the mess in education-watching

i came across an article (in business standard) by ajay shah titled 'the mess in education'. ajay shah blogs here. and he also writes here. he is a writer i admire..but i'm not sure i agree with what he says in the very beginning of the article i mentioned:
'Everyone thinks the government should do more on education. But the case for State involvement in education is not that clear. Education is actually mostly a private good and not a public good. I study, I benefit.'
i study, i benefit. i differ with that view: i study, my parents benefit, my wife benefits, my children benefit, my neighbours benefit, my employees benefit, my co-workers benefit, my employers benefit, my community benefits, my village benefits, my country benefits. and i benefit, of course. only the degree to which all those beneficiaries ..benefit differs. if one goes by the old saying- 'a wise enemy is better than a foolish friend'- not just my friends, even my enemies would benefit. rustic logic?

then what should one call the certitude that seems to envelop many people who write on education in india- a deep trust in the market as the only solution..make that the only right solution, to all problems affecting education? and on what evidence does their confidence rest? in india, on a few studies, mostly conducted in urban districts, that you'd find here and much confidence that the markets would work the same magic in the field of education that they have worked elsewhere. backed by 'knowledge' of how many countries in the west had already achieved universal education before the states over there had decided to intervene. very flimsy evidence in my view.

is there actually a market for education in india? if yes, how large is that market? the government lies, blatantly, that 93% of all children, starting from the age six, are enrolled in schools. and you'll find evidence in the government's own records, elsewhere, that more than 50% of the children drop out before they reach age 10. in fact, if we go by absolute numbers, the available evidence suggests that the number of parents who find education useless has actually gone up since 1947.

i repeat: how large is the market? we know it's large and attractive enough for the private sector to set up seemingly non-profit study tanks to lobby for deregulation. we know many other non-profit organizations find it profitably large to focus their selfless energies on it. we know a great number of succesful players who are already in the market have, at times, made supernormal profits. and we know it's large enough for bureaucrats in the government to have a vested interest in protecting the control apparatus in education. Hasn't that been a great avenue for extracting a steady, juicy share from the rent extracted by the providers in this nebulous market?

so, how does one estimate the size of this market? is it as large as the number of students now actually enrolled in private plus government run schools? if the government, let's assume for a moment, withdraws totally from this 'business' - would all the students now in government and private schools still remain buyers in this market (assuming further of course that enough private players would step in, in time, to fill the gap)? i don't think anybody seriously thinks that would happen. but let's explore this question and attempt to find out how many kids would still remain in the market. obviously, students who are already in private schools shouldn't be a cause for worry - those dependent on the subsidised/free education offered by the government definitely are. because they'd need to 'buy' education now. how many would be able to afford it? how many parents would actually send their kids to school even if they can actually afford it? the second question is important too because of the low enrollment figures in some places and high drop-out rates in many places. bad schools are possibly one of the reasons.. but they constitute only one reason. the other reasons would perhaps provide more vital clues as to why we still haven't been able to achieve a higher literacy rate in this country.

how many kids would be able to buy education? that'd depend on the 'price' per child, which'd again depend on the cost to the private provider, of course. this survey report, made available on the ccs india site, helps us figure out some costs. the survey was conducted in low income neighbourhoods in delhi - they might provide a good indicator of the situation in delhi but one can't be sure they provide a fair measure of what could be the costs across the country. the report tells you it costs the government rs.800 per month to educate each child in a government school. elsewhere, on the same site, you learn that the govt spends around 1000-1700 per month on every child in a government school. and on another page you come across the figure of rs.2008 (reportedly the cost per child to the uttar pradesh government). let's settle for the figure of rs.1400 per child (the average of the two extreme figures), per month.

but we know the private sector can be considerably more efficient than the govt in producing and delivering most goods and services so let's assume private schools can educate each child at around one fifth that amount - say, rs.280. the survey says that private schools catering to low income households in delhi charge around rs.240 per child, on an average. so the cost per child i arrived at wasn't way off the mark. i shall finally, finally settle for rs.250 as a reasonable estimate of what could be the average monthly fee private schools could possibly charge (inclusive of profit) each child, across the country. so how many households can afford to spend rs.250 per month on educating a child? or a sum of around rs.3000 plus a year?

technically, if we look at these figures, every family in india can spend that sum. but it'd mean that a family falling in the bottom quartile of india's population would be spending anything between one quarter to two-thirds of its earnings (if it has more than one-two children) and a family falling in the quartile above this category would be spending not less than one-fifth of its income. these are the people who make less than a dollar a day on an average and spend more than fifty cents of that on food. they're definitely not in the market for education.

30% of india's population earn a little more than this bottom half - less than one dollar and a half a day, on an average. the survey i mentioned earlier studies this class ('the climbers'). the survey tells you that around 86% of households in the areas studied send their children to government schools. around 45% of these families also spend on private tutions for their kids. you could say that roughly 30% of these children (that's around 10% of the total population) could be potential buyers in the hypothetical no-government-involvement-in-education scenario.and only because they live in a city, an environment that values education.

the top 20% ('the consumers' and 'the rich') of india's population would continue to spend more than 3000+ a year on each child's education.that'd mean around one third (the rich + the consumers + 30% of the climbers) of all kids in india would be potential 'consumers' in the new education scenario. this rougly matches the size, as estimated by many pundits, of the indian middle class of around 350 million. i believe they're both very optimistic estimates.

even this 'wealthier' top one-third of the indian population , directly or indirectly, are recipients of government largesse. one form of education vouchers, education as a tax deductible expense, benefits a large section of this class. grants and other forms of aid, subsidised/cheaper access to utilities and resources such as land to private schools etc., constitute other forms of public assistance to the production and delivery of these 'private' goods. so what kind of impact would complete withdrawal of government from education have on the strength of this market? it would definitely reduce the size of the market, i'm sure.

but the proponents of 'liberation/liberalization' of education are quite aware of all these facts. they know the bottomline: the education market in india can neither survive nor expand without the support of the government. isn't that the reason why the idea of vouchers, essentially government handouts, is being promoted? in my view, the campaign for parental choice, being spearheaded by ccs india, is a tacit admission that education is a 'public good' in india because it seeks continuation of state support, albeit in a different form.

that isn't the only dichotomy in the thinking of those seeking reform in the field of education in india. until now, in this post, i've focussed on primary education which i believe should be regarded as a public good, but i've noticed an ill-advised one-size-fits-all approach towards higher education and schools among 'reformers'. how can one formula address the different probems affecting education in urban and rural india and a vast variety of socio-economic classes in the country? this refusal to recognize the variety of factors involved is dangerous - it tends to underestimate the gravity of the situation.

what does ccs india want? it advocates, it says, parental choice. a large majority of parents in rural india and a section of urban india have time and again demonstrated their choice - they'd rather send their kids to work than to school. why? the answer, as i've implied earlier while commenting on low enrollment and high drop-out rates in india, is rather complex. but i've found this explanation on the faqs page of the mv foundation website rather enlightening:

"Q: If it is all so simple then why do children get to be sent to work at all? Why are all children not in schools?
A:Only some aspects of the issue are simple. Parents are willing and capable of sending their children to school. That is the simple part but there are a whole lot of complex issues as well. In the first place to poor parents, especially those belonging to the communities traditionally engaged in agricultural labour who by and large are
illiterate, the very task of sending their child to school instead of to work is in itself a major revolutionary step. For generations they have been led to believe that the best thing for them is to initiate their child into work at the earliest and education was never a part of their economic agenda. This is exactly the opposite of what a middle class urban parent believes. Just as in the latter case it never occurs to the parents that their child should be sent to work, to a parent in the rural area who is essentially an agricultural labourer and an illiterate to boot, sending a child to work is the most natural thing in the world."
seen in that light, one can understand how diificult it is for a rural parent, or even for an urban parent who falls in the bottom two income quartiles, to send a child to school - it is akin to participating in a revolution! so the choice before such parents is primarily between the natural inclination to send a child to work and the heterodox idea of sending it to school. and these parents form the overwhelming majority of parents who have children of schoolgoing age in india.
is ccs india interested in those children? i'm not sure. it seeks to promote choice, it says, because competition would improve standards. would it also improve enrollment? that doesn't seem to be the focus of ccs india. one does sense, however, a growing interest in a growing market. but the market, as i've pointed out above, is very limited. hence the campaign to 'create' one. do i have a problem with that?
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