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“It’s the private sector. Who will stand for them?”

I stared at him open mouthed. It was unthinkable that an entire sector, one that is all about keeping the wheels of the economy turning, could be dismissed in one swift sentence.

“They hate the private sector in Education. Even the parents who send their children there won’t stand up for them. They think it’s all about money for the schools–they don’t see the rest”. This was validated by many parents. Except for the very best of schools, the parent community did often offer throwaway comments like, “It is a business for them, they don’t care about education” or “These schools and colleges are a real estate business. So many will close in three-four years, you’ll see”. And so on.

And yet, over half of the education in India (over 60 percent in professional education) across nursery, primary and higher education is provided for by the private sector. Where learning outcomes have been measured, they have been marginally ahead of government provision. The race to get admission in private schools and universities, the high applicant to seat ratios and the existence of ‘donations’ (though illegal), to ensure access to private institutions, is testament to the fact that the market places a premium on being educated in the private sector. The only exception to this preference for the private sector seems to be at the undergraduate level. Let us not fight this anymore–the private sector has a valuable place in the education sector. Let us also acknowledge that a few private players have abused the regulatory system, and eroded the trust earned by the good people in both education and enterprise.

Yet, this is where opportunity lies, for education, for scaled solutions to education: Bringing education and enterprise together.

Encourage India’s youth to invest to become education entrepreneurs.

India has millions joining the workforce every year, and has millions that need to be educated better and in diverse ways. If we were to encourage education entrepreneurship with support, funding and training–and of course good governance–would we not be supporting Make in India, creating jobs and investing in education all in one fell swoop?

While many urban parts of India are at par with the best in the world, there are others that are still basic in both infrastructure and pedagogy. The classroom under a tree is a beautiful romantic concept, but it would be nice to have a room to work in when it rains, and even nicer if there was electricity and internet connectivity. A trained teacher who attends to students with care should not be a bonus, it should be the baseline. Interestingly, private sector schools report that they have no major problems in teacher attendance nor do they need to spend every morning rounding up local children to come to school. The owner-principal is there at the school almost everyday ensuring that school operations are not stalled in any way. This also shows us the way forward–owner enterprise driven education institutions may be a small replicable unit that could well drive quality into the heartland. We also know the gaps and the problems here, so we know how to fix it.

One of the bitterest lessons learnt in marketing is about humility towards the market and the consumer. You cannot tell the consumer what they want; you have to respond to their pain and to their needs. Here too you can’t set up these standardised schools and insist that people sign up. No one school fits all. Designing products or education interventions must respond to the felt need of students and their communities. They are clearly telling us that they want access, mobility and employable skills and are willing to pay for it. Look at the rise in private school enrolment. Even more so, look at the rise in short ‘courses’ and ‘certificates’ that require students to pay for the training and then for the examination and certification. These short bursts with free and easy access allow individuals to chart their own learning path to greater earnings. For those who cannot pay, we need scholarships and support mechanisms that maintain the viability of the education enterprise.

There are thousands of these training centres and there is room for many more. Some of them have become massive national and international franchises now. They not only serve their students but are also designed to fuel entrepreneurship. Each of these owner-franchisees makes a decent living wage and maybe a bit more. These are legitimate earnings–not profiteering by any standards. Community power often ensures that fee levels don’t rise too high and if they do, then either the students move to better value elsewhere or they come together to protest. As free markets do. No force, no pressure, no compulsion to sign up for that ‘one’ scarce course and therefore no rent seeking. And where there are restrictions, one sees the market distort.

The skills sector has already invested in training entrepreneurs who are beginning to show results and some maturity in the providers. After school segments have myriad education entrepreneurs feeding the need to move beyond dry curricula and grow the child to their interest and potential. Education innovation needs to move beyond tinkering with pedagogies and give committed entrepreneurs more room to grow student citizens–let them learn how to code, build robots, sell their own apps, pitch for projects, make pots, stitch clothes, just do their homework and even solve local problems. They may even learn how to make their own ‘school projects’. It is not enough to seek to improve industrial-age assembly line systems in education that were not designed either for India or for this age. We need to allow more access to education options for all those who seek to both give and take and help them help themselves and others.

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