Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Five alternative frameworks in education policy

There has been much interest in scaling up programs like Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and the midday-meal program. At the same time, the recent measurement of what children know, done by Pratham has shown a large-scale failure in what students actually know.

I wrote a column in Business Standard today where I describe five alternative frameworks of education policy:

  1. Do Nothing,
  2. Augment Purchase,
  3. State Production But Do No Harm,
  4. State Production While Damaging the Private Sector and
  5. Ban Private Participation

With higher education, we are on the 5th (ban). With elementary education, we are now veering from the 3rd ("do no harm") to the 4th ("damaging the private sector") by new efforts at having State-enforced quotas in private schools.

I argue that internationally standardised test scores need to be made the foundation of education policy, as opposed to efforts like SSA which have concentrated on spending more money on public sector education. The choice of which of the five frameworks is best should be based on which appears to deliver adequate test scores in a cost-efficient manner.

Our loyalty needs to be with the interests of students instead of the interests of the existing producers of educational services. There is an innate conflict of interest in the control of education policy with incumbent educationists.

5 comments:

  1. Ajay,

    Excellent column, hard-hitting as it should be.

    The assault on the institutionalised policy mindset needs to be mounted in the right earnest.

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  3. Education is not a public good: it is excludable to a large degree. However, it is a private good with a difference. It incorporates a positive externality in the form of individuals capable of making a net positive contribution to society. Further, it is the only private good which allows most individuals to improve their life chances in the future. Therefore any idea of social justice in the context of education would require that the majority of the people have access to good quality basic education irrespective of their existing monetary resources. Ensuring such access is the only way to breaking the circle of poverty for several marginalized sections.

    That is precisely why notions like “self-perpetuating elites” have found common currency with critics of educational systems and institutions the world over. From America’s Ivy Leagues to France’s Grande Ecoles institutions of higher learning have been criticized for fostering self-perpetuating elites. In India, related critiques have been directed far more often against institutions imparting basic education rather than higher education. This emerges from the economics of education in India wherein quality school education costs a fortune while quality higher education is heavily subsidized. The last decade has witnessed an upsurge in protests against the “commercialization” of school education.

    The State has reacted to this by taking recourse to measures that fall within the fourth framework (State production while damaging the private sector) and the second framework (augment purchase) cited by you in your article.

    The first case includes measures like making private schools more “inclusive” through judicial interventions that make it mandatory for private schools to admit a prescribed proportion of students from the economically weaker sections while also providing them free education. Several propositions under the “Right to Education Bill” that will be tabled in the current budget session also fall in this category e.g. No child coming thus under reserved category can be screened for admission; special programmes for children in 9-14 age group, who are not enrolled, so that they can be admitted. This approach clearly pits the State against the private players involved in providing school education.

    The second case includes policies like the currently running “SC/ST tuition fee reimbursement scheme” which offers either 100% or 75% reimbursement of the tuition fees to qualifying SC/ST students depending on their family income. This scheme channels public money into private institutions through individual beneficiaries. Further the money so channelled is adequate for an average student to choose his school irrespective of financial constraints. In this respect the scheme is similar to a voucher scheme. This approach does not require any active participation on the part of recognized private-unaided schools which form the only category of schools eligible for the scheme. Schools figure nowhere as players involved in the scheme’s design and implementation.

    Comparing the two approaches, they both aim to make access to quality education more equitable. However, they are fundamentally different in the means they employ and what those entail for the role of schools. While the former impinges heavily on the schools’ autonomy, the latter treats them non-entities.

    Central to the phenomenon of a “self-perpetuating elite” is that there exist barriers besides the purely monetary ones that limit the entry of students into educational institutions. Thus for the “augment purchase” framework to work better it is not enough for the State to augment the purchasing power of poor households by putting more money in their hands. The State should instead devise a new framework wherein private schools are provided with incentives that make them direct stakeholders in the education of poor, marginalized sections. Further, this should be done without compromising the autonomy of private schools. Devising appropriate incentives for private schools would constitute a “sixth framework” that meets the interests of students and schools alike.

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  4. If you see a class barrier in getting into Doon School, then my main response is: this is partly because there isn't enough competition in the school industry.

    I have just one simple example which makes the point: NIIT. NIIT does not turn away students based on class. If we had a more open, competitive framework where it was easy to start schools and the State gave money to parents thus empowering power people as customers, we'd see more of NIIT and less of Doon School.

    There will always be a few clubs, but in a competitive market, the hotels will get through.

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  5. A second aspect that I would like to emphasise is the loaded word "social justice". It means different things to different people, and is just one big red herring that takes the discussion away from rationality.

    I find it is enormously more productive to focus on the tangible goal of getting kids to gain high scores on reading, writing, arithmetic. That's a problem where we won't get distracted into all sorts of philosophical discussions about the word `justice'. We're discussing education, which is about learning, so let's measure the learning, and set about winning on scores in an objective fashion.

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