Money buys education

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The majority of children in India are suffering from malnutrition. And yet the phenomenal rise in the cost of education is disproportionate to the standard offered. Families face considerable hardship when they send their children to expensive private schools. This is a social anachronism to which the government has woken up rather late in the day. The setting up of private schools is no longer an act of philanthropy but an attractive investment for the corporate sector. Learning has been continuously undermined and educational institutions have become part of a flourishing commercial enterprise.

Periodically, the Centre formulates a national education policy with a long list of “what is to be done” to improve the quality and content of education. And with the recent triumph of the free market philosophy, education is open to crass commercial exploitation.

There is a technical name ~ “donation” ~ for selling a seat in an educational institution, a price that only the rich can afford to pay. Privatised education thus implies a horrendously unequal distribution of educational opportunities. The more the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund insist that social spending be reduced to the barest minimum, the greater will be the affluence of private entrepreneurs who operate educational rackets; and lesser will be the prospects of the economically weak to benefit from education. Money buys education; lack of purchasing power means that the opportunity to learn will not be available. Going by the logic of the free market, only the rich shall inherit knowledge and skills which shall, in turn, ensure further riches for them.

Once an educational racket determines admission, one can literally mint money through the capitation fee or its euphemism ~ “donation”. A cardinal principle of a monopolised arrangement is to restrict the entry. This enables the operator to increase the price of admission. Economists describe this phenomenon as the interplay of the elasticity of demand and supply; the supply must be sufficiently inelastic so that admission-seekers, who constitute the demand side, are willing to pay through their nose.

The craze for English medium educational institutions has risen sharply over the years. And “academic entrepreneurs” have jumped onto the bandwagon. True, private schools have to meet the rising costs from their own resources, which include the fees they collect from their students. But the sharp increase in the fees and donations has been a burden on the parents who send their children to private schools in the hope that they will get a good education. Some even claim that accountability of teachers is assured. If there is a lack of such accountability, as has been stipulated in the case of government managed schools and college teachers, most students are forced to depend on private tuition. This adds to the financial pressure on guardians.

There is a well-grounded complaint that public education is sub-standard as teaching is casual and management ineffectual. On the other hand, the workload is heavy in private schools, and as often as not to the detriment of young and impressionable minds. The curriculum is not scientific and the course is a burden with the high price-tag for extra-curricular activities. This only encourages a vicious consumer psychology. Parents are apparently satisfied with the strict discipline and superficial glamour of these schools, but are generally ignorant of the fact that infrastructure and educational facilities are inadequate in many of these schools. The students have to bear the brunt of a heavy syllabus, high tuition fees, unreasonable session charges and development fees, and computer fees even for children. The other fees include magazine fund, excursion fund, science fee, sports fee, library fee and so on.

These schools sometimes function as a type of mini-supermarket. The authorities prefer to supply their own material for uniforms and other necessities or specify tailors and stationery shops where the prices invariably are slightly higher than what prevails in the local market. Such schools encourage large-scale rackets, and it is the child who ultimately suffers. Publishers churn out substandard books which many of these institutions prescribe as compulsory. The books are often repetitive and the teachers an exploited lot. They are offered lower salaries than what the government has prescribed, many of them are temporary and are even asked to work under contract.

These institutions need to be run by a properly constituted managing committee under a registered society or trust of a non-proprietary character. They must conform to the specifications relating to space and accommodation, laboratory and library facilities, provision for co-curricular activities, well-qualified staff with salaries at par with the corresponding categories in government schools. There has been a mushroom growth of private, Englishmedium schools not as an act of philanthropy or a gesture of dedication to a social cause, but as a case of selling education. The rights of religious or linguistic minorities to establish and administer educational institutions are often questioned.

Calcutta High Court has expressed concern over the high fee structure of privately managed schools in West Bengal. Delhi High Court has also made a similar observation.

The privately managed schools require more rational and broad-based guidelines from the government. The recent exorbitant hike in “donation” has further precipitated the issue. Naturally, the government has to come forward with comprehensive guidelines and certain concrete rules and regulations aimed at improving the quality of school education. However, any drastic measure of state control should not be encouraged, particularly when the National Education Policy (1986-92) had emphasised the need for decentralisation at all levels. It has favoured responsive and participatory management tempered with a degree of autonomy and accountability.

The West Bengal government is reportedly considering the proposal mooted by the All Bengal Teachers’ Association to bear the full salaries of teaching and non-teaching employees. If implemented, the government will almost certainly try to interfere in the running of such institutions. Such government control may be favoured because government schools charge much less. Teachers in private schools are not handsomely paid, whereas their counterparts in government managed schools are paid well. Many of these schools lack trained personnel.

But in reality, state governments are finding it increasingly difficult to effectively manage their own institutions. Private schools are performing far better both in terms of quantity and quality. This explains the rush for admission. Comprehensive guidelines and rules and regulations are imperative, but improvement of quality must be the ultimate objective.

The Supreme Court had once observed: “Commercialisation of education cannot and should not be permitted”. It is an encouraging sign that the government has come forward to combat profiteering by traders of education. However, it must be taken into consideration that increased salaries, swanky buildings and reduced fees in the absence of quality education are very poor parameters of a good system of education.

The writer is a former Associate Professor, Dept. of English, Gurudas College, Kolkata