The National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 set out a vision for the education needed for the 21st century. It recognizes that today’s children need to learn both “fundamental skills” in literacy and numeracy as well as “higher order” cognitive skills such as critical thinking and problem solving. problems, and social and emotional skills such as cultural awareness and empathy, perseverance and courage, teamwork, leadership, communication. Pre-school education has become compulsory for all children from the age of 3.
To address the problem of student overload, the NEP recommends streamlining curriculum content by focusing on core concepts, flexible pathways and professional courses allowing students to make broader choices suited to their career aspirations, a change in board exam structure with exams focusing on basic ability rather than content memorization reducing the need for coaching as well as a single entrance exam for university admissions. These academic reforms are both necessary and progressive, and if properly implemented, can propel Indian education into the 21st century.
The pertinent question is how can this stellar academic vision be effectively implemented in classrooms across the country? Out of 25 Cr Indian children, about 13 Crore study in public schools and the remaining 12 Cr in private schools. Among those who study in private schools, 90% pay less than Rs. 2000 per month which is far below the average government school expenditure of Rs. 30,000/year on each student. And yet, the researchers found that low-budget private schools and public schools produce similar learning outcomes. Of course, the reality is that learning outcomes in most public schools as well as most low-budget private schools fall far short of the quality of education required for children to succeed today. And that was before the COVID pandemic, which further deteriorated learning outcomes in these schools. The future of more than 23 Crore Indian children hangs in the balance.
According to United Nations Development Program (UNDP) estimates, India’s total financial need to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 4 is “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” by 2030 is $2.258 billion, which for the years 2017-30 averages $173 billion per year, far exceeding the government’s current budget of $76.4 billion per year for education. It would be unrealistic to expect such large investments to come solely from government and purely philanthropic initiatives.
The last 30 years of liberalization have changed the face of the Indian economy. From endless shortages and poor quality of phones, scooters, cars, rations and just about everything, India has come a long way through liberalisation. After recognizing that the government is not good at service delivery, Air India was also privatized. In the health sector, private hospitals have been leveraged through Ayushman Bharat. Obviously, the current regime has been very strong on reforms aimed at blowing up sectors in the country.
Now is the time to liberalize the education sector as well. The NEP already recommends reducing the focus on input-based standards such as square footage, room size, playground size and instead giving due weight to educational outcomes. In addition, grade 3, 5, and 8 student milestone assessments are required for all students. This will allow schools to freely innovate according to local context and constraints, and find the best models for delivering learning to children, while giving parents the information and choice to hold schools accountable.
However, the biggest barrier to entry for high quality people and big patient capital is the schools’ philanthropic mandate. This tenure has kept the sector unorganized, where all sorts of businessmen with no interest or educational skills enter the field and run substandard institutions. If the sector opens up, we will see big chains coming from India and around the world, which might have a commercial interest but will ensure that there is a certain level of professionalism, efficient use of technology and a scale to invest in research and development. , to offer more for less.
The ideological mandate that education should remain non-profit is particularly bewildering when compared to how profit delivers the goods in all other sectors, and especially when compared to the evergreen coaching industry and more. recently to the EdTech sector. The argument that developed economies provide high quality education in public schools also ignores the fact that in 5 of the 6 largest economies in the world, private for-profit schools co-exist with public schools. Sweden, a country with high educational standards, not only allows for-profit schools but also funds students to study in private schools.
We’ve also spoken to many parents, who are absolutely clear that they don’t care about profit or not, as long as they have predictability in terms of fees increasing from year to year and that there is quality education, which is a very fair expectation. Profit does not imply the absence of regulation, and schools must ensure both predictability of fees as well as essential safety and high quality education. To ensure equal opportunities, students, especially those in economically weaker sections, should be funded through study vouchers or direct benefit transfers. Parents can then choose the school in which they wish to enroll their children.
Every effort should be made to improve the quality of public education, but there is no reason why private for-profit schools cannot coexist. In fact, private schools should be co-opted as partners in realizing the educational vision set out by the NEP. The lessons learned from 30 years of liberalization must now be implemented in the education sector, thereby ensuring that India realizes the demographic dividend.
(This article is based on the report, “Liberalization of Indian private schools”, published by FICCI-ARISE. The full report is available here)
The opinions expressed above are those of the author.
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