Education in India at the crossroads

The debate

Roughly one decade ago, there was a strong debate in India about how we should tackle the problem of education. There were two

On one side were those who felt that nothing was fundamentally wrong; all that was needed was more money. So we should just continue building more government schools and hiring more civil servants to act as school teachers, and we’ll be fine.
On the other side were the reformers, who argued that the basic incentives in Indian education were wrong. Putting more money down a dysfunctional system was pointless.

The Intensifiers won this debate. An informal coalition of educationists (i.e. the incumbent education system) and leftists came
together, supported by the World Bank, which pushed for mere enlargement of Indian education, without questioning the foundations.

All of us are involved in this story at many levels. At the simplest, we are the customers of the education establishment. We pay income tax and VAT and a few other taxes. On top of this, we pay the 2% education cess. In return for this, we get certain educational
services. These influence our kids, and they influence all the young people that we encounter in this young country. Trillions of rupees have been spent, and more than a decade has gone by. It is time to assess the performance of this strategy.

Three blocks of evidence are now visible, which tell us that the Intensifiers were wrong. The old strategy, which was invigorated by a
vast rise in spending, was the wrong one.

Evidence #1: OECD PISA results for India

This story is well told in a recent blog post by Lant Pritchett. Bottom line: The first internationally comparable measurement of what children learn has been done. The sample correctly includes urban and rural children; it correctly includes children going to private or public schools; there are no first order mistakes in what was done. It tells us that Indian education policy has failed miserably: the results have come out at the bottom of the world.

Evidence #2: ASER 2011 results

Pratham has been running surveys which measure characteristics of children and schools in rural India (only). Their latest survey results, for 2011 show the following facts.First, rural kids learn less at public school. Here’s a simple example of what the evidence shows. Surveyors ask kids in class III to recognise numbers upto 100. Here are the numbers, for the proportion of kids in class III who cannot recognise numbers upto 100:

In 2008, the failure rate with private schools was roughly 17 per cent. Government schools were much worse at over 30 per cent. A short three years later, conditions had deteriorated sharply in government schools. The failure rate had gone up to 40 per cent. Private schools had also worsened slightly, to a failure rate of 20 per cent. By 2011, a big gap had opened up between the two: private schools are failing to teach 20 per cent of the kids while government schools are failing with a full 40 per cent of their kids.

Parents in India face the choice between sending their children to a government school, which is free and serves a mid-day meal, versus sending them to a private school where they pay fees. Yet, an increasing fraction of parents choose to send their children to a private school, paying tuition fees from their own pockets, while government schools are free. The relationship between a parent and a private school is a transaction between consenting adults. The relationship between a parent and a government school involves all of us, because we are paying for it.

Given the low income of parents in India, their use of private schools is a striking indictment of what the Intensifiers have wrought:

At class II, the fraction of rural children in private school went up from 19 per cent (2007) to 23 per cent (2011). At class VII, this
rose more slowly to levels slightly above 20 per cent.

Evidence #3: CMIE household survey

CMIE has data for the year ended March 2011 about the behaviour of 169,492 households, about their expenditure on school/college fees and tuition fees. Here’s the picture for the quarter ended September 2011; all values as percent of overall expenditure:

Income class School/college fees Private tuition fees
Rich – I 4.79 0.66
Rich – II 3.79 0.51
High Middle Income – I 3.54 0.63
High Middle Income – II 3.12 0.65
High Middle Income – III 2.44 0.68
Middle Income – I 1.93 0.59
Middle Income – II 1.62 0.45
Lower Middle Income – I 1.38 0.49
Lower Middle Income – II 1.05 0.60
Poor – I 0.76 0.58
Poor – II 1.13 0.28
Overall 2.10 0.57

If parents chose to stay within public sector schools, their expenditure on fees would have been zero. The table shows that across
all income groups of India, there is movement towards private provision of education, both by paying fees at schools and by paying
for private tuition classes. These two elements add up to 2.67 per cent of overall expenses of households. (The CMIE household survey separately measures expenses on books, journals, stationary, additional professional education, education overseas, hobby classes and other education expenses. This helps us gain confidence in the extent to which the two fields in the table above narrowly pin down the feature of interest).

These decisions of well intentioned parents are the strongest indictment of education policy in India. The product being given out
by the Intensifiers is such a terrible one, the parents of India are walking away from it even though it is free and the alternative is
not and the parents are poor.


For more than a decade, the Intensifiers have controlled Indian education policy. They have said: Leave education to the education
establishment, do nothing radical, just give us more money, we will deliver results
. Now we know that they were wrong. They took the money, but failed to deliver the results.

Kapil Sibal has said that his ministry should not be held responsible for the stream of bad news that is coming out. This seems to me to be dodging accountability. His ministry is responsible for Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan, for the Right To Education Act, for blocking OECD PISA from being done in India, etc. The bureaucratic consensus of his ministry represents the education establishment.

This brings us to accountability. If a contractor took money from you, and failed to deliver on building your house, you would sack
him. (You would also take him to court, to recover the money that was paid to him, for services not delivered). In similar fashion,
education is too important to be left to the educationists. We need to start over.

What is to be done

  • We need to start over in the field of education, with a fresh management team, one that is not a part of the status quo, one that is rooted in the worlds of incentives, public policy and public administration.
  • The flow of public money into the status quo needs to go down sharply. There is no reason to put money into something that fails to deliver the goods. First we must prove that a mechanism delivers results, and only after that should we put money into
    it. This is the common sense that a housewife would apply. She would not spent gigabucks on promises from people who have failed to deliver.
  • OECD PISA measurement needs to take place every year at every district.
  • The education cess was always a mistake and needs to go. Public expenditures on education should always have come out of general tax revenues; there is no need to have a cess.
  • Civil servant teachers, who have tenured (permanent) have no incentive to teach well, regardless of their qualifications or high income. We can’t sack them, but what we need to do on a massive scale is to stop recruiting them. The existing stock can be reallocated to other civil servant functions where staff is in short supply. Through this, it would become possible to whittle away at the accumulated stock over the coming 20 years.

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