The Parth Shah interview: If private players frame the curriculum, there will be less ideological bias, rewriting of textbooks
History may be written by the victors, but in India, textbooks are often rewritten by the ruling party. Private involvement in this process could curb that, says Centre For Civil Society's Parth Shah
Very few people have been campaigning for real change in the education sector the way Parth J Shah, the President of Centre for Civil Society, has. The moving force behind the think-tank based out of Delhi, we get talking to him about radical transformations in the way we approach education and what he thinks we can do to get there. Excerpts:
There are two aspects to education: infrastructural investment and the curriculum. Which does the government need to focus on?
I think it is something we need to debate seriously. So what is the government good at, what is the private sector good at and what is the not-for-profit good at? And then figure out how to be balanced. What is the core competency of each of these domains in education? You can argue that the government has more resources, it has land in areas that the private sector cannot afford. So, the government can focus on infrastructure and land and leave the running of the schools, curriculum and pedagogy to contracted parties.
When a private body enters the school, don't you think there would be a shift in this equilibrium of ideologies and thoughts?
What is the ideology of the current government's school curriculum? You know very well that it keeps changing with every government. The government does not serve national commitment. And you can see the battle we fight every time the government changes: rewriting of textbooks, rewriting of histories, etc. Have we ever heard of a textbook from a private body rewriting history? They have to live up to people's expectations. There is a lot more accountability in that sense. There will be less ideological bias than we see today.
Let's take this one step ahead of the school education system. There are integrated employment training programmes which replace higher education, where they pick students from marginalised communities or tier 2 cities and give skill-based training and recruit directly into the same company. How viable are these models?
I'm sure you have heard of the case where lakhs of candidates applied for a few hundred vacancies for the job of a peon. A few of them even had a PhD degree. My take from that is that the quality of education, higher education particularly, has come down. In that sense, there is a lot of inflation of need for education. So eligibility has shot up. For example, jobs that need only high school knowledge now expect candidates with an undergraduate degree to apply, and jobs that need an undergraduate degree, expect candidates with post graduation. It's a lot of credentialism and the use of paper degrees. So a course like this is important as it gives you skills that you may actually use. This doesn't really take away from the higher education system.
What do you think is the way forward in the next few years?
We are too centralised and in control. The government should decentralise education. Even though is a concurrent subject, there is too much of the Centre's involvement. The State's role has been to primarily implement. This has to change and local bodies should be involved in education. Without local accountability, we cannot rebuild the education system.
You've been campaigning for the School Choice Campaign quite a bit. Why do you believe in it as firmly as you do?
The School Choice Campaign is one of the most important ones we ran. The idea was: How do we make schools accountable to parents? In some sense, private schools are accountable to parents because parents pay the fees and therefore school would have to cater to their demands. The government schools are, unfortunately, accountable (only) to the government education department. So the idea was to create a mechanism through which we can make even government schools to some degree accountable to parents. Currently, the funding directly goes to government schools and the school then provides education to whoever comes to the school. We thought if the funding actually went to the parents — to poor parents in the form of vouchers or any other form or DBT (Direct Benefit Transfer) — then the parents would then choose the school and pay it as a fee. So the funding for a government school will be determined by how many students want to go to that school.
We have a per-capita expenditure on students when it comes to government schools. So if parents are choosing to go to another school, wouldn't that expenditure vary from school to school? How do you overcome that lack of uniformity?
The government could say that a certain amount could be the per-capita expenditure of a given school. And if you choose to go to that school, that is the amount that you will get to pay to that school. So it could be a variable amount that varies with which school you go to. There will be technical issues, but given the technology that we have, much of that can be customised. There are many school districts in some of the countries which run themselves on this student funding model.