Reforming institutional practices

RASHMI SHARMA

back to issue

IN India, criticism of the government is abundant, though not always accurate or insightful. Newspapers get plenty of material about what the government does, and does not do, i.e., its ‘output’, but our understanding of government functioning itself, which leads to particular types of outcomes, remains limited. The most common approach is to simply see a particular professional group, i.e., politicians or bureaucrats, as villains of the show. This ‘explanation’ then leads to solutions such as shrinking the government’s role and influence, which suits those who have faith in the market, and others who hope for ‘communitarian’ solutions, but leaves many dissatisfied, for the baby has been thrown out with the bath water. Removing activities away from the governmental sphere is, after all, also protecting them from democratic scrutiny and accountability.

Scholars who investigate state functioning are well aware that the government of one country is unlike that of another,1 and neither politicians nor bureaucrats behave uniformly across the world. The rapacious states of sub-Saharan Africa are very different from the governments of Scandinavian countries which have successfully balanced the goals of economic development with those of social welfare. Within the developed world, European states differ from the state in the USA, and in the developing world, the governments of Africa differ from those of India and East Asia. Not only are these variations across countries deep-seated, institutional differences, in terms of structures, processes and links to society, often persist across different political regimes. Political agendas and specific policies are of course important, but across these, longer term institutional practices tend to endure. Political parties with similar ideologies can govern in very different ways across countries, and within a country, political parties with different ideologies can govern in very similar ways.

 

Unfortunately, in India, the discourse about governance rarely takes long-term institutional practices into account. Many intelligent people are content to simply list the shortcomings of the powerful, rather than explore the different ways in which state power can be exercised, as also the institutional processes within government that facilitate or hinder the exercise of power to ensure justice, equity and so on. Even as specific policies and actions are critiqued, the underlying mechanisms through which these are generated, including institutional practices within government, escape scrutiny. Yet these practices often lie at the heart of government initiatives. Though adequate public debate in this area does not exist, several individuals who work closely with government, its employees as well as activists and others, are often all too aware that the ethos, capabilities and processes within the government system explain a great deal of what emerges as ‘policy’ and its ‘implementation’.

Nowhere is the importance of institutional practices within the state clearer than in the case of education, where the functioning of government schools as well as institutions of higher learning, the motivation of teachers and classroom processes are affected directly by the ethos and practices within government. If government is seen as a site for disbursing patronage, and institutional leadership is selected on this basis, the quality of academic and administrative institutions suffers. If academic support is inadequate and cursory, the opportunity to stimulate teachers to improve classroom practices is lost. If rent-seeking is high, school buildings get constructed badly and the teaching-learning material available is of poor quality, and so on. In other words, the government spills over into the classroom, and into the teaching-learning process. The future of education in India is, consequently, tied up to the future of government itself, and it is this equation that we will attempt to examine here.

 

We have already noted that government practices are not similar across countries. Within a country, as the sociopolitical context changes, and as a consequence of more direct interventions to change government processes, institutional practices within the state are also likely to shift. Such shifts are, however, not predictable, either in terms of the precise direction that they may take, or in terms of the speed with which they take effect. For instance, the high level of economic growth witnessed in recent years in India places new demands on the state as the size and influence of industry and the urban middle class on the state grows. Parallelly, new demands are also generated by the increasing politicization of the people. Some response to these pressures becomes necessary, and changes in state functioning to meet these are likely.

Since several mutually contradictory pressures operate simultaneously, what becomes dominant at a particular juncture will depend on a host of factors. Consequently, the direction and pace of change cannot be predicted. For the purpose of this article, it is sufficient to note that while on the one hand, pressures on the state pull it towards greater professionalism and reduction of patronage based functioning and rent-seeking, on the other, are pressures which promote the status quo, and even greater corruption and ad hocism. The strength of various pressure groups as well as the emergence of different types of crisis will influence the future course of things, but there are two distinct possibilities: one, that state functioning may become more lawful and people-centred, and second, that the present problems may drag on or become even worse. We need to imagine education in both these scenarios.

An important perspective for understanding the state-education future is the fact that the story of education in India stands at a critical juncture. In the context of high levels of economic growth, education provides significant avenues for social mobility. Consequently, the demand for education, already high, can be expected to escalate even more rapidly. In the face of this demand, the expansion of educational opportunities is nearly a given. As yet, we have barely managed to reach (nearly) all primary school students and the expansion of upper primary, secondary and higher education is likely to be extensive in the next few decades.

 

The critical question is how this expansion of opportunity will take place, for the manner of this expansion will affect Indian society in a fundamental way. The current context of high economic growth offers an opportunity of redistributing the benefits of growth, and consequently, for constructing a more equitable society. The capacity to redistribute growth is, in turn, contingent to a large degree on the nature of the education system. Equitable access at all levels of education will provide the basis of redistributing the benefits of growth. Alternatively, an iniquitous expansion of educational opportunity will lead to the consolidation and exacerbation of existing iniquities.

The nature of state intervention will be an important factor in determining how education expands, while the type of state interventions, in turn, will depend on the manner in which the state itself will function. Examined below are three different scenarios that may arise in education as a consequence of different types of shifts in state functioning.

 

Scenario 1: A significant improvement in state functioning. The first possible scenario is that of a significant shift in state practices for the better, whereby patronage based placement policies are replaced by those based on merit and rent-seeking. Such changes could take place as a consequence of public pressure, increased and more informed media scrutiny, crisis of some kind, and other influences. If this happens, the space for professionalism within the state apparatus will increase. A direct repercussion in the education sector would then be that state run educational institutions will run more professionally, and change for the better.

Improvements in state run educational institutions are likely to be most significant for the less well-off sections of society, i.e., those who cannot afford private schools. Equality of educational opportunity will consequently increase. An improvement in the quality of education is also likely across all types of institutions, public and private. Changes in, and greater professionalization of institutions concerned with academic resource support, i.e. those responsible for making curricula, teacher education and so on will impact not just the state but all educational institutions. In fact, the entire discourse on education is likely to become more meaningful and relevant, and parallel initiatives may follow.

A more indirect impact of improvements within the state apparatus would be the widening of realistic policy choices. It is important to note here that the limitations of institutional functioning within government affect the range of policy options available. The most obvious case is that poor institutional functioning leads to the subversion of stated policy goals, through inaction as well as rent-seeking. If institutional functioning is unsatisfactory then even the most carefully thought out policies become ineffective. For example, the government may take policy decisions to support children from less well-off social groups, such as providing uniforms and free textbooks. However, if these activities become a site for rent-seeking, then the policy tends to be only ‘on paper’. On the other hand, if institutional shortcomings are removed, policy statements become more real.

 

Importantly, institutional functioning also affects the articulation of policy itself. For instance, the shift towards privatization is at least partly a consequence of the problematic state of government schools, i.e. the poor quality of state schools has provided a fillip to privatization. Similarly, the impetus for hiring para teachers is also partly explained by the dissatisfaction with the ‘regular’ teachers. Some of the support within and outside the government for these policy shifts arises from the dissatisfaction with government schools, rather than belief in the policies themselves. In other words, institutional functioning affects the range of policy options available. As the development of institutes of excellence within the state sector appears difficult and unrealistic, some policy options remain closed. With a change in government functioning, these policy options can become realistic possibilities.

Notably, the improvement of state processes and capabilities does not rule out private-public partnerships; nor does it necessarily imply that the state will expand its sphere of activities. The shift implied relates to the quality of state interventions, and not necessarily their quantity. The state may still partner the private sector in several fields, particularly where such synergy augments state capacity and increases the effectiveness of its policies. However, in this scenario, the state would also have the autonomy to address market failure, e.g. by setting up institutes that have long term, non-commercial goals, and by providing good quality education to constituencies that are not served adequately by private players.

 

Scenario 2: Privatization in the unreformed state. The second possibility is that change within the state apparatus and processes may not come about, or may be slow, and state initiatives may remain inadequate to address a more demanding scenario in education that is likely to follow. As the demand for education and pressure from society as well as industry rises, policies vis-à-vis private investment in various spheres of education may be revised to encourage private participation. This may then lead to the rapid growth in the number of private institutions. In other words, education would be increasingly privatized. In fact, this is already a very strong trend.

This type of privatization will differ significantly from the public private partnerships forged in the context of improved state functioning. The increasing privatization of education in the context of inadequate state functioning is likely to lead to the development of knowledge and capacity in some sectors, and not in others. For instance, some institutes of excellence are likely to emerge in areas that benefit industry, though similar growth may not take place in sectors that do not. For example, this country already boasts of several very good institutions for studying business management, but there are no parallel institutes for studying public policy, though such institutes have grown rapidly in the developed world in recent years. Similarly, technical training of various types may thrive, but education in humanities may not. In other words, while knowledge suited to the needs of industry and business will grow, that addressing wider public needs and issues may not.

 

There is every likelihood that the growth of private facilities will be urban-centred, and large parts of the country may remain neglected. This growth will be led, not by the democratic process, but by the needs of the market. High fees and highly differential access to education for people from different social classes is also likely. Privatization of education, consequently, offers ‘solutions’ for those who can pay for services, but not for those who cannot. Parallelly, the state organization will lack the professional capacity to intervene where the market fails.

An important question in this scenario of unreformed state practices is the extent to which the private sector itself can deliver. As an example, let us consider the argument in favour of the ‘voucher system’, i.e., that the delivery of education should be privatized totally to get past the problems within the government system. It has been argued that the government should simply provide each child with a voucher which would enable her to attend any (private) school, and the government would simply reimburse a certain stipulated sum to the school on the basis of the vouchers presented. Children will opt for better functioning schools, and ultimately only such schools will survive. In other words, schools would be set up and managed by private players, but funded by government. Each child would be able to choose the school she wishes to attend.

The merits and demerits of privatizing education in this manner apart, the scrutiny is confined to the manner in which such a policy could play out. The privatization of delivery of services as envisaged in the ‘voucher system’ requires strong regulation by the state. There would be need to intervene in the case of schools that offer short term gains, such as organized cheating during examinations, or an education oriented narrowly to cracking exams, as well as schools promoted by religious fundamentalists and other undesirable players. Moreover, the state machinery would need to be efficient enough to ensure that each child actually gets a voucher (and only one voucher). Fraud schools, where no or minimal teaching takes place and the benefits of the voucher are simply divided among school authorities and students, and indigent parents co-opted, cannot be ruled out. These types of malpractices would need to be prevented. However, such regulation is impossible unless state practices improve.

 

In fact, privatization along with unreformed practices within state institutions could increase rent seeking rather than reduce it, as accountability would become diffused. For instance, if a government school runs badly, the government is obliged to take responsibility if parents, civil society or the media protest. But if a school to which students provide government vouchers runs badly, the responsibility is ill-defined and public accountability is reduced. Importantly, the context and manner in which private-public are forged is an important ingredient here, rather than simply the extent of privatization. In turn, the ground rules on which such partnerships are based are affected a great deal by the nature of state regulation.

 

Scenario 3: Control without reform. A third scenario can be envisaged whereby state practices may not be reformed, but the state retains substantial control of education. In this case, state institutions may function poorly, but the emergence of private institutions may also be blocked. Such a situation would be difficult to sustain, given the increasing demand and pressure for good quality education, particularly in sectors important for the economy. However, it could exist in some sectors, such as the study of humanities, or other fields where the effects of knowledge development are long-term.

This is a scenario where the growth of productive and high quality institutions, and the education sector as a whole, would be stunted. In the event, the fittest and the richest individuals may survive in educational terms, but not others. A proportion of exceptionally bright young persons will study in apex national institutions. Such institutions may continue to enjoy a good reputation, not because of the quality of education imparted, but because of the calibre of students admitted. The competition for admission to such institutions would get even fiercer, and those who can invest in private tuition and other types of preparatory activities for admission will stand a better chance. Parallelly, those who can so afford, will send their children abroad to study, so that an elite class, educated abroad, will also grow. The creation and expansion of such a class would give a new fillip to elitism. This phenomenon is also in existence at present.

In this scenario, private institutions are likely to emerge anyway in response to the needs of the economy. Such institutes will provide diplomas and certificates that may not have state recognition, but are likely to be recognized in the market. The emerging picture would be of a disorganized education sector, with a limited capacity to provide recognized certification, but with a variety of institutes providing various types of certification not recognized by government. These institutes are likely to face considerable obstacles in their functioning, and will be unregulated in terms of quality, fees etc. The scenario for education in this context would not be a happy one.

 

So far, this discussion has been quite one-sided, i.e., the focus has been on the impact of state functioning on education, and not vice versa – the impact that expansion in education will have on the state itself. Without doubt, a better educated populace will be less tolerant of patronage based functioning and rent seeking, will demand professionalism from the state apparatus, and exert pressures for change. As these pressures mount, some change is likely, but it may be fairly gradual, with many false starts and setbacks.

Additionally, the type of the pressure for change that will build up as educational opportunities expand will depend, at least to some degree, on the manner is which this expansion takes place. In the three scenarios envisaged above, the new educational opportunities created would differ, ranging from elite domination of education to a more democratized access. The type of pressure exerted for state reform is also likely to change accordingly. For instance, if educational opportunity expands to leave out less powerful groups, their empowerment may be inadequate to lobby for their interests. In other words, societal pressure on the state will also be shaped to some extent by state functioning.

 

The thrust of this article is that functioning of state institutions is a key concern for education in India. Improvement in the functioning of state institutions offers an opportunity for a rapid transformation of the sector, with a possibility for equitable access to good quality education. At the same time, the cost of not reforming are high. There is, therefore, some cause for focusing more sharply on the manner in which the government itself functions. If state institutions do not change significantly for the better, the journey towards an equitable and good quality education system will be much slower, with many twists and turns, and even reversals.

The present discourse on education does not focus in adequate detail and accuracy on the problems of the functioning of state institutions. Too often, government functioning is the subject of sweeping criticisms that are applied in equal measure to major and minor shortcomings, with the result that the real problems remain obscure. The latter are often seen as ‘their’ (government servants) problems, even though they spill out into much larger arenas. Our capacity to critique government functioning accurately, identify core areas and processes for reform, and move towards needed change will in large measure affect this future.

 

Footnote:

1. Peter Evans, Embedded Autonomy: States and Industrial Transformation, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1995.

top