The Right to Education

Thursday, 18 July 2002
Parth J Shah
Economic Times

Having passed the 93rd Constitutional Amendment granting a Fundamental Right to Education in the last session, the Parliament will be under increasing pressure in this monsoon session to deliver on the promise—to put money where its mouth has been. Recent demonstrations in Mumbai against the increase in school fees are but a sign of the power of the fundamental-right activists. The activists too are unhappy with the 93rd Amendment that makes education free and compulsory for all children in the age group of 6-14. First, it leaves out the critical pre-school years. An earlier Supreme Court ruling had covered these years; the Amendment is then retrogressive. It does not define “free.” Will it be just tuition free, or include the cost of uniform, textbooks, and supplies, may be even meals during the school? It does not guarantee any minimum quality of education. If a child is out of school, it holds parents, not government, accountable. What perverse fundamental right! Nonetheless, many see the Amendment as the solution to the problems of our education system, or at least, the most significant step towards it. If the system can actually be fixed by passing a law, then our Parliament seems not only foolishly niggardly but also criminally negligent. Laws don’t have such powers, just look at the laws against child labor, sati, prostitution, public smoking, or the laws for minimum wage, clean air, safe driving. Lawmakers in this case do know better! The government was in charge of our industry; the resultant Hindu rate of growth finally ushered in liberalization in 1991. The government has been operating our education system since independence, the outcome of about fifty percent literacy rate honors it with more powers in 2002! The government that has been inefficient in producing simple goods like bread and cement is expected to efficiently deliver complex services like education and healthcare. Are the people at the Department of Heavy Industries that much different from those at the Department of Education? What ails education is not too little involvement of our government, but exactly the opposite. The license-permit-quota raj that stifled our industry is suffocating the education system. To open a new school or college requires plethora of permits and licenses. Regulations on the entry, exit, and expansion of educational institutions are far more pervasive than they ever were on the industry. One study calculates that as many as 37 licenses are required to open a primary school in Delhi. People with contacts and money do beat the hurdles, but not the dedicated individuals and associations of simple means. The rules on the size of playground, number of books in library, student-teacher ratio are enforced on private schools but government schools violate them routinely on the excuse that they take in poor children. Private schools for the elite are visible, but private schools for the poor go unnoticed even though they are far many in number. They too cannot afford the expensive regulatory requirements. In the name of protecting teachers, activists make it impossible, albeit legally, for private schools for the poor to exist. The government-mandated salaries are so high that a few can afford it. In rural areas, it is common for government schoolteacher to contract out teaching at half his salary. The contractor often sub-contracts at half his payment. The sub-sub contractor actually does the teaching at one-fourth of the original salary! No wonder that government teacher posts are auctioned. Private schools instead get teachers to sign at the official salary but pay the market rate. They become illegal the day they start. In most developed countries, teacher salaries are a tad higher than the per capita income. In India, they are about 4-6 times the per capita income. But activists damn private schools for exploitation of teachers, and demand increased spending from government. Is it really for students? South Korea and Sri Lanka have higher learning achievements but spend less than India’s 3.8 per cent of GDP. The activists command that 6 per cent of GDP must be spent on education. Studies in the Philippines, Thailand, Brazil, and United States suggest that it is not really how much a government spends but how it spends that determines the quality of education. We must abolish the LPQ Raj. And we must abandon the hypocrisy that education must be non-profit. Educational institutions are required to register under the society’s act that makes them non-profit. In the Unikrishnan judgement, the Supreme Court has declared commercialization of education as unconstitutional. This Ostrich attitude has blinding consequences. Honest administrators have to become outlaws. And sincere edupreneurs cannot borrow commercially since their schools are supposed to be non-profit. One can borrow for almost any purpose, but to open a school. The government does not need to mandate syllabus, textbooks, or exams. These all should be determined by schools. The same syllabus and textbook cannot be relevant in varied environments of a city, village, and a hamlet. Schools may consider the models offered by government, but ultimately they should have the power of selecting and responsibility of nurturing learning. There should not be career-determining and thereby life-taking single board exams. If colleges need to know the competence of applicants, they can conduct, as most do now, their own entrance tests. Or some aptitude test, like SAT, can attest the basic level of learning. To unshackle the private sector, non-profit and for-profit, from regulations is not to demolish government education. Management and finances of government schools should be completely decentralized into the hands of local communities. The government colleges should be made autonomous. Colleges in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh provide examples of successful autonomy. Most importantly, link grants with performance of government schools and colleges. They should be put on performance contracts. The grant should decrease as does performance. Over time, the government should get out of running schools and colleges. Management should be in private and community hands. More than 60 percent of primary schools in Kerala are privately managed, while the average for India is about 5 percent. When the first Marxist government in 1957 tried to take over school management, the widespread riots got it ultimately dismissed by Nehru. The government financing of education must observe the principle that funds follow students in the form of scholarships or vouchers, they shouldn’t be given to schools or education departments. The new finance minister should study the issues before throwing good money after the bad.