Privatisation, via Socialism

1 Sep

Maybe I should begin at the end. India’s socialism in education has seeds of the very opposite… here is how.

It is difficult to find such polarised views on any other issue. So I will keep my language sober, neutral even. I speak of socialism in education. Strong views on each side of the argument exist, stronger than even the grasp of the concept of socialism, or the ever-nebulous term–education.

There are clearly two sides of this debate, and both are about financing and the implications of such ‘ownership’ of education. Most policy makers and many generalists  agree that education is a public good and must be funded by the government. This, de facto, gives the government the power to decide on curriculum, pedagogy, staffing and assessments. The entire system belongs to a central authority and any degrees of freedom are decided by system design. The current debate on the ‘common core’ being implemented in the United States of America is also about issues of centralisation. Indian universities have felt for a while that there is creeping centralisation via reporting requirements–though there have been few visible benefits of such reporting. Yet.

On the other hand, there is a battery of opinions that seeks greater freedom for education, including funding. The private sector is clearly a large part of the education–dare I say it–market. In India, they dominate the professional education market including engineering, management and medical teaching by volume. Globally, private education has almost never managed to achieve the quality and level of state education in higher education while primary and secondary education are still being debated.

This approach is not just about private sector funding but also about being able to build a diverse system that is more responsive to the needs of the market. It spawns institutions of all types. Some are in the conventional mode of the state and others that are still knocking at the doors for legitimacy. The large preparation-for-engineering-entrance-exams industry in towns such as Kota has been written about extensively. They too are private purveyors of education, they too help their students bring a degree of rigour in their learning and help them achieve their learning goals. These tutorial colleges, among others of their ilk are seen as mere profit making machines, with no regard for true education, which presumably has loftier goals.

Most countries at least offer primary education for free to their students, considering that a duty to the people. As countries become richer they extend this to higher education. Some, who do not have the infrastructure, such as some countries in the Middle East, sponsor their citizens’ higher education in other countries. The mark of development of a nation could, possibly, be the level up to which the government has been able to sponsor education. Certainly a mark of investment in future development of the country.

India offers free education in its state-sponsored schools and subsidises higher education at its universities and centres of excellence to ensure improved access. The private sector thrives parallel with the state system, slowly gaining credibility as some institutions prove their worth, while others wither away. Private education is still an uncomfortable word in Indian policy circles. If the motivation of the sponsor of education is mere profit, they are suspect of giving less–even exploiting–the student community. Which is not necessarily true. There will be a few operators at the margin of any industry, and it is the job of the regulators and governance systems to weed them out rapidly. Ownership is no guarantee of quality, as is evidenced within India.

The first tentative steps towards PPP models in secondary schooling prove that the thinking is changing and the concept of education as a public good is no longer sacrosanct. Skills building and vocational education is clearly seen as an area where PPP models are the ideal way forward. Without education-employer partnerships, skill building becomes an exercise in a vacuum.

The most daring example of a PPP in education in India has been the enactment of the RTE (Right to Education) Act. Berated for the huge gaps in its thinking and drafting, the RTE is a reality now. It arrogates to the state 25 percent of seats in every private school that are to be allocated to those who cannot afford private schooling. The standard cost per child is reimbursed to the school by the state. The model here is a very interesting case of PPP, unprecedented in its chutzpah and vision.

While it is social engineering in the most socialist of traditions, it also opens the door to more privatisation in the long run. Its socialist credentials are established by its seeking to educate the poor with the rich, providing the same facilities to all regardless of the circumstances of their birth, and bringing private institutions into the net of the state. One of the biggest protests from private budget schools was the fact that state funding would bring them into the purview of the Right to Information Act, which could be used on them. For the high fee-paying schools the issue was loss of income, for many of the budget schools (low fees), the additional income was welcome. In both cases the carving out of a quarter of the school capacity was offensive, but accepted as inevitable.

The interesting thing is the segue into privatisation. First the students–the ones who do go to private schools as part of this quota are taken out of the state school mindset and coaching. There is no doubt that some schools have successful alumni not just because of the curriculum they teach but also because of their attitudes. (Some would call this socialism, this is a glass-half-full argument). At a school level, this means that the worst government schools will see an attrition into better government schools or to the RTE quota of private schools. The consumers now have the freedom to vote with their feet due to this quasi voucher system of the RTE and can abandon bad schools in most areas. The government schools that have been thus proven to be unsound are either subject to closure or can be sold to private education trusts with a sound record. We have seen examples of both in different states. The message to government schools is clear – perform or lose out to the private sector.

For a government that is run under a constitution that incorporates the word ‘socialist’ in its preamble, this is a quiet but distinct move towards creating a more equitable space for the private sector to participate in education.

This was published in Forbes India blogs on August 29, 2013 and is linked here and http://forbesindia.com/blog/author/meeta-sengupta/
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