Here is an article that appeared in CFO-Connect, December, 2011
|Education Sector: Policy Design is Key|
|Success lies in how well we design our education policy, says Meeta SenguptaThe Indian government cannot be accused of not being ambitious in trying to bring higher education to more people. The Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER), which measures the proportion of eligible population that has enrolled, is currently hovering at around 11-13 per cent levels for higher education in the country. Over the next five years, the target has been set at between 27- 30 per cent of the eligible population.The demographic dividend that we speak of now, is a two-edged sword. If trained and deployed well, our youth shall be the source of plenty for the future. If we get this wrong, then we will be saddled with a vast young population that has nothing to do, and nowhere to go. This is the nature of our battle which is upon us, and it is to do with educating and skilling, and organising our youth. As with all wars, there are business opportunities to be had here too, albeit in a regulated environment.
Strictly not for profit – The regulatory quagmire often seems unmanageable, with restrictions such as profits being disallowed in the sector. Any profits in an educational institution can only be deployed in another educational venture. This is social engineering by regulation – where educational trusts find themselves expanding to utilise the surplus – thus serving more people than they may have originally planned to. The latent demand for schools and colleges is large and this is a way to retain investment within the sector. While noble in intent, such regulation often encourages participants to find ways to get around it. In this case, since costs are not disallowed or controlled (thankfully) –it is an easy enough matter to understate profits, if such is the intention.
We have recently cleaned up the mess created in the ‘deemed university’ segment of the sector, with the Centre’s move to de-recognise 44 such universities for their non-performance. The Centre has informed the Supreme Court (SC) that the 44 institutions will be treated as regular colleges affiliated to universities in their respective states. The battle against ‘capitation’ fees is still on – with the government disallowing premium upfront fees being charged by private institutions in violation of the fee limits imposed by regulators. Profit is a bad word, or to be more precise, profiteering is to be disallowed.
A more forward-looking approach – While it is right for governments to take responsibility and protect consumers from being exploited, entire policies seem to have been crafted to keep private enterprise out. Philosophically, there is keen debate on whether education is a public good and therefore, the sole responsibility of the state. This debate combined with the socialist underpinnings of our Constitution, have created policies that have overburdened our government. Current realities, in the shape of the potential demographic dividend (or otherwise), have forced a re-think and a recently re-energised Ministry of Human Resource Development has demonstrated a more outward looking stance in recent years.
The passage of the pending Bills in Parliament that will restructure the sector is awaited. New institutions have been mooted, such as the National Commission for Higher Education and Research (NCHER), and are designed to provide oversight to higher education in the country. The emphasis has shifted from providing education to facilitating structures that enable processes – such as accreditation and assessment among others. Yet, the overwhelming numbers make many wonder – do we have the bandwidth to deliver both quality and quantity education? In the 11th Five Year Plan, the emphasis was clearly on quantity, often ignoring quality imperatives in the race to massification. Plans for the future appreciate the need to invest in quality while maintaining the momentum for scale.
Still, the private sector has been a big participant in the education sector with clear models emerging for business success in the face of government regulation. Private sector schools are more often than not much more in demand than their government counterparts – creating a hierarchy of sorts. A recent study conducted in Tamil Nadu shows that over 75 per cent of teachers in government schools sent their children to private schools where they perceived that standards of education and discipline were superior. At the higher education level the perception is the opposite, while for professional education, the brand name seems to matter more than the funding. A recent survey by global market research company Synovate shows that the perceptual differences between private and government providers of higher education are not so significant in the minds of students and parents. Surprisingly, the study shows a reasonable degree of satisfaction with the quality of education. This is in contrast to the other data – low rankings in world tables, employers unable to fill places due to poor quality graduates, and engineers with admittedly poor soft skills, among others. The level of dissatisfaction with the quality of education is universal among those employers who use the ‘products’ (the pupils) of this system. The divergence in these views further highlights the gaps in the process – where neither the supply side nor the demand side, seem to align at any point.
The future landscape of education
The sector will continue to be dominated by the government in the next decade, and yet the evolution will be visible. From being a government owned, government-controlled patriarchy, the sector will grow via inputs from other stakeholders too, whether domestic or foreign. While the easing up of regulation and control remains a distant target, there are spaces being cleared for specific types of participation, not just to bring more funding into the system but also to support the free flow of ideas that will contribute to the knowledge economy of the future. An example – Innovation universities, envisaged as free from the administrative and audit burdens of traditional universities, are essential to the growth ambitions of the nation. Independent pockets of excellence are expected to pilot reforms as they provide better results via both process and content. These universities are ambitious in scope and scale – almost as if the government had thrown down the gauntlet at the private sector to prove its worth. It has been a few years since they were mooted and little progress has been made since then.
Industry will drive professional education – Regardless of the slow progress on innovation universities, private sector participation will increase dramatically at all levels in education. Universities with strong linkages to industry, often funded by philanthropy, are already in play. The private sector dominates professional education and is well placed to dominate primary education. Vocational training has lagged and the government infrastructure has proved totally outdated and inadequate. A large number of private sector players have created quality niche programmes – some of which seek scale. Others are merely servicing a felt need that has not been met by traditional training infrastructure. It is possible that this ‘commoditised’ training will see consolidation, but this is unlikely for another five-to-seven years while a semblance of standardisation is achieved.
Vocational education still underdeveloped – The elephant on the table is clearly vocational education where the sheer size of the potential demand seems very attractive – till one realises that this is a nascent market with participants who are currently trapped in low-productivity equilibrium. This is the ideal opportunity to add value via productivity training though funding such training will remain an issue that holds back the growth of this industry.
Step-motherly treatment for distance education – While technology enables distance education, it is also true that such qualifications receive step-motherly treatment in the market with many job advertisements clearly stating that those with distance education degrees need not apply. This does not augur well for a system that needs to scale up rapidly and has a large supply of potential distance education suppliers. Both distance education and vocational education suffer from similar issues in positioning and will have to work to build credibility in the future.
Public support for primary education – Primary education will continue to be seen as a public good, as supported by the Right to Education Act, thus ensuring that the government continues to support a majority of students. Primary schooling is traditionally the most cash-rich part of the education business with pay-back periods that can be as short as two years depending upon the infrastructure provided by the schools. A number of small private sector schools also offer bare bones’ facilities and are a growth industry – supported and held to market standards by their local communities. The degree of regulation here is unlikely to change, as this is seen as a vulnerable market. Here, demographics will drive demand and will lead the growth of the entire industry. Growth in vocational, higher, and professional education will clearly be subsets of this growth.
Lack of data is a constraint to future investment – One of the biggest challenges in the sector in planning for the future is the lack of reliable and consistent data. Combined with the high degree of investment and long lead times for most education projects, this presents a big challenge for investors. For example, the engineering sector now sees a glut of schools – so much so that the states of Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Rajasthan have written to the regulatory body AICTE, to disallow any new colleges in the sector. AICTE itself currently seeks to resolve this issue by seeking data from the very same states on the potential supply demand situation.
This situation highlights all that needs to be fixed in the system – the complete and arbitrary right of the regulatory body to stop new entrants, the paucity of demand and supply data, the lack of quality control in the sector, and the disconnect with employability and employer information. It does highlight one very interesting fact – that the consumers of such educational degrees are very market savvy and will not invest time or money in them unless they see true value for the long term.
Policy makers too, have a very tough time in this situation with very little reliable information. It is as if they are building policy blindly – or at least blinkered, on anecdotal evidence or case studies that validate many of their decisions. They must operate for scale, serving those who get left behind in the count; regulating the mass in the middle that is almost impossible to understand without granular information. Sound policies are an enormously ambitious expectation in a scenario where the government is in a rush, chased by demographics, with few resources to pause either for planning or standards.
Education policy design
The key issues in education are going to be design issues – from the policy to the product level. The market is waiting, and the pieces in the supply chain are in place. Joined-up thinking is lacking in the sector and will be the downfall of the nation if it is not rectified. Education policy needs to be designed with care and for flexibility, and scale, for it to succeed. For this I propose four pillars for education design – Strategy, Structures, Soul, and Scores. These are briefly outlined below.
Soul: A sense of passion, commitment, and simple honesty of purpose are vital to the survival of a robust system. An education system where teachers are not motivated or honest enough to even come in to class; or where certificates can be purchased, defeats itself. The soul of a system lies with its purpose and how well this is communicated and implemented by its participants. The community that it serves is an integral participant, and education systems need to be integrated with their various communities – employers, teachers, investors, and administrators among others. Ignoring the needs of participants will be counterproductive. Without people, no organisation or purpose can succeed, and these people need to feel a higher sense of purpose and fulfilment to be able to perform above and beyond the call of duty.
Scores: At the micro level, we tend to over-perform at score keeping – where examinations, grades, and scorekeeping overtake the core process of learning. This needs to be aligned with stated goals of the individual and institution. At the same time, at the macro level we under perform. We need effective systems that collect valid, reliable, and current data on outcomes, inputs, attainments, and resources in such a manner that effective feedback loops can be put in place. This is an integral part of the infrastructure of education and must form the basis of a future education policy.
Large and complex challenges rarely come with as much hope as our current situation in the education sector. We are at the beginning of the ride that will take us through the next 30 years – and the way we design the ride now will determine whether the journey will take us into successful territory or not. Intelligent investments and implementation, with an honest intent to have good outcomes are the keywords that will take us into a prosperous and safe future.
this article in pdf