Trust deficit blocking partnerships

VIMALA RAMACHANDRAN

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The Dover mail was in its usual genial position that the guard suspected the passengers, the passengers suspected one another and the guard, they all suspected everybody else, and the coachman was sure of nothing but the horses; as to which cattle he could with a clear conscience have taken his oath on the two Testaments that they were not fit for the journey...

– Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

 

WHILE on a field trip to Rajasthan, I heard an interesting story. Apparently an enterprising person had placed advertisements promising all 10th and 12th class fail students guaranteed success. Soon, hundreds of young men and women flocked to his ‘school’ – and sure enough, he was able to ensure that all of them cleared the board examinations in one academic year! I was intrigued and asked him whether the school used any special accelerated learning technique. ‘No, not at all!’, he said. ‘I only make sure that the teachers speak slowly and clearly, repeat every concept or problem several times and maintain eye contact with every student. As the principal, I meet every batch each day, motivate and encourage them. Just this personalized contact makes all the difference, and they are able to clear the board examinations!’

When asked about the profile of students who enrol, he said that a majority of them were from government schools. Further, that many of the students were from poor families where they had no one to help them and, most importantly, were forced to work for several hours a day. Finally, since he charged a modest fee, students from very poor families were also able to attend.

We have heard of such entrepreneurs in almost every part of the country, be it the high profile Super 30 Institute of Bihar or the Prerna (motivation) schools of the kind described above. Young people are hungry for education, they want to use it as a ladder out of poverty and deprivation... yet the education discourse in India remains far removed from ground realities.

The education landscape in India has changed quite dramatically in the last two decades. With a larger number of children entering primary schools and successfully transiting from primary and middle schools, the demand for more high schools and secondary schools has been steadily growing. Wherever one travels in India, the shortage of schools beyond the elementary is palpable. This has become one of the most debated issues in both rural and urban India.

 

That is not all. In the last decade, public debate on the quality of education has also become louder and many more people are concerned about the poor state of our schools. Every year since 2005, the annual ASER reports have highlighted the abysmal state of learning across the country – children in classes five and above are not able to read even a simple class two text! Similarly, the surveys conducted by Educational Initiatives also point to a serious crisis in learning. Ironically, there does not seem to be any qualitative difference between government and private schools.

Many years back, when I was researching the state of primary health care, I noticed that the quality of private medical care is influenced a great deal by the quality and the kind of government services that are available. In states where the quality of government hospitals and rural health services was bad, the private sector did not offer anything significantly better – the two seem to march in step, with the private only marginally better and perhaps a little more accessible. Over the years my travels across many districts of India has taught me that this is equally true for education. Government schools and colleges set a kind of benchmark that private providers cannot go below. Wherever the state of government schools is abysmal, the private providers too are only marginally better.

This is what makes the PPP story rather tragic. Today, more than ever before, we need more schools and colleges. The demand for meaningful education – not just any education – has gone up. Parents and students are constantly searching for schools, tutors and tuition centres – in fact just about anything that might help them clear the many hurdles in their way. A greater awareness about poor quality education is pushing both the rich and poor to explore whether the private sector offers anything better in the name of ‘convent education’, ‘public school’ or ‘English medium school’. Yet, as we move up the ladder, not only does the demand-supply gap in the numbers of schools increase, but the difference between the ‘good’ and the ‘common’ becomes starker. For every high-end private school that purports to provide quality schooling, there are hundreds of schools that barely meet even minimal quality benchmarks.

 

It is not that we are unaware of the enormity of the problem facing Indian education. Notwithstanding universal agreement that we need many more schools and all the resources we can muster – public and private – the debate in policy forums is divided on ideological faultlines. The two constituencies are suspicious of each other’s intentions. There are people who are averse to anything private and club all private ventures as rapacious and profit-seeking. Equally, there are those who believe that privatization is the answer to all problems – access, quality and even equity. In between there are varying shades of opinion, including within the government, where the political leaders speak a language different from that of civil servants. In the last two years, despite the strenuous efforts of the HRD minister, the GOI scheme to start PPP schools in all blocks and districts is yet to take off. On the other hand, many state governments are throwing open the higher education space to private players. In an atmosphere charged with mutual distrust, there seems to be little room for a mature and nuanced debate on how we might harness the strengths of different kinds of education providers and strive towards quality education for all.

 

The notification of the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act in 2010 was a moment of exhilaration. If implemented in letter and spirit, it was hoped, the education landscape would change dramatically. The big question before all of us is whether the government and other stakeholders are really serious about ensuring the right of every single child to meaningful education up to the age of 14. More importantly, we are as yet unsure of what kind of forward impact this might have on secondary education, post-secondary vocational and technical training and higher education. These are still early days and it would be some time before any clarity emerges.

Let us look at some rudimentary data. At the primary level (classes one to six) 58.25% are government schools, 7.51% are private unaided schools, 5.76% are private aided schools and 28.48% schools are managed by local bodies. At the upper primary level, the proportion of government and local body run schools comes down to 73.6% while the number of private unaided school has increased 3.7 times between 1975 and 2007. At the secondary and senior secondary level, government and local body run schools further go down to 31.54 and 6.38% respectively, while the share of private unaided schools go up to 34.55% and that of private aided to 27.53%. (Statistics of School Education, GOI, 2010)

The public-private share of schools changes as we move from primary to upper primary and secondary levels. While government is the most important provider at the primary level, at the secondary stage the presence of private (aided and unaided) schools becomes significant. As of today, the non-state players have a greater presence beyond elementary schools. However, this does not tell us much about the real situation on the ground because government data only captures registered schools. If we count the thousands of unregistered and unrecognized schools, it is likely that the proportion of non-state players would further go up. And if we add the coaching or tuition centres, the ground level situation may begin to look very different.

 

Nevertheless, we do not have a comprehensive picture of non-state actors in school education. While granting that it is the duty of government to provide educational opportunities to all children – especially those who live in poverty – there is no escaping the fact that the government alone may not be able to fill the huge vacuum at the high school/secondary school stage. Merely handing out vouchers to poor students to enable them to choose their school is no panacea for the ills of a state controlled regime; we just do not have an adequate number of schools to accommodate every single child who completes elementary school. Similarly, there is an acute shortage of post-secondary education and training institutions, especially institutions that impart skills required in the employment market.

The school system is multilayered and textured; more importantly, the boundary between public and private is fluid. Many surveys reveal that a large number of children formally enrolled in government schools simultaneously attend unrecognized and unregistered schools. Equally, many children in both government and private schools seek private tuitions. There are also a large number of children who are enrolled in private schools and get scholarships from the government. The range and number of private not-for-profit schools run by trusts and missionaries is also considerable.

Within the government system too there are specialized institutions like Navodaya Vidyalayas, Kendriya Vidyalayas, Army Schools and Pratibha Vidyalayas. These schools admit children through examinations though seats are reserved for special categories of children. Similarly admissions in many niche schools depends upon patronage and influence. That is not all. There are government schools where education involves considerable expense (even if no fees are charged) and there are non-government schools where education is completely free. In short, it is difficult to draw neat boundaries between public and private.

 

What can we do and how can we move forward? First, there is a huge aspiration disconnect. Young people mostly aspire for an education that can help them move ahead in life, seek employment or set up their own business. They are searching for skills, for training and for an education that can open new avenues. There are a multitude of providers of such skill training and education – some recognized by the government, some recognized in the employment market and many more which fall in the grey zone that lies in between, successfully exploiting the demand for education and training while still leaving young people ill-equipped. This disconnect is particularly worrisome in the twilight zone of post-secondary vocational training and education.

The government system is trapped in rigid boundaries and battles for turf protection – the school education department only thinks up to one level, the higher education department is primarily concerned with universities and colleges, the technical education bureau focuses on its own clientele, and medical education does not come within the purview of the education department at all! The recently created National Skills Development Mission operates in an autonomous universe of its own. Young people are left to negotiate a multitude of providers, each speaking a different language and each eschewing responsibility if the transition from one level to another or one sector to another is not feasible.

 

This disconnect between the aspirations of young people and the world of providers is not being addressed. India may boast of a demographic dividend, yet unlike China we have done precious little to make sure we harness the enormous energy and creativity that it brings. Consequently, we are left with thousands of educated, yet unemployable youth, in addition to those who have not been able to complete even basic education. Few are sure whether education – as it is provided – would make any difference to their lives. Equally, the system is blind to the thousands of entrepreneurs who, given just half a chance, could create meaningful educational opportunities. Gatekeepers in regulatory institutions are neither qualified to address this complex issue nor interested in anything beyond their narrow personal turfs. This is perhaps the main reason why the PPP debate has been hanging fire at all levels – school, vocational and technical education and higher education.

 

Second, there is an accountability disconnect. Who in the government is responsible for planning and steering educational reform? Who are they accountable to? In reality, no one appears responsible to anyone and they all point their fingers in different directions. Nor is there any united or cohesive effort from the organized corporate sector to not only articulate the demands of their industry with respect to skilled human power, but also in terms of taking any initiative to address the crisis. Even as a few have managed to create pathways for entry into private technical or higher education, there is almost no effort to look at the continuum from school education upwards.

When poor quality education is so all-pervasive at the primary education level, children from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds carry the cumulative burden of poor quality education from one level to another – that is if and when they are able to move from one level to the next. While the government is busy drawing and redrawing turf boundaries, engaged in internal ideological banter, the private sector is either not involved or when engaged, focused on just one level. The not-for-profit (or NGO) sector has gradually been reduced to working in a subcontractor mode, providing services at the pleasure of the government.

There is another dimension of the accountability disconnect. The word partnership conjures up an image of equals working with each other. However, when it comes to public-private-partnership, the relationship is anything but equal. The government reserves the right to dictate every thing, be it the entry or the exit point and can even summarily throw out a partner! It is difficult to tell if this is because of ideological reservations/suspicion or just plain ‘I am the boss’ syndrome. As a result, the PPP model in education finds it difficult to attract genuine long-term players. And when such players do enter the arena, they have to work doubly hard to keep the partnership going.

In the last two decades several mutually beneficial partnership in school education were unilaterally terminated – the most famous being the Hoshangabad Science Teaching Programme where a NGO was working with the state government to enhance the quality of science teaching in middle schools of Madhya Pradesh. Unsurprisingly, when the accountability of all partners to strengthen and maintain the partnership is not assured, dubious players have a field day based on their ability to plug into patronage networks and perpetuate the rent-seeking regime.

 

Perhaps one way forward would be to first carry out a realistic audit of the relationship between different players in the education space, the aspirational and accountability disconnect and then move on from there. The early 1990s ushered in the promise of liberalization, which created entrepreneurs in many businesses. It also helped rationalize costs and demanded greater accountability from hitherto monopolistic players, for instance in telecom and air travel. Maybe it is time to usher in drastic reforms in education by doing away with artificial barriers between different levels of education as well as different kinds of providers. This may help unleash creative energies as also throw up partnership models that encompass the government, the private sector, the community of parents and students, and the not-for-profit voluntary sector.

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