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Hobson’s (school) choice

It is now accepted that the aspiration for education even among India’s poorest is extremely high.

Written by Kiran Bhatty |
May 28, 2009 1:02:37 am

It is now accepted that the aspiration for education even among India’s poorest is extremely high. Surveys show that the poor are willing to sacrifice much for their children’s education,unequivocally viewing education as central in breaking out of the cycle of poverty. However,far too many are still un-enrolled; attendance levels are still very low; and drop-out levels still unacceptably high. It is ironic that while NREGA has helped children stay in their villages with mothers no longer forced to migrate for work,there is yet to be an appreciable impact on their schooling,as the education system continues to push them out. 

There is a fear that the downturn-caused resource crunch coupled with implementation problems in public delivery will lead to a louder call for exit from direct delivery,in a bid to rationalise resources. In particular,there is a growing voice for vouchers or for conditional cash transfers (CCTs) in education. CCTs’ proponents say they optimise public spending by withdrawing from direct delivery,which is assumed to be laden with rent-seeking opportunities for the providers,which also leads to poor quality. Instead it is suggested that cash or vouchers be given to people to spend on schooling. An underlying assumption is that the people will choose private delivery over government delivery and this will result eventually in the drying up of demand for government provision — achieving the twin benefits of reducing government liabilities and improving quality.

These assumptions should not be taken at face value without considering some basic facts about the education sector. A recent survey of education in rural north India showed that more than 80 per cent of all children still go to government schools in spite of abysmal quality. The private sector,CCTs or no,simply cannot bridge this gap. Besides,private schools charge a fee over and above other costs that this very large majority still cannot afford to pay.

The truth is that there is very little systematic research on private schools,as a large section of these schools are not registered or unrecognised schools. Nevertheless,the information that exists suggests that quality in the private sector is at best mixed. One important finding however is that in areas where the government schools function well,the private schools also tend to be of better quality. In other words,it is government schools that provide the benchmark for quality in schooling. 

Without getting into the longer,ideological,debate on private versus public provision it is worth highlighting a few points that hold irrespective of one’s position in that debate. First,states that have managed to provide mass education in India,such as Kerala and Himachal Pradesh,have done it through quality public provision,and not private. In both states private provision has come at its own pace without government pushing it. Demand for private sector provision will grow as the economy does; only if public provision is of a high standard will standards in the private sector be met. Second,the government’s responsibility to the aam aadmi extends beyond providing a social safety net for employment through the NREGA to an exit policy from unskilled employment,which only improving education levels can do. Third,leaving education to the private sector runs the risk of creating a highly uneven system,which might further polarise and destabilise our plural society.

At least in the near future,thus,there is simply no substitute for government provision. It is also clear that absent quality government or private schools,the question of “choice”,implicit in CCTs,is a redundant one. But government school quality must be improved,urgently.

Interestingly,a discourse which sees the NREGA as largely an income transfer scheme has also been couched in terms of CCTs versus the NREGA,the argument being that CCTs would amount to a transfer of income without the burden of implementation of works as in the NREGA. Indeed,Chandrababu Naidu’s election campaign tried to convince the AP electorate of precisely this logic. The results there should have silenced NREGA naysayers,at least for now; yet the idea of CCTs is still being pushed,particularly in the education and health sectors. In fact,CCTs need a political drubbing all around,and not just in the context of NREGA. The challenge before us is to ensure that the right to education is at least as much of a legal entitlement for children as NREGA has been for unorganised rural workers.

The writer researches education issues

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