At the crossroads

There is a need to jettison the status quo and start afresh in education sector

Roughly one decade ago, there was a strong debate in India about how we should tackle the problem of education. There were two views. On one side were intensifiers who felt that nothing was fundamentally wrong; all that was needed was more money. They argued that we should just continue building more government schools and hiring more civil servants to act as school teachers, and we’ll be fine.On the other side were the reformers, who argued that the basic incentives in Indian education were wrong. And putting more money down a dysfunctional system was pointless.

Photo: The Advocacy Project
The Intensifiers won this debate. An informal coalition of educationists (i.e. the incumbent education system) and leftists came together, supported by the World Bank, which pushed for mere enlargement of Indian education, without questioning the foundations.

All of us are involved in this story at many levels. At the simplest, we are the customers of the education establishment. We pay income tax and VAT and a few other taxes. On top of this, we pay the 2 percent education cess. In return for this, we get certain educational services. These influence our kids, and they influence all the young people that we encounter in this young country. Trillions of rupees have been spent, and more than a decade has gone by. It is time to assess the performance of this strategy.

Three blocks of evidence are now visible, which tell us that the Intensifiers were wrong. The old strategy, which was invigorated by a vast rise in spending, was the wrong one.

The first evidence is the OECD PISA results for India. The OECD PISA is an internationally comparable measurement system which reports on the reading, mathematics and science knowledge of 15 year olds. It reports on the end product of the educational process: How much do children actually know? The first OECD PISA measurement was done recently, albeit with coverage of only two states—Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh.

The results are gloomier than could have been imagined. It tells us that Indian education policy has failed miserably: India is ranked at either 78th or 79th in the world, out of 79 countries measured, on all three elements (reading, science, mathematics). This measurement covers both public and private schools. It covers both urban and rural children. It should be a source of real concern for all parents who worry about how their children will cope with globalisation. At age 15, kids in India are among the worst in the world.

The second evidence comes from ASER 2011 results. Pratham has been running surveys which measure characteristics of children and schools in rural India. Their latest survey results, for 2011 finds that kids learn better in private schools. As an example, surveyors ask kids in class III to recognise numbers up to 100. In private schools, 20 percent of the children are unable to do this. In public schools, 40 percent of the children are unable to do this. Roughly speaking, the failure rate in public schools is two times higher than the failure rate in private schools.

Over the years, the gap between public and private schools has been going up. Prima facie, this points to a difference in the quality of schooling. In addition, a selectivity process may be in motion: if parents have started recognising that there is a difference, they may be selectively sending brighter children to private schools.

The process of rural children shifting from public schools to private schools is going on at a slow pace. At class II, the fraction of rural children in private school went up from 19 percent (2007) to 23 percent (2011). At class VII, this rose more slowly to levels slightly above 20 percent.

The final evidence comes from CMIE household survey. CMIE has data for the year ended March 2011 about the behaviour of 169,492 households. This yields information about expenses on books, journals, stationary, additional professional education, education overseas, hobby classes and other education expenses. They also report expenditure on school/college fees and tuition fees. The evidence on fees mixes payments for elementary and higher education. However, enrolment in higher education is quite small; the bulk of what is seen is likely to be related to elementary education.

The overall average expenses show up as 2.1 percent of household expenditure on school/ college fees and 0.57 percent of household expenditure on private tuition. Significant expenses, of roughly 1 percent of household expenditure, are seen with the poor also.

If parents chose to stay within public sector schools, their expenditure on fees would have been zero. However, across all income groups of India, there is movement towards private provision of education, both by paying fees at schools and by paying for private tuition classes. These two elements add up to 2.67 percent of overall expenses of households.

These decisions of well intentioned parents are the strongest indictment of education policy in India. The product being given out by the Intensifiers is such a terrible one, the parents of India are walking away from it even though it is free when the alternative is not and the parents are poor.

For more than a decade, the Intensifiers have controlled Indian education policy. They have said: “Leave education to the education establishment, do nothing radical, just give us more money, we will deliver results.” Now we know that they were wrong. They took the money, but failed to deliver the results.

Kapil Sibal has said that his ministry should not be held responsible for the stream of bad news that is coming out. This is dodging accountability. His ministry is responsible for Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan, for the Right To Education Act and for blocking OECD PISA from being done in India. The bureaucratic consensus of his ministry represents the education establishment.

The key phrase that needs to be emphasised today is accountability. If a contractor took money from you, and failed to deliver on building your house, you would sack him. (You would also take him to court, to recover the money that was paid to him, for services not delivered). In similar fashion, education is too important to be left to the educationists.

We need to start over. We need to start over in the field of education, with a fresh management team, one that is not a part of the status quo, one that is rooted in the worlds of incentives, public policy and public administration.

In 2004, we were told that in return for a tax rate increase of 2 percent, in the form of an education cess, we would obtain improvements in education. We now know that those improvements did not come about. Hence, that tax rate increase should go. It is another matter that even if sharp improvements in educational outcomes had been obtained, the education cess was a mistake in terms of basic public finance, and needed to go. Public expenditures on education should simply come out of general tax revenues; there is no need to have a cess.

The flow of public money into the status quo needs to go down sharply. There is no reason to put money into something that fails to deliver the goods. First we must prove that a mechanism delivers results, and only after that should we put money into it.

OECD PISA measurement needs to take place every year at every district. The production of this data is a public good that the government can and should do. It can be fully contracted out to private firms so as to avoid the problems of public sector production. Data Sets about student characteristics and school characteristics should be released, covering every district and every year, so as to enable research.

Civil servant teachers, who have tenured (permanent) have no incentive to teach well, regardless of their qualifications or high income. While it is not possible to sack them, fresh recruitment needs to stop. The existing stock can be reallocated to other civil service functions where staff is in short supply. Through this, it would become possible to whittle away at the accumulated stock over the coming 20 years.

These are starting steps of what needs to be a fresh approach to education in India.