The NEP can wait

There are few sectors as complicated as India’s education sector. That perhaps explains why the government has been talking about the New Education Policy (NEP) since 2014 but six years later, it is yet to see the light of day. A draft policy was submitted in 2019 but there’s been no final word on the matter.

In an ideal world scenario, high quality education should be free for all and provided, or at least financed, by the state. Children should attend the neighbourhood school and the schools should be on a par, both in terms of infrastructure and the quality of teachers.

But we in India — like many other countries — are far from the ideal. Private schools are filling in a gap government schools are unable to bridge. Over the five-year period between 2010-11 and 2015-16, the number of government schools in India (20 major states) rose by a mere 12,297 (Source: An October 2019 FICCI-Arise report on school education). In contrast, the number of private schools rose by 77,063. Despite the modest increase in the number of government schools, the total enrolment in government schools over this period actually fell by 13.1 million students, whereas the total enrolment in private schools rose by 17.5 million students. It is also estimated that households spent ~1.1 trillion in private school education in 2014. That number would have grown significantly by now due to inflation and an increase in enrolments.

In the situation we find ourselves, I think we must forget about the NEP and first begin with a few things.

One, end the charade and declare education for profit. Several private schools are forced to resort to illegitimate and underhand ways of earning a return on their capital since education remains not-for-profit in India. This would allow governments to tax the legitimate income earned by school owners and it would allow the latter to access finance as normal businesses do. Moreover, it would allow many more players who shy away from the existing regime that encourages underhand methods of earning a return. Barring the Shiv Nadar group — which has entered both the school and higher education space — one cannot name too many new, large-scale entrants into the space in recent years.  Formalising the sector would bring in many benefits: Weeding out the fly-by-night players, allowing the existing schools to raise capital through the banking and non-banking financial institutions and expand, and higher tax income for the government by allowing new players with deep pockets to enter and so on. 

This must be accompanied with an easing of the requirements and the number of criteria to be met to set up a school. Reams have been written about this, so suffice to say that anyone not convinced of this should simply attempt to set up a new school. The proof of the pudding lies in the eating!

Along with these two, there are at least two steps the government needs to take on the state school system in tandem. One, it needs to mandate that all government servants educate their own wards in government schools, regardless of seniority and service. This is perhaps the quickest way to fix the malaise that has entered the public school system over the years.

Last but not the least, a solution relating to the funding of government schools suggested by educationist and expert Geeta Kingdon to bring in accountability is, to my mind, one of the best remedies for the present apathy. She advocates public funding to be disbursed to schools on a per student basis, in contrast with the current “block” grant whereby a school gets the same amount even if it loses children. Under a per-student grant, a direct benefit transfer (DBT) can be handed to the parents of eligible children for support either in the form of cash or a voucher. If the government feels parents will not use cash responsibly for educating their children, it can give school vouchers. A voucher-bearing parent is like a fee-paying parent and can “punish” a lax school by withdrawing her child from there, and taking her voucher to another (better) school. The school presents all the vouchers collected from parents to a government-designated bank for reimbursement by the government.

So, if I were at the helm of matters, I’d begin with four concrete steps: Declare education for profit, alter regulations and requirements to make entry easier, insist all public servants send their own children to government schools and make government fund its own schools on a per student basis. Let’s make a start with these and see where it gets us. The NEP can wait. 

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