Thinking about education

To paraphrase one Nobel prize-winning economist, once you start thinking about Indian education, you cannot think of anything else. The subject fills you with awe, wonder, anger, disappointment, hope, despair, and immense sadness.

India has an astounding number of schools: more than one million by some estimates. But it is deeply disappointing that over ninety percent of India’s children drop out of school by the time they reach the 12th standard. Of the small percentage that actually go on to college, very few graduate as professionals.

It is quite impressive to note that 350,000 graduate out of colleges every year. Yet the quality of our colleges are so dismal that only about 15 percent of our graduates are employable. It is sad that after spending nearly 8 percent of GDP in education, the system is a disastrous failure to the vast majority of the people of India.

And yet we hear of the immensely successful NRIs who had their undergraduate education in elite institutions such as the IITs. Clearly the system has worked for this tiny minority as spectacularly as the system has been a tragedy for the overwhelming majority.

To explain the failure of the system, one has to start at the beginning. The criminal neglect of primary education starts with the involvement of the government in providing primary education. Universal primary education is too important an activity to be entrusted to corrupt and inept public sector bureaucrats. To actually deliver a quality product most efficiently, the only option is vigorously competitive private sector participation in the provision of not just primary education, but all levels of education.

It is true that the private sector will only serve those segments which have the ability to pay. The role of the government is therefore to support financially those who don’t have the ability to pay on their own. Then the poor will also constitute paying customers for the competitive private sector educational institutions.

The operative word is “competitive” – competition must not merely be allowed in the private education sector, it must be actively encouraged. Only through the forces of competition would the immense task of making education available and affordable to all be accomplished.

There are a number of distinctions between the way the private sector operates and the way that the public sector operates: the private sector firms are constrained by hard budget constraints and have to operate at a profit. They can only make a profit if and only if the benefits of the service which they provide exceeds the cost. Private sector competition ensures that the profits are not super normal.

To survive in a competitive environment, private sector firms are forced to innovate. Innovation which is sorely required in the education sector will be missing as long as the government is involved in it. Monopolies in general don’t have an incentive to innovate, and it is a theoretical impossibility (supported by empirical evidence) for a public sector monopoly to innovate. As long as the government has a monopolistic control over education, there is little hope of innovation.

The policy prescription is straightforward to state. First, liberalize the education sector and not merely allow but actively encourage private sector participation and competition in education. Second, provide need-based financial support for universal education up to the secondary school level. Third, provide loans to all those who qualify for enrollment in higher education. Fourth, for those who do not qualify for higher education, provide channels for vocational education.

The educational sector is ripe for innovation. The most appropriate innovation will be the use of information and communications technology (ICT) tools. There have been phenomenal advances in ICT. More than any other sector, education can benefit from it because ICT has the potential to reduce the cost of providing quality education. The use of ICT in education will be as fundamentally transforming as the invention of books was in the previous revolution in education.

Books reduced the cost of education because they could conveyed information across time and distance, and were cheap to reproduce. Books were an innovation compared to the system where humans had to be directly involved in the transmission of knowledge. The time has now come to replace books with its cheaper alternative: information in digital form. Among the great advantages that digital information has over books is that content can be far richer than mere textual information: now it is possible to have hyperlinked content in the form of audio, video, text, and graphics.

It is easy to predict that education will be transformed by the use of ICT tools. There are huge potential commercial gains and at the same time, there is the opportunity to do good. We are only constrained by our imagination.

Author: Atanu Dey


9 thoughts on “Thinking about education”

  1. Atanu

    It would be cool, if there was a “Guide” similar to Hitch Hiker’s Guide to galaxy. After having acquired the skills to speak and understand some what the kid is given this guide by the parents/govt. etc. It is expected that guide is intelligent enough to understand the level of the kid and provide adequate lessons. Of course the book can get input by multiple methods touch and sound when the kid is of small age, and then keyboard eventually. There is no need for the exams as the guide is measuring the skills all the time.

    We can almost write a another fiction on this idea.

    – Pankaj


  2. I beg to differ about the private involvement. Need of the hour is to make the existing structure acccountable rather than hoping that private participation would solve the nagging problems.

    Lets look at the glaring example of telecom. Despite all the hoopla of the private sector participation in mobile telephony, the present set up has resulted in oligopolies and the resulting “calling discounts” hasn’t clearly happened. Yes, arguably the PSU’s have had to firm up their delivery channels but in many ways, trying piercing the opaque structures of a private player while you are lodging a complaint.

    I am no expert; but more than the professed private initiatives, I believe that moribund syllabus is more at fault. We see the same kind of drop outs in the West too, but it would be easier to argue that estimated numbers look glaring because of huge population base we have.

    When the whole system is still based on what Macaulay advocated to churn out babus and clerks, it would do us no good. Ironically the stake holders as parents, do not have much say in the way their kids need to be taught.


  3. How right you are. IT is that imagination is more important than knowledge and multimedia will really be a very good tool in disseminating knowledge in a different way.

    You are bang on target about private sector participation. It is because of lack of proper educational institutions that we have problems like reservation.You are also right about better vocational education for those who cannot qualify for higher studies.

    The literal meaning of the word education (latin word educere)is to draw out what is already in and not blindly stuff in. This could be one of the reasons for the high drop out rate. Students should be encouraged to explore their interests- Make your passion your profession


  4. I beg to disagree.

    By any standards, do you believe that the education provided by private engineering colleges is by means of a decent standard? Not at all. The private sector has brought in not innovation, but more rigidity. These colleges hardly offer academics the freedom required to do half-decent research, or to make courses interesting. Really, it would be a big big mistake to assune that the rpivate sector can solve all the problems of the country.

    I do not suggest that all education should be govt. funded. I only say that if we go by the experience of engg. and medical colleges, it would be wrong to believe that the private sector will be any better than the public sector as far as quality of education is concerned. I concede that they may be more efficient financially.

    As this article by Prof.Krishna Kumar (Director of NCERT) points out, children are our collective responsibility. It is hence the state’s responsibility to educate them, irrespective of their parent’s economic background. If the voucher system is implemented, the parent can very well save some money by sending his son to a school that doesn’t function, and hence charges less. The assumption you make, that parents will always think in the best interests of ther child, might not be in sync with the harsh realities of rural India.


  5. Well, the most important thing preventing better education in the country is unbelievably The Education and HRD Ministry itself !!

    There is no lack of people in this country – who know how to set it right. BUT, they are bloggers, critics, thinkers etc – They ARE NOT POLICY MAKERS.

    Those in Positions of Power – can alone make a difference – BUT THEY DON”T WANT TO.

    A Shining Examples:
    Arjun Singh and Mr P Chindambram want to spend Rs 16000 Crore in Reserving Seats in Higher Education – while this money should go for Primary Education.

    CBSE Chief (No Less!) – has presented a proposal to HRD Ministry to do away with MATHS as a subject for SC/ST students! Weird to absurd. Talk about Bureaucrats leading this country to greatness.

    KARNATAKA Education Minister – has shut down 1400 schools in middle of academic session because Kannada is not medium of instruction.

    No Dearth of Ideas.
    Severe Dearth of Right People at the TOP.


  6. Atanu:

    Competition and Innovation are the crux of the issue.

    I watching a program on SBS here on Space Tourism. The launch of the XPrize provided the motivation for many new ideas to flurish in the space area and in 2004 this was achieved.

    There are other X-prizes now.

    However, it was just amazing to see what a small team achieved which only super powers could do before – space.

    The problems of engineering and medicine in the country are for real. However, that does mean that there is still a supply problem.

    Increase the supply and the best will come out!

    For Abhishek:

    I am surprised that Abhishek fails to see the growth of mobile phones in the country. I am not sure how the private sector cannot be congratualted for providing one of the cheapest phone services in the world in India.

    Abhishek needs a reality check.



  7. I want to know about those countries, in which education is completely free (hence non-profit) and also is in the hands of govt. I think Scandinavian countries, Cuba etc are examples. The problem is not govt vs private. I think the problem is with the people and their attitude here.


  8. Suhit, I mentioned about the existing oligopolies. By the way, give or take, roughly one third of the mobile subscribers are ‘fake’; on paper. However, this isn’t the focus of discussion.

    Having private players doesn’t always mean “efficiency”. Need of the hour is to make the existing system work.


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