It is a universally acknowledged truth that a country in search of growth must invest in education. It is also the year of the elections, where policy bends to politics. Educationists have to acknowledge, in the recent past, investments in education have not influenced voting patterns. This sounds wrong when it is known that better education levels lead to prosperity and health. Why would prosperity not be on the voter’s agenda? Education is both personal and societal. Decisions made by elected policy makers affect the present and future of an entire generation.
Take the case of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009, which starts with the goal of ensuring every child in India gets educated upto the age of 14. This can be implemented in various ways depending upon the ideological leanings of the MLAs. In some countries universal private education has meant a wholly publicly funded school system. Others have chosen to introduce a range of schooling systems that help a variety of students. The RTE Act in India takes the view that private schools must share a part of the public burden, like it or not. Pressure is put on the smallest of these private school providers, many of them serving poor communities with nominal fees. They do not have the capacity to provide what is demanded of them by the act. Many are in danger of closing down. Each of the parents who send their children to private schools choose to pay extra and steer clear of the free government school in their area. These Government schools are presumably as well equipped as their private counterparts are expected to be, certainly have better quality teachers and offer uniforms and midday meals as incentives. Yet, they are not the first choice for most parents. Either we assume that parents do not know how to choose which would be both patronising and wrong. Or we acknowledge that there is value in affordable private schooling and find ways to help it survive.
These are issues that affect the future of our children, and as India votes, it makes choices about the direction it wants. Currently, while it is acknowledged that the private sector is a significant player in education delivery, it is a grudging acknowledgment. The assumption being made here is that profits will be at the cost of better education to the students. Or that Government owned education institutions will be true to their stated purpose. When it comes to the ballot, this should matter. Some Governments will allow opportunities to bloom, while others will pursue traditional proven paths. Education policy will be determined by politics.
What are the top three decisions for politicians and policymakers in education? First, capacity building. While the previous few years have been about increasing physical capacity in education, soft infrastructure is lagging. Teachers, faculty in higher education, leaders, researchers etc are in short supply. The constraint is both due to quality as well as structural failures.
Second, rethinking massification. The current policies aim at very high gross enrolment ratios in higher education. While this is a good driver of the pipeline, it is also true that the upstream leaks in the pipeline are huge, and the downstream opportunities (jobs) for graduates are very few.
Third, rethinking governance. While it is believed that education is a public good,it may be wise to rethink how the responsibility of this should be discharged. Does the Government have to be in the business of supplying education or should it be the mentor and monitor?
Policymakers need to rethink these questions in this new year when balancing political imperatives with long term goals.
This was published in the Daily Pioneer on Jan 1, 2014, link: http://www.dailypioneer.com/columnists/oped/education-should-be-a-priority-in-2014.html