Private sector in education: Never mind Amitabh Kant's U-turn; it's time we seriously debated the idea

Firstpost | 01 August 2017

Last week, a news report that NITI Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant had said schools, colleges and jails should be handed over to the private sector quite predictably set off a kerfuffle. Most people were scandalised about what they perceived as a call to privatise education. It forced Kant to clarify that he was only talking about the private sector being involved in the physical infrastructure of schools.

But what is wrong with getting the private sector more involved in the academic aspects of education? It is not as if it is not already present. And it is not as if it is doing a terrible job of it. On the other hand, parents appear to be leaning more towards it. Let’s just focus on school education since that is what evokes more emotional responses to any increased private sector role.

Data from the Unified District Information System for Education (UDISE) shows enrolment in private schools increasing and that in government schools falling. In 2013-14, the enrolment in private schools in Class I to VIII was 35.81 percent; in 2015-16, it was 37.95 percent. The data for government schools shows a decline from 61.32 percent to 59.44 percent. Geeta Gandhi Kingdon of the University College London has shown that the enrolment share of private schools, on average, has doubled from 15.1 percent in 2005 to 31.4 percent in 2014. She also gives figures of close to 18,000 government schools in Rajasthan with less than 20 children and 4,000 in Maharashtra and 3,000 in Chhattisgarh with less than 10 students.

Now the well-off don’t send their children to government schools; only low income people do. So why are they preferring private schools (where they will have to shell out money) to free government schools?

Because the former give value for money, Kingdon notes. Mining data from NGO Pratham’s Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) between 2010 and 2014, she shows that private schools are outperforming government schools in learning levels of students. Children in Standard IV who can do at least subtraction was 55.1 percent in government schools in 2010 and dropped to 32.3 percent in 2014. Children in Class V who can do division dropped from 33.9 percent to 20.7 percent over the same period.

There was a decline in the case of private schools also, but at higher levels. Children in Standard IV who can do at least subtraction was 67.7 percent in 2010 and 59.3 percent in 2014. Children in Standard V who can do division was 44.2 percent in 2010 and 39.3 percent in 2014. She has similar findings for reading levels.

Take infrastructure. The UDISE data shows that regardless of the level of school – primary, upper primary or combinations of these with other levels – private schools have, on average, more classrooms than government schools. Ditto with average number of teachers; the only exception is upper primary with secondary and higher secondary, where the average number of teachers in government schools is higher than private schools. In fact, after a dip from 5.2 to 5 between 2010-11 and 2011-12, the average number of teachers in primary classes in private schools has risen steadily and stands at 5.3 in 2015-16. On the other hand, the average number of teachers in government schools remained at 2.8 between 2010-11 and 2014-15 and dipped to 2.7 in 2015-16.

All this when, as Kingdon shows, the government per pupil expenditure far outstrips private per pupil expenditure by anything from two times to 12 times, across states.

Okay, so let’s not hand over education entirely to the private sector (Kant was really speaking about public-private partnerships), but it is time to accept that role of the government in education needs to change.

The debate over whether or not education is a public good will continue till eternity, but even if it is conceded that only primary education is a public good requiring the government to provide it, why is it so difficult to accept that there can be a different method of delivery and this should be encouraged?

It is not clear if public-private partnerships (PPPs) will work, if the private party has to take on the baggage of unionised government school teachers and other employees. A Hindustan Times editorial noted that the Rajasthan government planned to hand over 70,000 schools to the private sector but had to drop the idea because of resistance from teachers. PPPs can also be tricky to design and could end up as murky deals.

A better way would be to end the licence raj in education. Schools require multiple licences from state and local authorities, including an ‘essentiality certificate’ which says the school is needed in the area it plans to be in. State governments want to regulate and cap fees. The Right to Education Act, 2009, stipulates infrastructure norms for schools, teacher qualifications and salary, whether or not they are practical to follow.

These affect all schools but end up practically killing budget private schools, which cater to the section that sends children to government schools. These schools disprove the criticism that private education is unaffordable (would parents withdraw their children from free government schools and sending them to these schools if that were the case?) In a chapter in Report on Budget Private Schools in India 2017, Kingdon points out that 70 percent to 85 percent of children studying in private unaided schools in low income states paid fees of less than Rs 500 a month. She also shows that the average median annual school fee is around 10.2 percent of the annual minimum wage of daily wage workers. A further point she makes is that, on an average, 26 percent of rural private school monthly fee is below the minimum wage of individual states.

The criticism against budget private schools is that they are little more than teaching shops, functioning out of ill-equipped premises in congested localities. To expect schools functioning out of, and catering to, low income neighbourhoods to have spacious buildings and latest equipment is unrealistic. This is not to deny the criticism. The National Independent Schools Alliance acknowledges that there are some rotten eggs and is trying to address this. But should an entire sector be written off because of a few outliers?

Allowing more private schools to emerge will provide competition to government schools as well. Right now, teachers have no incentive to perform well because their jobs are protected. But if the migration from government schools to private budget schools continues and the number of students drops below an economic level, state governments will have little choice to close them down. This possibility will force teachers and principals to focus on their performance.

Will this mean government washing its hands off primary education? It need not. The Centre for Civil Society has been advocating funding students not schools, which means giving students cash to go to the school of their choice. The provision in the RTE Act for schools reserving 25 percent of seats for students from low income backgrounds is supposed to do this, but is riddled with problems. It involves the government reimbursing the school, and has given rise to a number of scams. It may be far better to work out a system of reimbursing the parents of students instead. The chances of their gaming the system will be less; if they are willing to forgo free education for their children and pay from their own pockets for private education, they clearly value education and are unlikely to blow up the money on non-essentials.

How to operationalise this is what education policy should focus on. And the demonisation of private schools needs to stop.

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