There are 220 million children in India who receive very poor quality education and 21 million who are out of school. Children in both contexts are unable to exercise their right to education despite the adoption of the Right to Education Act on April 1, 2010, a situation that has the potential of turning a historic opportunity into a poor Fool's Day joke.
The Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) has been pushing forward the public-private partnership (PPP) model of education as a way to reduce the deficit in the provision of education and to improve the delivery of educational services in the country. At a recent conference on ‘Building Infrastructure: Opportunities and Challenges', the education minister focused on three models set out in the original document of the MHRD in September 2009 — from (a) the simple task of school infrastructure being built by the private sector, (b) the upkeep and maintenance of the building and non-educational services like canteens, to (c) the full provision of educational services, including teaching and examination, by the private sector.
The primary intention of bringing in the private sector is clearly driven by financial considerations. No Indian government to date has been able to allocate the 6 per cent of the GDP to the education sector that was recommended by the Kothari Commission as far back as 1964. Today, there is an urgent need to find resources to ensure improvements in the education sector. But whether this can be ensured by inviting the private sector to increase its activities in this sector is far from clear.
The report of the public consultation on the PPP note of the MHRD, submitted in November 2009, questioned the assumptions of the note that the government school system had completely failed and that the private sector would improve the provision of education by incurring lower costs, ensuring better results and allowing for greater accountability. While the need for additional finances finds agreement from all quarters, there is less conviction among both educationists and civil society organisations that there has been a serious consideration of which model(s) would be most suitable for adoption by state governments.
Rather than a simple listing of models — currently there are over 30 variants within the broader literature on PPPs in infrastructure — what would be timely and helpful is for the MHRD to set out how the investment of the private sector in schools would operate in relation to the current flow of government educational funds from the level of district, to block- and cluster-level institutions. The implications for ownership of schools in the note on PPP aren't clear — and this when we already have the categories of government, government-aided private and unaided private schools in usage. Under the new models being proposed by the MHRD, would it be the case that if a private organisation takes over the entire educational operation of a school, it'd change its status from a government school to a private school (through an opting out of the state system for new academies, as is being suggested by David Cameron's government)? Also, if private finance was only for the upkeep of the building, would it create a new category of private-aided government schools?
No private sector organisation would seriously contemplate an investment in hard infrastructure (whether railways or roads) without ascertaining its financial liabilities and returns. There is little reason to imagine that these criteria will not be as, if not more, important with regard to entering into the new sector of soft infrastructure (education and health). As the MHRD note currently stands, there has been no setting out of entry criteria required by entrants from the private sector beyond their financial ability to invest. A consequence of this lacuna is a moral hazard waiting to happen — there will be no way to ascertain the quality of provision till after the completion of education by a particular cohort of pupils. In the case of Charter Schools in the US (where the school management is undertaken by parent bodies), it's been found that the public examination results at these schools is not better than that at state schools, even though parents are notably happier with them as they can exercise more control in the management.
While the intention of the government's education policy is to provide education that is of an acceptable quality for all children, this doesn't require a complete dismantling of the state system of education. There are many aspects of the system that are functioning well — there are government schools like the Kendriya Vidyalayas and the Navodaya schools that are able to ensure good examination results and are upheld by the MHRD to be model schools. Second, many states have nationally-recognised educational interventions — in Karnataka there is the Nali Kali method of learning and also the phenomenon of private sector partnering through the School Nurture Programme — that could be the basis for devising further engagement with the private sector within a state. As provision of education is a state subject, such intra-state models that have emerged as a response to local educational challenges will strengthen local educational institutions.
One way forward to improve district level educational institutions is through partnerships with civil society organisations, as has been shown by the programmes of organisations like the Pratichi Trust in Bengal and the M.V. Reddy Foundation in Andhra Pradesh. The MHRD will do well to map such organisational arrangements that have a track record of improving educational quality as possible models rather than provide a list of models that have not been tried in India, and which do not have an entirely unblotted copy book elsewhere in the world.
Shailaja Fennell is Lecturer in Development Studies and Fellow of Jesus College, University of Cambridge. The views expressed by the author are personal.