School fee hikes cannot be wished away: Delhi's Bal Bharti ex-principal

Sushanta Kumar Bhattacharya ex-principal of Bal Bharti School
With the Delhi government putting in place many rules and regulations and coming down heavily to monitor private schools, there has been a virtual battle between the private schools and the government. 

The private schools argue that the government instead of setting its own house in order is focusing excessively on the private schools and how they run. They feel the government’s approach is both high handed and incorrect. While some schools may be in the education business only for commercial reasons, those who represent schools argue that the government is tending to paint everyone with the same brush and that a “few bad eggs” are not representative of the entire sector. In their opinion, many private schools have made a large contribution in education mllions  – a job that the state is often failing to do. 

A senior academician with experience of over 50 years in the sector, Sushanta Kumar Bhattacharya has been principal of Delhi’s Bal Bharti schools for 30 years. He is currently president of the Action committee of private unaided schools – an all India body with around 6,000 schools under its aegis. He tells Anjuli Bhargava on recent developments in the sector and what needs to be done at a macro level. Excerpts : 

What problems do you see with school education at a macro level?

There are two big problems at a macro level. One, parents view education as an investment. Despite the government offering free education in its schools, more and more parents are opting for private schools. The increase in enrollment in private schools has been up by 7% every year for the last ten years. Government schools have no accountability, yet public funds are going into them.

Two, the drop out rate in government schools is almost 40-50 per cent. So you can imagine what a colossal wastage of funds this is. By the time students come to Class 5, almost 40 per cent have left. By the time they go to Class 10, another 30-40 per cent leave. Other than economic reasons (where they need the child to contribute to family income), drop out rate is high because they see no value added. Whatever expectations they have from govt education are not being fulfilled. Even if after this education, the child becomes a labourer or a daily wage-worker, parents question what is the point of govt education. The child can get the same job and earn the same amount even without this education.

But as I see the government’s focus, unfortunately, is not in their own schools but in the private schools. All their rules and regulations target and are aimed at the private schools. The private schools are trying to provide a better quality of education but they are not able to do so due to excessive government focus on them.

India spends only 4% of GDP on education against the desirable 11%. They need to increase the budget substantially. But just increasing provision alone will not help. The funds need to be spent better. There is no policy to evaluate, train, assess or make the government schools more accountable.

What is your view on the 25% seat reservation for economically weaker section (EWS)?

I am totally in favour of it in spirit. Ultimately it is a question of social justice. 

But there are two factors that need to be looked into. One, students are coming to the school with some kind of certificate but more often than not they do not belong to the EWS category. The certificates are not always genuine. If the benefit is not going to the right people, the purpose of it is defeated.

Second, if the private school is taking on this burden, the government should compensate the school for it accordingly but this isn’t happening. It only compensates a fraction of the cost of educating the child. Neither it is allowing schools to raise fees which could result in a cross subsidisation.

There is also excessive interference in fee setting. The schools are in a Catch 22 situation as fees are their only source of income. This fee amount cannot be static; it goes up every year as you have to increase salaries, DA and so on. Maintenance costs go up every year. Expenses for schools go up every year on account of establishment costs alone by 12-15% every year. So, some reasonable increase every year is a must. Simply saying the schools are not permitted to increase fees is not logical. Fee hikes cannot be wished away. Also, if the schools want to provide more to students, they need to invest in better infrastructure, smart classes and so on. How can this happen if there is a ban on fee rise?

While many parents are willing to pay the fee hike, some take advantage of the situation and raise a hue and cry. Often, there is a political overtone to the protests. It is hard for private schools to function in this kind of environment.

What is your view on a regulator for the sector – that can look at fees issues and so on?

We don’t have an issue as long as any regulator is fair, objective and independent. It has to be autonomous both in letter and spirit. It should not be under the ministry of HRD.

At a macro level, what can be done to improve quality of teachers? Do we not pay them enough?

It’s not the only remuneration. There are those who choose to teach or are born teachers. But almost everyone with a bright academic career looks for a career with an opportunity to rise. This doesn’t happen easily in schools. There will be many teachers but only one principal. So there is stagnation more easily. 

Then there are factors like there is a lack of professionalism in schools, there is lack of growth and training within the profession and there is a certain lack of respect. Are we giving the kind of respect we should to teachers in society at large? I don’t think so.

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