Analyzing the Policy Priorities of India’s Leading Parties

The largest democracy of the world has headed into the most consequential, contested and widely watched election of the decade. With nearly 879 million eligible voters, India’s citizens have a lot at stake as they decide which party will lead the country for the next five years. However, something that often gets sidelined in the election buzz is the importance of a new cohort of voters that will play a decisive role in the 17th general elections. It is estimated that nearly 130 million individuals will be first-time voters (equivalent to the population of Mexico). Political parties can dramatically increase their chances to win by concentrating on the top states that have added the highest number of first-time voters. In this year’s election, 211 seats (37%) come from the top ten states that have added the highest proportion of these new voters.

The most striking factor of these young Indians however, is that are immensely young – predominantly between the ages of 18 and 21 years. Naturally, they are outside the framework of disappointments and the most plaguing issues of the country including unemployment and economic distress. However, the one critical thing that they do prioritize currently is their education. Young voters have voiced concern over access to scholarships and distress about getting admission into the good higher education institutions (unless of course, one is in the upper grade echelons of their graduating school class).

The two leading political parties of this election, the BJP and the Congress have certainly identified the importance of this important demographic group and have made ‘education’, specifically, ‘higher education’ a critical component of their manifestos. This article is an attempt to uncover the leading themes and policies of both parties as they inch closer towards the decisive election results day on May 23rd.

Major Themes

The BJP’s manifesto signals that if they return to power they will build on their current efforts to reform and modernize the existing higher education system in India. Their education agenda focuses on 3 major themes: global, scientific and outcome-focused. The current government was the first to frame major policies specifically with the intention to ‘internationalize’ higher education institutions. Additionally, a large push has been made by the Ministry of Human Resource and Development (MHRD) to introduce new schemes and programs such as SPARC, IMPRINT and VAJRA with the strategic objective of transforming India’s immense scientific acumen into viable technology solutions and R&D endeavors.

The Congress’s manifesto seems to put more of an emphasis on ‘access to education’ as opposed to upgradation of India’s existing higher education institutes. At the very outset, they claim that education must be available to all as a ‘public good’. To that end, the party has championed the promise of doubling the allocation for education from existing levels of 3.8% to 6% by 2024. This increased allocation of funding will continue to sponsor past endeavors initiated by the Congress government such as the Rashtriya Shiksha Uchchatar Abhiyan (RUSA), a centrally sponsored scheme aimed at providing strategic funding to higher educational institutions throughout the country. RUSA has been one of the successful initiatives that was continued by the present government, given the sheer impact it made on state public institutions that are often not provided sufficient financial support to enhance their facilities for education reforms. Another scheme that may receive further funding is the ‘National Initiative for Design Innovation’ which was also first introduced by the Congress party in early 2014 to promote design-centered innovation to make Indian industry globally competitive. Since its launch, the initiative has opened numerous design innovation centers and set up a National Design Innovation Network (NDIN) to ensure maximum reach of design education and practice in the country.

Overhaul of Regulatory Institutions

Both parties’ manifestos recognize the need to overhaul of the University Grants Commission (UGC). In 2018, the BJP drafted a controversial bill to abolish the University Grants Commission altogether and replace it with the ‘Higher Education Commission of India’ (HECI). The HECI would be a new avatar of the UGC with a more focused vision of setting benchmarks for academic performance. However, due to a specific provision in the bill on removing the grant-giving powers of UGC from HECI, the bill was not tabled. Considering the severe pushback, the BJP manifesto has taken a more balanced stance to the reform of the UGC by focusing on setting national standards of academic excellence and providing functional autonomy to institutions.

The Congress has outlined a similar plan wherein they plan to entrust the regulation, grading and funding of colleges and universities to separate organizations. However, the Congress has followed this plan of action with another statement in the manifesto that will provide the UGC (or its successor) with sufficient funds to make liberal grants to colleges and universities based on need and merit. In a way, this contradicts their initial claim of truly ensuring a ‘separation of powers’ between the different education-related regulatory bodies in government.

Access to Higher Education

The current Gross Enrollment Ratio (GER) in higher education currently stands at 25.8% in India. This number is particularly alarming considering that 50% of India’s population in under the age of 25 years. To that end, both election manifestos have elaborated plans to detail how they will increase existing access to education.

The BJP has claimed that it will increase the number of seats in Central Law, Engineering, Science and Management institutions by at least 50% in the next five years. They also want to push states to accordingly increase the number of seats available in State institutions. The BJP has also given a lot of emphasis on expanding access to knowledge beyond the traditional classroom-oriented format. Over the past 5 years, they established SWAYAM – the ‘Study Webs of Active-Learning for Young Aspiring Minds’ to provide Massive Open Online Courses and virtual classrooms that will allow working-class people to further build their knowledge and skills. BJP plans to develop this portal further and take it to the next level.

The Congress on the other hand plans to expand access to universities by establishing more public universities in the country in under-served areas, providing access to scholarships and reviving the Education Loan Programme (ELP). They want to make a concerted effort by encouraging colleges and universities to build endowment funds that can support deserving children who are financially-strapped. Additionally, the ELP will be a systematic and streamlined programme wherein applications will be examined and sanctioned on a single online portal and the funds will be transferred directly to the branch of bank located near the applicant’s residence. The manifesto clarified that students will not be expected to pay back the loans till they find a job or become self-employed.

Improving the Quality of Higher Education Institutions

While India already boasts of having world-class science, technology and medical institutions, the BJP wants to expand existing focus areas by establishing Arts, Culture and Music as well as a state-of-the-art Hospitality, Tourism and Police university. Adding to that, the BJP wants to expand their existing ‘Institute of Eminence’ (IoE) program by selecting 50 more institutions by 2024. Beyond the 50 new IoEs, the BJP also wants to encourage more institutions towards excellence and motivate institutions to rank among the top 500 institutions of the world. A major objective for this specific mandate is to attract more students from neighboring countries to ‘Study in India’. The current government has approved expenditure of Rs. 150 crores (21.4 Million USD) for 2018-2020 for the this new programme, however, current funds have mainly been utilized for brand promotion activities as opposed to providing scholarships or improving housing and classroom infrastructure at Indian universities and colleges for foreign students.

The Congress also promises to establish more Institutes of Higher Learning in subjects such as Medicine, Engineering, Commerce, Management and Pure Sciences. However, the thrust of their ‘quality improvement’ efforts are focused on empowering and training teachers, since they believe that teachers are critical agents for improving the overall education system in India. The Congress promises to increase the capacity, number and quality of teacher training institutes. Regulation of these institutes will be the responsibility of the National Council for Teacher Education and their funding will the responsibility of the UGC or its successor. They also will try to ensure that teachers are represented in the governing bodies of colleges and universities.

Preparing India’s Students for the Jobs of Tomorrow

Despite the expansive plans laid out by both parties on reforming the existing higher education institutions of India, both manifestos have mentioned the need to empower students with necessary skills that will enable them to translate their learnings in their future jobs. The BJP wants universities to set up scientific labs and technological institutions in collaboration with industry to undertake research in cutting-edge technology. One can estimate that such collaborations may extend into other programs centered on informing these universities regarding the latest skills required by industry. Additionally, besides making the youth ‘workforce-ready’, the NDA government has also put considerable effort over the 5 years in promoting a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship amongst the youth so that they are empowered to start their own business ventures. Led by NITI Aayog, the Atal Innovation Mission is a Central Government-driven initiative that aims to develop self-employment amongst the youth by setting up Atal tinkering Innovation Labs across secondary and high schools, incubation centers and provide scale up support to established incubators.

The Congress on the other hand wants to start the process of ‘skills-training’ by introducing vocational courses as a compulsory component of school education in classes IX to XII. However, beyond this, the Congress has not laid out specific programs it plans to carry out regarding skills-training and development while students are in Higher Education institutes.

In Conclusion

While both parties have set out ambitious plans in their manifestos to modernize and reform India’s existing higher education institutes, their success can truly be measured if the youth of the nation become better-positioned to find relevant, well-paying and reliable jobs after graduation. In a government survey of over 150,000 households across India between April and December of 2015, it was discovered that nearly 35 percent of Indian youth who possess graduate degrees and above are unemployed, while relatively uneducated young workers (6.2 percent unemployment) are doing much better. A highly educated Indian youth is more than five times as likely to be unemployed as an uneducated one. Therefore, it is essential that both parties focus on not only on improving education, but also generating high-quality jobs. The true ‘dividend’ of this demographic cohort can only be reaped if the youth can productively contribute to the economy. The new administration must look at the holistic vision before committing to new schemes that may not necessarily help India’s youth reach their full potential.

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