Numb and numbers
Delhi’s private schools have been widely documented to be providing better quality education than government schools. But the cost differential between private and government schools has resulted in the majority of poor students, a large number of them belonging to the SC/ST community, going to poorly performing government schools. In 2004-05, only 5.6 per cent of Delhi’s SC/ST students were enrolled in private schools. The Delhi government’s SC/ST Tuition Fee Reimbursement Scheme aims to increase the enrolment of SC/ST students in private schools. But like most other government-run schemes it represents a case of flawed policy design and, therefore, very limited success, despite no shortage of available public funds.
The scheme was introduced in 2003-04. It applies to SC and ST students of Delhi who are enrolled in recognised private schools and who have an annual family income of less than Rs 1 lakh. It provides 100 per cent reimbursement of the tuition, sports, science, lab, admission and co-curricular fees if the student’s annual family income falls below Rs 48,000 and a reimbursement of 75 per cent if the annual family income exceeds Rs 48,000 but is less than Rs 1 lakh.
In 2003-04 the scheme had an approved outlay of Rs 5 million. However, only Rs 593,000 was utilised to benefit 98 students. In 2004-05, the total outlay was scaled down to Rs 2.5 million. Of this, only Rs 1.44 million was utilised leaving a surplus of Rs 1.06 million. The number of beneficiaries stood at 254.
These figures reflect very poorly on the outcome of a scheme whose benefits constitute up to 85 per cent of the total payable fees for most of Delhi’s private schools.
Given the organisation of education in private schools, the scheme’s design is flawed because it fails to draw those students who are not already studying in private schools into the pool of beneficiaries. Private schools admit new students in the nursery standard whereas benefits from the scheme begin to accrue only from class I onwards. Thus, poor students constituting the scheme’s potential pool of beneficiaries can’t afford to seek admission in private schools at the time of admissions. When the subsidy becomes available from class I onwards, getting admission is very difficult, owing to the limited number of vacant seats.
Article 21A of the Constitution, which declares free and compulsory education to be a fundamental right does not include children below the age of six years. The State has as much of a responsibility towards these children as towards those in the 6 to 14 years age group. They must be brought into the fold. Once this is done, the scheme ought to be remodelled by introducing benefits from the nursery class onwards.
Although non-reimbursable fees like building fund, development fund etc. will continue to limit the entry of poor students to some expensive private schools, the poor parent’s choice will be widened with respect to the several less expensive private schools.
The scheme’s implementation should also be simplified. At present, implementation entails a differentiation between the reimbursable and the non-reimbursable components of the fees. The differentiation is ambiguous and the decision is often left to the discretion of government officials.
This arbitrariness in processing applications can be corrected by fixing an upper and lower limit for reimbursement. The upper limit, for instance, may be Rs 900, given that for both 2003-04 and 2004-05, 92 per cent of the beneficiaries came from schools with an average monthly fee less than Rs 1,000. The lower limit may be represented by the tuition fees of the school. This standardises the application procedure while also leaving a larger sum of money with the government to benefit far many number of students.
Access to private schools will also be facilitated if the benefits accrue before the payment of the fees rather than after it. Presently, the beneficiary gets the reimbursement only after paying the fees and presenting the original fee-receipt to the concerned government department. Consequently, he is often forced to wait till the last quarter of the academic year to get the benefits. The point of time at which benefits accrue is an important determinant of the choice between non-free private schools and free government schools for households with meagre resources.
The tuition-fee reimbursement scheme bears the potential of improving poor people’s access to schools traditionally meant for the rich and middle-classes. It promises to do this without limiting the autonomy of private schools. However, unless it is remodelled it may end up benefiting only a narrow section of SC/ST students already enrolled in private schools rather than expanding its reach to the several potential beneficiaries seeking admission in these schools.
The writer is a Research Assistant with the Centre for Civil Society