The National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 has laid out a vision of education that’s necessary for the 21st Century. It recognizes that children today need to learn skills both ‘foundational skills’ of literacy and numeracy as well as ‘higher-order’ cognitive skills such as critical thinking and problem solving, and social and emotional skills such as cultural awareness and empathy, perseverance and grit, teamwork, leadership, communication. Early childhood education has been made compulsory for all children from the age of 3.

To address the issue of overburdening of students, NEP recommends rationalizing content in the curriculum focusing on essential concepts, flexible streams and vocational courses allowing students to make wider choices suited to their career aspirations, a change in board examination structure with examinations focused on core capacity rather than memorization of content reducing the need for coaching as well as a single entrance exam for college admissions. These academic reforms are both necessary and progressive, and if implemented properly, can propel Indian education into the 21st century.

The pertinent question is how can this stellar academic vision be effectively implemented in classrooms across the country? Out of 25 Cr Indian children, about 13 Crore study in government schools and the remaining 12 Cr in private schools.[1] Of those studying in private schools, 90% pay less than Rs. 2000 per month[2] which is much lower than the average government school spend of Rs. 30,000 / annum on each student. And yet, researchers have found that budget private schools and government schools produce similar learning outcomes. Of course, the reality is that learning outcomes in most government schools as well as most low budget private schools are nowhere near the quality of education required for children to succeed today. And this was before the COVID pandemic, which has further deteriorated learning outcomes in these schools. The future of more than 23 Crore Indian children is at stake.

According to United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) estimates, the total financial requirement for India to reach Sustainable Development Goal 4 to “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” by 2030 is $2,258 billion, which for the years 2017-30 averages $173 billion per year, far exceeding the current government budget of $76.4 billion a year for education. It would be unrealistic to expect such large investments coming solely from the government and purely philanthropic initiatives.

The last 30 years of liberalisation have changed the face of the Indian economy. From unending shortages and subpar quality in telephones, scooters, cars, ration and pretty much everything, India has come a long way because of liberalisation. Having recognized that the government isn’t great at service delivery, Air India too has been privatized. In the health sector, private hospitals have been leveraged via Ayushman Bharat. Clearly, the current regime has been really strong on reforms to leapfrog sectors in the country.

The time is now ripe for the education sector to be liberalized as well. The NEP already recommends that the overemphasis on input-based norms such as land areas, room size, playground size should be reduced and that instead educational outcomes should be given due importance. Further, key stage assessments in Grades 3,5 and 8 of students are required for all students. This will let schools freely innovate according to local context and constraints, and find the best models to deliver learning to children, while giving parents the information and choice to hold schools accountable.

However, the biggest barrier to entry for high quality people and large patient capital is the philanthropic mandate for schools. This mandate has kept the sector unorganised, where all kinds of businessmen with no background interest or skills in education get into the field and run sub-standard institutions. If the sector opens up, we will see big chains coming in from within India and across the globe, who might have business interest but will ensure that there is a certain level of professionalism, efficient use of technology and scale to invest in research and development, to deliver more for lesser costs.

The ideological mandate that education must remain not-for-profit is especially bewildering when compared to how profit delivers the goods in every other sector, and particularly when compared to the evergreen coaching industry and more recently the EdTech sector. The argument that developed economies deliver high quality education through public schools also doesn’t hold water considering that 5 out of the 6 largest economies in the world, private for-profit schools co-exist with public schools. Sweden, a country with high educational standards, not just allows for-profit schools but also funds students to study in private schools.

We have also spoken to numerous parents, who are absolutely clear that they do not care about profit or not, so long as they have predictability in terms of year-on-year fees increase and there is quality education, which is an absolutely fair expectation. For profit doesn’t imply no regulation, and schools must ensure both predictability of fees as well as essential safety along with high quality education. To provide equality of opportunity, students, especially those from Economically Weaker Sections, should be funded through education vouchers or direct benefit transfers. Parents can then make a choice about the school that they wish to admit their children to.

All efforts must be made to improve the quality of public education but there’s no reason why for-profit private schools can’t coexist. In fact, private schools should be co-opted as partners in the delivering of the educational vision laid out by the NEP. The lessons learnt from 30 years of liberalization should be now implemented in the education sector, thereby ensuring that India achieves the demographic dividend.

(This article is based on the report, “Liberalization of India’s Private Schools”, released by FICCI-ARISE. The full report is available here)



Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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