Liberalize Indian Education

boy-330582_1920Current State and Problems

A commentary on the state of the Indian Education, and in particular Schooling must begin by saying that while India has made some progress in its aim of achieving education for all, there is still a long way to go before India can be counted among a developed nation as far as education is concerned.

From government schools catering to the majority of Indian children, to the schools (government-aided and otherwise) run by private institution catering primarily to Middle and Upper Class, there is without doubt a huge demand-supply gap between what is needed and what is actually being delivered. The government schools cannot even claim to make the children reasonably literate (in teaching them the three basic Rs: reading, writing & arithmetic). The private schools, while at least achieving basic literacy, have their own set of problems, with too much focus on learning by rote and on marks thereby killing the innate curiosity of the children.

While the reasons for this sorry state are also quite well known and well talked about, it’s worth taking a quick look at them to understand how the Indian Youth can make an attempt to break down the vicious cycle.

What ails the public schooling system

·      Inadequate infrastructure: Most government run schools barely have sufficient classrooms, with hardly any educational aids like blackboards, books, etc. The reason isn’t just insufficient fund allocation from the government, but more significantly the massive leakage in the system due to rampant corruption.

·      Teachers – lack of commitment and quality: Up to 25% teachers are absent on any given day. In spite of a good pay, due to lack of accountability to the community especially in rural and semi-urban areas, the teachers have no incentive to perform. The poor infrastructure further deters teachers from performing well. In fact, a number of government teachers sublet their positions to lesser qualified teachers.

·      Lack of relevant curriculum: Even as more and more parents in India are realizing the importance of education, the schools barely offer anything more relevant to their children than the basic three Rs (reading, writing and arithmetic). There’s no connection with the local conditions and reality of the curriculum that offers children and parents a direct benefit of education, for e.g. learning about the local weather and soil conditions and how to improve farming methods.

What ails the Private Schooling System

·      Huge supply-demand gap: There is undoubtedly a huge demand for a limited number of “good” schools across India. But there just aren’t enough good English medium schools coming up. The reasons for that despite what seems to be a very exciting social and business opportunity will be detailed a little later.

·      Badly-designed and inflexible curriculum: Almost all middle-class Indians claim that the Indian Education system, particularly the massive burden placed on the children must be reviewed. This has come about due to the excessive emphasis on rote learning and stuffing children with information rather than knowledge, wisdom and gaining occupational and life skills (such as a positive self-concept & emotional development). Real learning is about encouraging and nurturing the child’s natural curiosity and not stifling it. Dr. Howard Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences states that there aren’t just logical & mathematical intelligences, but also verbal, musical, naturalist, visual/spatial, inter-personal, intra-personal and bodily intelligences. All these eight intelligences must be developed.

·      Disproportionate emphasis on marks: Due to lack of enough good-quality and diverse higher secondary and undergraduate options, marks have become extremely important for parents, children and schools, as they become the sole selection criterion for higher education admissions. This has put a lot of pressure on the children and schools to perform and led to a downfall in the standards of learning. The focus is only on getting marks in whatever way possible, rather than learning and understanding the subject matter.

·      Poor quality of Teachers: Teachers in most Indian schools are not well trained to handle children. The B.Ed. requirement too is not sufficient as the course is not up to mark. But the biggest problem is that teaching is often looked at as the last career option by the educated class, as it doesn’t pay well (due to the unaccountability of private schools despite the fifth pay commission) and teaching as a profession is not much respected either.

·      Tuitions: The lack of accountability of teachers and schools due to the lack of choices of schools, combined with the extreme need to score in exams, has led to a system where the school and their teachers are just an official stamp, whereas the real “teaching” happens in private tuitions, often taken by the very same teachers. Tuitions have become a complete parallel teaching industry. However, they are not the cause of the problems of the Indian Education systems – they are only the results of the sorry state.

Solutions Suggested and Barriers to their implementation

The problems of the Indian Education system are well known and documented, and a number of solutions have been suggested. Some believe that NGOs and other not-for-profit organizations like trusts, temples, societies can meet the shortfall in the standards of Indian Education. Indeed some NGOs and organizations are doing excellent work at all levels of the societies, in slums, in rural areas, with children of sex workers. But the sheer magnitude of the problem is such that unless the Government steps in seriously with all its muscle, India will lag behind by miles in the race to become an educated country. This means that Government must take an active part – but it does not mean that government must do everything.

 The Voucher System: Even today, according to various estimates, the Government is allocating a sum between Rs. 3000 to 5000 per child for the approximate 250 million children in the 6 to 14 age group. Can the government not just give redeemable vouchers to all Indians of a certain economic background that can be redeemed at any school, not just government-run but also any private school run by an entrepreneur? A free market will ensure that schools will have to fight for the children by giving the best quality teaching, teachers and infrastructure. Schools will automatically become accountable directly to the parents and the community, as parents will simply shift their children out of a school that’s not performing well. And if you are wondering if a good quality education can be provided for an annual fee of Rs. 3000 to 5000, then the answer to that question is an emphatic yes.

One teacher-entrepreneur, one assistant school: In rural and sparsely populated regions, there may not be enough students for an entrepreneur to set up a school under the voucher system and the locals may not have enough money to set up the infrastructure. In such cases, the government can build the basic infrastructure, two classrooms, the basic amenities and a small playground. The local panchayat will then lease out the two classrooms to two teacher-entrepreneurs. The teacher that teaches better, maintains a reasonable classroom size, employs a good assistant teacher, and provides good quality midday meals will get more students. Even a small fees such as Rs. 120/month per child (funded by the government) can be reasonable income for the teacher-entrepreneur (for 40 children, around Rs. 4000/mth excluding costs). A yearly review can lead to a change in the teacher-entrepreneur depending on his performance. Such a flexible and accountable system which uses local teachers can revolutionize education in our villages.

Home Schooling, Open Schooling: In fact with tuitions anyway doing the job that schools were supposed to do, there seems no reason to be running the schools. Any decently educated person can teach young children the three basic Rs out of his/her home. Make home schooling popular and let all these children be able to take up the National Open Schooling exams that will certify their standing in comparison with other children out of schools.

Need for relevant curriculum: As mentioned earlier, what must accompany all the above changes is a phenomenal shift in the curriculum at all levels and in all kinds of schools. Schooling must start focusing on all the eight intelligences and must develop the child’s curiosity. Local concepts and ideas must be included such as: local weather, calendars and festivals, natural phenomenon, man-made phenomenon, how computers and the internet can improve trading of farm products or weather prediction, farming and horticulture methods and techniques, cleanliness, fitness and nutrition – in fact all the skills and knowledge that children in different places will use in their lives around them, rather than stuffing them with loads of information and tidbits, which are of no use. In fact even the three Rs; must not be taught just in the standard way, but by using modern affordable techniques like the phonetic way of teaching English, using IT in the classroom, distance learning through satellite and various techniques. The range of such new innovative ideas available across the world, and even being used in some Indian schools is just mind-boggling and must be employed in schools all across India.

Training institutes for Teachers: A large number of training institutes are needed across the country to train our teachers in the latest and best methods to teach children. Teaching also needs to become a coveted career, and for that their pay-scales need to be commensurate with the quality of work that they do. A corporate incentive system for achieving more must be put in place to extract the best out of teachers.

Liberalization of the Indian Education System

However, before we get elated by looking at these solutions above, we must understand that these solutions have been around for some time, but have not been implemented due to lack of political will as the bureaucracy, government teachers and other government education officials have large vested interests in maintaining status quo. But let us, for a moment, assume that some brave government has the will to do something radical and that they issue education vouchers. However, these vouchers would be of no use unless there are a number of private schools that compete for them. And in reality private schools (run legally and without corruption) have no incentive to exist in India. Why? Because in schools in India have to be not-for-profit.

In India education is a supposed to be charitable service to be provided without any profit-motive. Do you know that schools in India, if they have to be affiliated to any state or central board (which essentially covers the vast majority of schools other than those affiliated to foreign boards such as IB or IGCSE), then they have to be not-for-profit? This means that neither can the members of the organization get any salaries (other than out-of-pocket expenses) nor can they get any dividends. There is in fact not a concept of profit as far as schools are concerned – there is only surplus which is to be ploughed back into the same school or into other schools (the not-for-profit law does not apply to preschools – which is why you see them mushrooming in dozens, and even in small towns!).

All those who do not know much about the legal structure of schools are very shocked at knowing this. And that’s not at all surprising. Only the very naïve will believe that privately-run schools in India do not make money for their promoters or the main administrators. All the current law ensures is that you must resort to illegal means if you want to own and earn from a school: you must either siphon off the money through standard routes such as donations, capitation fees, over-invoicing of contractors or other such spurious means. There are numbers of such way to make money through semi-legal or illegal means.

But none of these ways to earn money are nice and clean ways to earn money – and certainly not the ways which attract good professional people into running schools, whose aim is not just to make money, but more importantly to deliver high-quality education.

But does the fact that schools cannot be run for-profit really affect quality of schools? Absolutely. Because it means that the schooling sector is not an open service sector like say telecom or insurance or banking or airlines, where competition has ensured real value for money. That has kept away all the professionals and people who would otherwise think of making a career out of the education business.

In fact, that brings me back to the plethora of coaching classes and private tuitions. Why do they thrive? It is not just because of pathetic quality of our schools – it is mainly because there is huge money in it – and this money-making opportunity wouldn’t exist if there were good quality schools in the first place. And what is ironical is that the tuitions industry needs no government affiliation or approval, and is therefore very much a for-profit industry. In fact coaching institutes and private tutors are probably one of the biggest services in India right now.

Let me also address another interesting issue here: why does the teaching profession pay so badly (in spite of the fact that private schools are charging huge sums)? It makes no sense for teachers to be paid lowly – it’s a highly respected profession, but one that typically employs housewives or people who find no other jobs. The answers lies in the lack of competition – there is no incentive for the schools to pay higher as there isn’t much competition.

With respect to liberalization of schooling, one of the biggest concerns of the government (and the judiciary) and the public would be the opening of thousands of low-quality spurious money-making schools. But that’s simply not a good enough reason not to liberalize schooling. Because firstly, spurious schools already exist by the dozens. More importantly, amongst the spurious thousands will be the good-quality hundreds schools which will attract the parents and eventually ensure that only the good-quality schools survive – like in any other industrial sector that is free market.

Therefore education must be made legally for profit, i.e. liberalizes. And the liberalization is needed not just in the legal way but also in terms of its curriculum being flexible and training of teachers becoming compulsory. Else, none of these solutions will work.

The ground reality – Is there any real hope?

The question that arises is what will happen if the Government doesn’t have the will to liberalize education. The answer has two aspects.

There will be little hope for the underprivileged of getting good education in that case. Because entrepreneurs will just not find enough incentive in running schools to make illegal profits if they target this class of the society. And what must be reemphasized upon is that, there isn’t an iota of hope that the Government can or will significantly improve the quality of education provided in the government schools. The last 50 years in Indian history bear testimony to this.

For the middle class and above, there is hope, only to the extent that there are new schools coming up that will slowly close the supply-demand gap for the so-called “good” English-medium schools. However professionalism and accountability will still lack from these schools. And most importantly, unless the curriculum too is liberalized, the middle class Indians will stay in same rut and will find it difficult to overcome the harmful effects of the Indian Education system.

Therefore, as the youth of this nation, our only hope to change the education system and actually get education to the massed is to get the education system liberalized from the government, and then take it up in our hands by becoming educational entrepreneurs and spreading out through out the country.

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