By: Sourya Banerjee, (Founder and CEO, For The Sake Of Argument)

Education’s supposed to be more than learning – leastways that’s how we were taught. It’s supposed to help build your character and help teach you how to get on in the world. If it tells you that you get booted for doing what you had to do, for standing up for yourself, then something’s wrong with the system.”

― Nora Roberts

Education is an essential part of modern economic and societal progress. It is essential that future leaders get the foundation that is required for them to achieve their potential and lead to the overall development of the country.  Historically there was nothing known as “public education” from the beginning. The concept was developed in the social background of “enlightenment” or “renaissance” and the economic background of the Industrial Revolution.

While India boasts of having the third largest higher education system in the world, the reality is that the country is facing a severe shortage of skilled people who enter the workforce. The reason for such a contrasting situation is the extremely poor quality of school level education in India, of course, with some notable exception. A possible way-out from this situation, according to some educationists, is privatization of the education system.

A study by NASSCOM finds that 75% of technical graduates and more than 85% of general graduates are unemployable. The problem with the present Indian education system is that it is delivering a huge quantity of output, in the name of educated populace, with poor quality.

This alarming situation is due to the unavailability of skilled teachers, the poor physical infrastructure in the country, a low level of parents’ involvement toward their children’s education and a basic flaw in the current method of teaching which tries to treat all students as equally skilled and intelligent and gives them a standardized cocktail of information. The deteriorating trend in the educational system continues largely because of the lethargy and mismanagement of the public schooling system which accounts for nearly 80% of all schools.

Despite many efforts from the government to revitalize the public education system, the quality of public education is dwindling. Consequently, enrollment in private schools, colleges, and universities, is on the rise. For instance, a recent study finds that in the city of Hyderabad, 73% of families in slum areas send their children to private school. A general realization is that the return on investment in the private schools/colleges is much higher as compared to the government schools and colleges, with a few exceptions. The reason is the difference in approach between the two systems (private and public). The public education system is accountable only to the government machinery. So even if the teachers in public schools don’t deliver a good quality education, they don’t suffer themselves because their jobs are secure. However, in the case of private schools, the management and the teachers are directly accountable to the parents. If they fail to deliver an expected quality of education, the parents would react and the enrollment may fall. The teachers’ performance, thus, would affect the schools’ income and reputation. So a private school has to deliver good quality education. In fact, they, in general, do it better than majority of the public schools.

Alternately another important issue is the cost of education. Most public schools are richer than their private counterparts in terms of total expenditure (simply because of the government backing them) and incur a much higher expenditure on the teaching and administrative staffs’ salary even though most of their infrastructure is not up to the standards. The private schools, on the other hand, spend a lot on infrastructure and, in general, pay much lower salaries to their staffs. Being more for the purpose of profit then of actual mass education, private education institutions charge much higher fees.

So even though, privatization of the primary and secondary educational systems can help uplift the standard of education but considering India’s poverty status (roughly 70% of the population lives below the national poverty line in terms of the National Food Security Ordinance), only a few parents will be able to afford the cost of private education. Hence privatization of education will also adversely affect a large section of the population.

Another problem regarding the difference in standards in government schools itself is because of the location and set of students it is supposed to cater to. Schools that service poor rural students have more need for special education, counseling, security, and so on. However, to make matters worse, because teaching in poor rural schools is frequently more challenging than teaching in more affluent settings, more experienced teachers prefer to teach in suburban schools, leaving impoverished schools with a greater proportion of less qualified instructors.

The Right to Education (RTE) Act, 2009 has also generated fresh interest in this issue, given its major provision that the state will pay private schools to provide ‘education of equitable quality’ to children from the ‘weaker sections’. The act requires all private schools to allocate 25 per cent of their places to publicly-paid children from disadvantaged backgrounds. But this creates more problems than solving.

The children of the poor lack virtually every conceivable advantage over and above those already mentioned. Poor children are more likely to grow up amidst greater family tensions, have poorer nutrition, and suffer from serious health problems, including lead poisoning which affects mental abilities. Their connections and their role models all fall well short of those of the well-to-do. Where children grow up with the disadvantages of poverty, go to impoverished schools, and get virtually no feedback, they are unlikely to develop the sort of skills that market forces will reward. Obviously, conventional roads to success are unlikely to be open to them.

Given the disastrous conditions of public education for the poor, reformists piously call for the privatization of education without any suggestion as to how would the poor community of India afford such an education?

Supporters of the privatization of education insist that governmental monetary help that allow students to purchase education from private institutions will eliminate the inequities in education. However, if the gambit to finance education succeeds, the debate will quickly shift. The first step will be to make such an offer only to specific sector of the population, meaning that people earning above a certain income will no longer be eligible. In the process, education will become redefined as an entitlement, like other welfare programs. Programs for the poor inevitably become poor programs. Soon, taxpayers will protest having to subsidize the undeserving; they will demand that schools eliminate their “frills.” The outcome will be that the politicians will relieve the rich of much of the tax obligation of supporting education, while the poor will see their educational opportunities degrade even further.

Analyzing another aspect, teachers’ unions oppose privatization of education on several grounds. They question that the state will be unable to monitor and control the quality of private education. Private providers will have the advantage of being able to cherry pick by excluding difficult students or students with special needs. Because public education will have to service most of the physically and emotionally disabled students, they will have difficulty matching the results of the private providers, unless the latter prove to be absolutely incompetent. Finally, even though schoolteachers are already underpaid, private providers will be freed from union contracts and will be able to make employment conditions much less favorable. For service workers, such as custodians, the switch to private employers will be even harsher.

While considering the pros and cons of both sides, we should realize that no option would be perfect and hence the choice best suited is one which would lead to the greatest good of the greatest number of people. Statistics show that a country with more private education institutions, like Canada is not better then a country like India, with more public education system. Hence rather than having a knee jerk reaction against the public education in our country, it is far more useful to improve and modify it to meet its requirement and to cover up its flaws.

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