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India most privatised country for education

July 02, 2008 17:50 IST
For most parents in urban India there is no issue that commands their undivided attention as much as choosing which school to send their children to. While it may come as a surprise to some that nearly 55 per cent of urban children frequent private schools, it should be less surprising that government policy is largely geared towards stopping, strangling or at least blocking the very sector that teaches most urban kids and nearly a fifth of rural kids.

A remarkable fact is that India is de facto, the most privatised country in the world for education. Chile with its decades long school choice programme comes in second.

The Centre for Civil Society, an independent, non-profit, research and educational organisation based in Delhi is looking to promote school choice, initially, in urban India.

CCS launched India's first School Voucher Project in March of last year in Delhi whereby 408 students in 68 wards of Delhi were awarded vouchers worth up to Rs 3,600 per year per student.

The initiative, unsurprisingly, was oversubscribed with over one lakh qualified aspirants and a lottery system was employed to make the awards. What may be surprising, perhaps even to cynics, was the fact that those who did not win the lottery submitted petitions to their respective ward councilors demanding school vouchers.

While most upper middle class and rich parents think of a Doon School or a Mayo College for private education, these private schools for the poor have minimal facilities with teachers earning salaries that are less than a fifth of their public school counterparts.

While so-called development experts mention poor infrastructure as a negative, teachers in these schools actually teach unlike in government schools were 25 per cent never show up for work and another 25 per cent do not teach while in school.

Indeed, the near absence of teaching in government schools is what has brought about the surge in enrollment in private schools. Despite the many 'goodies' such as a free lunch, better classrooms and, most importantly, 'free' schooling enrollment continues to drop as parents move to private schools. Were that analogy to be applied in the corporate world -- a company that gives away its products for free and still loses market share -- it would make for an absurd proposition.

Among the many factors that constrain the growth of private schools is the license raj that results in most states having as many as twelve licenses before a school can operate as an accredited institution. That bureaucratic gauntlet, however, has not deterred either parents or operators as the latter set up shop by calling themselves 'academies, learning centres' or any other moniker that allows them to skirt the 'law.'

The licenses supposedly are meant to 'protect' parents and their children from fly-by-night operators who presumably are only interested in 'making money.' That quite obviously ignores the reality that prevails in India where parents judge schools based on output not on the number of licenses. It is no surprise that most kids studying in private schools have better test scores. That, of course, is an inconvenient fact for regulators in search of illegal gratuities.

Like any other initiatives that seeks to release India from the clutches of government babus, unions and public sector employees who have little to no interest in the welfare of the citizenry, school choice is bound to be attacked. Even Chile, which embraced school choice years ago under dictator Augusto Pinochet's regime, continues to battle the teachers' union which refuses to provide information on public school achievement where many still go to owing to the fact that vouchers there only provide one-fifth of the tuition money.

India's teachers unions likely will cite that and other misleading facts to thwart school choice. But in India's case, the horse has bolted the stable as evidenced by the high ratio of concerned parents sending their kids to private schools even in the face of daunting financial and infrastructure odds.

Many Indians live under a comfortable, though wrong notion, that education is not a 'commercial' service and cannot be regulated as such. Most of the same people send their kids to a private school. It is time to recognise that reality and make it better by expanding the supply of education to all by making it affordable to all.

India has done well to recognise the benefits of public-private partnerships in a number of areas from roads to cell phones. By allowing the same process in education far more can be done than any increase in public spending alone.

Vijay Dandapani is the COO, Apple Core Group of Hotels, New York.

Vijay Dandapani