Sunday, December 18, 2005

Highway to educating India

Here is a colourful thought experiment. Colour blue every buck that leaves from the government’s pockets for the purposes of education. Yes, every single note, from the education departments; the social welfare departments; the public works departments and a plethora of others involved in education. After you track the flow of money, categorise where they end up. Amounts spent on teachers; schooling materials; mid-day meals and others.

Some of the results may be surprising. Read here.

However, this is not news. Mismanagement of government funding and low achievements of government schools are old hat.

Why spend so much money on a system that is not working well? Obviously because there does not seem to be a plausible system that can replace this entire education structure. Is that the case?

Let us turn to the purported success of the government in building the highway. There is a world of difference between the Indian government embarking single-handedly on building 15,000 miles of highway and educating 192 million children. There are issues of building and then of maintaining in either of them. And even if you are efficient in physical engineering, it doesn’t mean the same as being efficient in social engineering. However, the cinch is this. The government has employed private sector partnership in building the highway but still desists from it in educating its students. Can one learn from some of the successful principles employed in this highway building task? There were incentives for early completion and penalties for late execution. Apparently the interest shown by the private sector in the highway project was due to the three major factors of ensured revenue repayment, fair bidding and speedy execution.

What they did was to set up an environment of accountability and incentives and executed it well. Would it be possible to replicate a similar environment in education?

You could have one or more of the four kinds of accountability in education.

  1. Bureaucratic accountability (sarkar will take care through rules and regulations)
  2. Professional accountability (teachers and principals are educated and they will take care)
  3. Performance-based accountability (the sarkar will take care through measurements of performance in tests)
  4. Market accountability (if you don’t take care, I will take to somebody who cares)

These are the factors that determine the quality of your money, the bang for your buck. It is not a surprise when you read James Tooley’s report where he finds that there is a sector of “private budget schools” that is catering to the poor, and students in these “private schools achieved at or above the levels achieved by their counterparts in government schools in both English and mathematics.”

The education system for long has been under the strangle-hold of the first two factors which obviously haven’t worked in our country. This has hence led to a decline in quality and access. Isn’t it time to move on to the next ladders of accountability? This would involve thinking of the schooling sector as a market and not as a government sector. Which are the regulations that impinge from an explosion in the supply-side of schooling? Here is a hint, think licence!

Cross-posted on The Indian Economy Blog

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