The problem

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MORE than sixty years after independence, the question of how we educate our children still remains highly contentious. Despite massive investments by the government in creating a widespread public education system, the quality of the education it provides has been much like the proverbial curate’s egg – good only in parts. With few exceptions, the overwhelming mass of this large system is creaky, overburdened and increasingly failing to meet its objectives.

The failure of the system to meet the aspirations of millions, particularly after the economic reforms of the nineties that created a larger, upwardly mobile and disposable income wielding middle class, has led to a gradual loss of confidence in the ability of government systems to deliver. In particular, the middle class has moved away from these institutions as it is now able to pay for what is perceived to be quality education.

Even among those who may not necessarily be better off, there is a clearly visible tendency to move their children away from non-performing government institutions into private ones, just as soon as they can afford the costs involved. In turn, this has led to an increase in what may be called non-state actors, who provide educational services in return for a variety of reasons, including market determined returns. There has also been a growing commercial interest in the education sector, especially in the last two decades. There is, therefore, both a push and pull factor at play.

The existence of private players in the education space was recognized even in the 1960s when the Indian Education Commission (better known as the Kothari Commission) noted that a large number of schools were under private management, and indeed that many of these were of high quality. Today the position is even starker – while a majority (approximately 85 per cent) of elementary schools are run by government agencies or department, at the secondary and higher education stage nearly 60 per cent and 69 per cent institutions respectively, are under private management. Clearly, there is already a large and significant participation of non-state actors in education.

The reasons for non-state entities owning or operating educational institutions may be many, ranging from philanthropic do-gooding to pure profiteering (while the law prohibits commercializing education, many organizations find it convenient to observe the law in letter if not in spirit). Religious missions, charitable organizations, eponymous foundations and trusts, non-governmental organizations, companies, individuals – the list of those engaged in educational ventures is endless.

In the US, the inability of the state to address the problem of failing schools and the need to create more accountable ones has become a major concern in communities, and this parent spearheaded movement has resulted in a new form of schooling partnership – the charter school. In effect, the charter school model entails taking over and contracting a school from the state to be managed by parents in the community. The state, however, provides monetary support to the school, matching what it would otherwise have spent on it. The claim is that the charter schools have resulted in an enhanced accountability of local schools to the local community.

Interestingly, this shift is evident not just in the land of ‘free enterprise’, the US, but also in social democratic Sweden where the state enables anyone satisfying basic standards to open a new school and take in children at the state’s expense. Whether this greater plurality of suppliers, reflecting greater choice, also significantly enhances educational quality, however, remains unsettled, given absence of research data.

Of late, a similar tendency can be noticed in India too as various state governments, keen to enhance the quality of school education, have initiated different schemes to involve private partners. A similar initiative has also been proposed by the central government, hoping to start 6000 new model schools in different blocks, 2500 under the public-private partnership mode. It is another matter that the proposal, despite Cabinet approval, has met with significant resistance, particularly from the education bureaucracy – possibly a reflection of ideological unease arising from the set ways of operation or worse, turf battles and the scheme still remains to be operationalized. This despite the terms of contract being substantially modified in favour of private players.

The fact is that government is no longer the sole player in this sector; there are many who have taken on responsibilities earlier assumed to be exclusively its own. However, the regulatory mechanisms to monitor the working of government aided private schools continue to be weak – for example, in the provision of mid-day meals; artificially inflating numbers in the aided schools than actually enrolled; failure to meet the statutory requirement of 25% enrolment of children from the weaker sections, and so on.

Not surprisingly, a vocal school of thought continues to propound that all educational institutions should be under government ownership and management (akin to a common school system), holding that it is the responsibility of the state to ensure the education of all citizens. This group would prefer the abolition of all private (or non-state) initiatives, ‘nationalization’ of all educational institutions, and the active involvement of the state in their management. The reasons for such a position might be many, but at the core lies a deep distrust of all private motives, alongside a (false) equation of the government with the public.

To state it more sharply, the belief is that only the government can uphold and serve the public interest. There is also the associated argument that in a democracy it is easier to hold the government, as compared to a private entity, to account, this despite considerable evidence to the contrary. Some even assert that any talk of involving private players only results in reducing the pressure on the government to meet its constitutional duties. Yet, the voices for liberalization are growing louder; in recent years, there are many more who argue that state management of education is precisely what has led to the current situation, and that it is perhaps time to acknowledge that non-state initiatives could help bring about an improvement in quality.

One reason why the debate has so far been unable to transcend ideological assertions is an absence of reliable data on the numbers, quality, location, composition of students, teacher qualifications and salaries in private schools in the country. Equally, Supreme Court rulings that continue to treat education as a non-profit activity, create barriers for the entry of new players. More significantly, many of the rules and provisions under the Right to Education Act appear directed against small, even if committed, players who would find it difficult to meet the required norms of infrastructure, teacher qualification and salaries, and so on. In brief, both the ideological and regulatory environment remains more restrictive than facilitatory.

For a country that hopes to reap the so-called demographic dividend in the next few decades, the question of educating its young is of critical importance. Unless these young people are well educated and provided with the skills the country needs, the demographic dividend could quickly turn into a demographic nightmare. Evidence of this danger is already visible, as reflected in the rapidly increasing crime rates and anomie in our cities; unless we arrest the slide of our educational institutions swiftly, future generations will pay the penalty.

It is in this context that the present issue of Seminar looks at partnerships in education from a variety of perspectives. The expectation is that the debate will move beyond narrow ideological concerns and help evolve workable arrangements to ensure quality education for all.