debts as a relief measure on account of the widespread unemployment. The usual focus concerning higher education has been on access, quality and employability. The discussion must also be extended to aspects of research, innovation and funding. Governance and autonomy directly impact academic freedom and thereby education quality. The Congress manifesto pledges to restore the autonomy of institutions and allow room for research and innovation.

The pandemic ushered in new perspectives on how technology could be incorporated into the existing education system. The BJP manifesto stresses leveraging technology in school education to improve quality and strengthen existing e-learning platforms. The Congress manifesto recognises the importance of online courses and digital learning. In a bid to enhance the coverage, it promises to provide mobile phones to students from class X to XII as well as free internet connectivity to schools and colleges. Congress also talks about regulation of the mushrooming Ed-tech sector. Government initiatives, affordability of digital devices and the need for tools to improve quality education have ensured digitalization of learning is here to stay. However, the digital divide continues to be a major barrier to the implementation of a robust digital ecosystem in education. Moreover, issues around training teachers in handling e-tools continue to persist along with the absence of a supporting infrastructure. Technology in education continues to be a story of how far we have come and how far we need to go.

The New Education Policy brought out in 2020 received a mixed response. Some applauded its visionary approach to aspects such as early childhood care, skill development and language while some criticized the policy due to the absence of a definitive guideline on its implementation and the excessive centralization in education governance. While the BJP promises to continue to strengthen the NEP, other manifestos heavily criticize the NEP on account of it being excessively centralized, given that education is a part of the concurrent list. So how the NEP unfolds in the coming academic year is largely a function of who forms the government.

Both Congress and BJP will continue to increase their respective day-schools and residential schools. While the initiative may promote increased enrolment, problems of quality will persist. The Congress manifesto does mention getting dedicated teachers for every subject and regularising teacher appointment. This will be a challenging feat against limited resources, lack of professional development programmes, bureaucratic delays and low incentivization for teachers. Moreover, poor infrastructure and absenteeism only serve to increase the challenges faced by them.

The Congress aspires to scale programmes for foundational learning and address deficits in learning outcomes in the next five years. The move is ambitious, to say the least. These gaps can be addressed when the learning ecosystem accounts for the inadequacies in teaching, curriculum, assessment and evaluation. Moreover, early childhood care needs to be revisited and regularised to be able to check and address learning lags at an early age. The Congress manifesto and the New Education Policy do mention its importance but glaring inconsistencies continue to exist in the sector.

Skilling and industry-centric courses tend to feature prominently as election promises. This, however, needs to be more aligned with the job market. The informal sector in India is huge, so a major portion of the workforce may not benefit from these formal skilling programmes.

While the education sector in India continually needs progress, the International Labour Organisation in its India Employment Report 2024 highlighted that a whopping 80 per cent of India’s unemployed workforce comprises its youth. The jobless rate for graduates stands at 29%, while this figure is at 3.4% for those who can’t read or write. The unemployment rate for young people with secondary or higher education was 18.4%, again significantly higher than for those with no education. Another study titled, “State of Working India 2023” revealed that 42% of India’s graduates under 25 were unemployed in 2021-22. This largely indicates that even though we have come far in terms of access, much needs to be done in bringing quality to schooling and higher education.

This year’s election result will have far-reaching ramifications for the large working-age population. Investment in education, skill development and employment generation need to be done wisely and equitably to ensure that this demographic dividend results in optimal productivity and boosts economic growth.

Nahia Hussain is a policy researcher and the Vice-President (Policy Affairs) at the Centre for Development Policy and Practice (CDPP), a research institute based in Hyderabad.

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