With a little shift in focus and an alteration in its role, the department with its well-qualified workforce can be turned into a great asset for society
In the early 1990s when the Communist federation of Soviet Union collapsed, ripples were felt across the world. The Soviets had for a very long time continued with a rigid bureaucratic set-up, informed by the ideology of Marx and Lenin. The society was under the iron grip of the Communists, no room was left for the market forces of Capitalism, and absolutely no dissent was tolerated against the ruling Bolshevik party. A society of this kind needed a robust administrative framework which was supplied by a Kafkaesque bureaucracy with the Soviet politburo at the top. However, the system turned out to be economically so inefficient that by the early 1990s it collapsed under its own weight, in unmistakable contrast with the flourishing free-market nations of the western world.
Independent India led by socialist leaders like Prime Minister Nehru adopted a Soviet-like bureaucracy as the fundamental framework of administration. Although touted to be a “mixed” economy, very few indications of free-market forces were visible until the early 90s. When the Soviet Union collapsed, India received a wake-up call of sorts in the sudden demise of its ideological guru. The Soviet experiment had failed! Finally, compelled by its own foreign exchange crisis, India had to make a quick shift in its economic policy and throw the economy open to the free-market forces of the west.
Since then, the country has been treading the path of privatisation, taking gradual but decisive steps in that direction every passing year. Withdrawing subsidies, ceasing social security (like pensions), and disinvesting public sector undertakings are some of the highlights of this journey. Whether for better or for worse, there is absolutely no doubt about the direction in which the Indian society and economy is headed: thorough privatisation. This has set the general theme of our socio-economic landscape today.
However, there seems to be a sense of disconnect between this theme of progress and the department of School Education, which is charged with the grave responsibility of developing the human resource of tomorrow. A network of schools has undoubtedly been spread far and wide across the country, which aims at providing education to every child in every neighbourhood. However, the last three decades have seen a general rise in the socio-economic standard, particularly for the lower and lower-middle-class, due partly to the broad-based prosperity that the economic reforms of the early 1990s brought about. As a result, we are witnessing a mushroom growth of private schools on one hand and a proportionate drop in the student enrolments in government schools on the other. Private schools claim to be better at equipping the students with the academic, linguistic and technological skills which will be indispensable in the competitive job markets of tomorrow. Government schools, sadly, often lack the most basic infrastructure and with dwindling enrolment have bloated into overstaffed workplaces with despairingly low student-teacher ratios.
This is a clear wastage of the public finances and points towards a policy vacuum and lack of foresight on the part of the government, in the wake of increasing privatisation of the education sector. There is a lack of focus and a struggle to remain relevant. After all, there is no going back on privatisation with the general direction of the economy heavily favouring it. What we are then left with is a heavily staffed department that may not be contributing as much to the society as the drain that it puts on the exchequer.
However, with a little shift in focus and an alteration in its role, the department with its well-qualified workforce can be turned into a great asset for society. The Education Department must shift its focus from trying to be the prime educator to being the chief regulator of the sector. This is a role similar to that of regulatory institutions such as RBI in banking, SEBI in the stock markets, and DGCA in aviation. All these institutions play the critical role of safeguarding the interests of the masses who seek to benefit from services provided mostly by private organisations like banks and airline companies. When it comes to the Education Department, a role no different is required. What is at stake here is as critical, if not more, as the interests of shareholders or air travellers. It is no less than the future of our students and the need for a thoroughly educated human resource for the society. As we emerge from the shadows of protectionism and walk into the storms of a privatised economy, the Education Department must take charge and assume the role of the chief regulator of the services provided by the private schools, now that these in their increasing numbers are an undeniable reality of our education landscape. Rather than teaching almost empty classrooms or already living in semi-retirement, the surplus workforce of the Education Department with their invaluable experience in the field could be utilised in being the enforcers of this regulatory body.
This chief regulator will have to come up with an elaborate scheme of basic parameters like seating capacity, number of books in libraries, IT facilities, student-teacher ratio, sanitation amenities, hygiene, and recreation facilities. Once these are thoroughly surveyed, corresponding ceilings of permissible fee which reconcile the students’ interests and the reasonable commercial interests of the schools would be set. This would be followed by regular audits of schools falling under their respective fee ceilings to ensure that the required parameters are met in letter and spirit.
The Education Department will thus regain its relevance and find itself playing the role of not the prime educator but a facilitator of education through the growing private education industry, while at the same time safeguarding the interests of the students. A fresh approach to midwife the coming transformation by keeping the profit motives in check and securing quality of education for the human resource of tomorrow is the need of the hour. Eventually, as has happened in other areas of the economy, the government will relinquish control over school education, but that must not happen bypassing this crucial phase of transition when the government sets the tone for the private education industry with its scheme of parameters and audit interventions.