Equity in education

Tuesday, 12 July 2005
Dr Parth J Shah
Business Standard

All our efforts have not yet guaranteed easy access and good quality elementary education for all children of India. It is time to think outside the box and the Education Voucher is the most innovative approach for universal guarantee of high-quality education.

The Education Voucher is a coupon offered by the government and covers the cost of education at the school of the student's choice. The schools collect vouchers from students and present them to the government for the amount of money specified on the voucher.

The Delhi government spends Rs 800-1,500 a student every month while some of the best — not the high-end — private schools charge a student Rs 400 to 800 a month. Since the difference in results is known, imagine the quality of education if the government funds were given to the poor through education vouchers and not through government schools.

At present, the government gives funds to schools, which then provide free education to students. The voucher system will provide funding to the student who will then approach any of the schools for education. While in the present system, the schools are accountable to the government, the voucher system will make schools accountable directly to students since they pay for the education through vouchers.

So if the student does not like the school, she can take her voucher to another one. The Education Voucher also equalises the opportunity for the poor by giving them the purchasing power they lack. This enhanced choice of the poor will increase competition in the education sector.

The resultant competition among schools improves the quality of learning, infrastructure, extra-curricular activities.To attract and retain students, schools offer variety of services — mid-day meals, transportation, flexible school hours, after-school care and so on.

They provide these extra services not because they are mandated, but to keep their student customers. More importantly, instead of a single mandated service like mid-day meals, each school would have the incentive to figure out the service that is most valuable to its students. In some cases, it could be mid-day meals, in other cases it could be free transportation, or after-school care.

The Education Voucher combines core competencies of the private and public sectors: efficiency, innovation, customisation and accountability of the private sector, with the equity and independent supervision of the public sector. It gives the same choice to poor students that the rich enjoy. Voucher programmes have been implemented in countries as diverse as Sweden, Chile, Columbia, Holland, the US, the UK, New Zealand, Bangladesh, Czech Republic and Cote d' Ivoire.

In the UK, it's called “pupil passport”. Each country has designed the voucher programme to suit its need. Bangladesh, for instance, gives vouchers to only girl students in the fifth standard to continue into the sixth in any school of their choice. Enrolment of girl students in middle school has since increased far beyond expectations. In ancient times, the pupil offered a gurudakshina directly to the teacher as a fee for the education provided.

Those who were poor and could not afford gurudakshina had to rely on the generosity of the guru. Under the voucher system the government provides this gurudakshina on the poor student's behalf. The Education Voucher system may well be called the Gurudakshina Grant Scheme.