What should government do?
In the question "What should government do?", economists have one big answer "do the public goods". A public good is something that is non-rival (the consumption by one does not come at the cost of consumption by another) and non-excludable (it is not possible to exclude someone from benefiting from the public good).
The regulation of air pollution is the favourite example which illustrates a public good. Clean air is non-rival (if you breathe clean air, it does not diminish my supply of clean air) and non-excludable (if the air is cleaned up, nobody can prevent me from breathing it in). Indeed, nothing that one person can do can make a difference to air pollution. Only the government can regulate pollution and this deliver clean air.
Similar issues arise with defence, police, judiciary, monetary policy, financial regulation, public health (though not the health of the public), biodiversity, etc., all of which add up to the economists' vision of what government should be doing.
What should government do in the field of education?
Education is substantially a private good. I study, I benefit. There are spillovers ("externalities") to others, and so there is a case for a government subsidy. But barring that, this is a field where the incentives are well aligned for each person to be the main one in charge of his own education.
Public funding solves the problem of externalities. At the level of elementary education, vouchers are a nice way to deliver public funding that is large enough to pay for the externalities. At the level of higher education, public policy can focus on economies of agglomeration alongside some public funding, nudging the outcome in India so that there are 100 high quality broad-based universities.
As I read The delicate technology of creating excellence by Pradip Ghosh in the Telegraph, I was reminded of the public goods character of testing and curriculum development. As he says:
The production of education services is a private good problem, to be sorted out between one student and one education provider. However, the problems of curriculum and testing have a public goods character. Let's run the tests of a public good, for a nationwide system for standardisation of curriculum and testing.in this very large country with a multitude of school boards and their non-uniform curricula and examination standards, it would be inappropriate to go by board grades because that would yield unreliable, undesirable results — we would not get the best students. And, such a course, therefore, would be unfair both to the aspiring students and to the institutions they would be entering. A single post-high school examination with a well-defined syllabus and a centrally administered paper-setting and grading system was thought to be the best alternative
Is it non-rival? Does the consumption of the services of this system by one person diminish the amount of this system available for another? With computerised testing, there should be full scalability (though Pradip Ghosh argues, in the article above, that there are problems with this).
Is it non-excludable? High quality curriculum is non-excludable in that once curriculum documents are on a website, everyone can download them. Testing is excludable if you want to be cussed about it, but for the rest it should not be possible to exclude anyone from taking a nationwide test.
This argument guides us in thinking about what government should be doing in the field of education:
- Funding (calibrated to overcome the externalities)
- Curriculum development
- Information infrastructure about education service providers (i.e. schools but also all sorts of new ways of organising education service delivery) so as to assist choice by parents and students.
The entire focus of management time, and the entire resources available for the task, should be devoted to these 4 problems.
Central government or local government?
Once we know that testing and curriculum are public goods, we have to ask who should do it.
If an important outcome (getting into the IITs) was linked to regional board examinations, that is a recipe for grade inflation. This is a reason for doing this at the central government.
There are economies of scale. A curriculum only needs to be developed once. This is a reason for doing this at the central government.
In conclusion, the IIT JEE has many problems, but the building and running of high quality examinations is an important task of the central government and should not be diluted or abandoned. The fraction of management time, and resources, that are devoted to curriculum and testing need to go up.