How times change. Some five years ago, the buzzword in Indian higher education was expansion. The 2007-12 Five-Year Plan - a mechanism by which, in part, the government formulated its economic policy and planned outlays - was an index of this. It envisaged a 10-fold increase in the outlay for higher education with the creation of more than 50 publicly funded institutions, including Indian Institutes of Technology, Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research and Central Universities.
Today, the unanimous view seems to be that expanding without consolidating and enhancing the quality of institutions is counterproductive. That may be why no new universities or technology-based institutes find mention in the 16 March annual budget presented by the finance minister, Pranab Mukherjee. While he did note that there was a provision for setting up new Indian Institutes of Management and new IITs, this is unlikely to happen. Many of the newly founded institutions are plagued by the lack of qualified faculty, delays in infrastructure creation due to land acquisition problems and, in some cases, disputes between the central government and the state governments. In a country where it is generally believed that progress is best measured by expenditure on new schemes, the lack of funding provisions to establish new institutions has disappointed some. In the short term, however, it is good thinking on the part of the government to ensure that these fledgling institutions stabilise before more are created.
For higher education, the focus now is on making students more employable. Thus, the allocation under the National Skill Development Fund has been doubled and tax benefits have been provided to vocational training institutions. The idea is to make graduates more attractive prospects. Too often, they lack skills that are required by employers at the workplace, a situation that, as Pawan Agarwal's book Indian Higher Education: Envisioning the Future notes, has resulted in thousands of them being either underemployed or unemployed. In fact, as he shows, unemployment rates are lowest among illiterate Indians, but rise in line with education levels.
The other focus has been to improve the quality of research in some key areas. The budget document notes the need to incentivise agricultural research, with grants being given to several state agricultural institutions such as Haryana Agricultural University, Hisar; Kerala Agricultural University; Karnatak University Dharwad and Orissa University of Agriculture and Technology. A provision of 2 billion rupees (£24 million) has also been made for institutions and research teams that make scientific breakthroughs in developing high-yielding hardy seed varieties. Whether this will be enough in a country where, as Deepak Pental, the eminent plant geneticist, puts it, "land resources for agriculture are shrinking, water resources are under stress and soil health is deteriorating", remains to be seen. In terms of numbers, the increase in the allocation for the agricultural sector is minor compared with that for space research, with the budget for the Indian Space Research Organisation having been hiked by more than 50 per cent.
Does this mean that a maiden mission to Mars is a bigger government priority than increasing crop outputs? That is what the budgetary numbers suggest.