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Deconstructing disdain for for-profit education

EducationWorld December 2019 | Expert Comment

Prashant NarangDrawing from the draft prepared by the K. Kasturirangan Committee, the leaked final National Education Policy 2019 document posted on social media sites, laments “rampant commercialisation and economic exploitation of parents by many for-profit private schools”.

There are several problems with this presumption. First, commercialisation which implies managing or running an enterprise for financial gain is not an evil in India or in most countries world over. Secondly, legally speaking, all schools are not-for-profit as they have to be registered as societies or charities. If extant regulations prohibiting for-profit schools have failed to prevent economic exploitation, the authors of NEP 2019 should have examined why, rather than reiterate the same failed solution.

There’s some awareness of this within the Union government. Way back in 2011, a mid-term appraisal of the 11th Plan (2007-12) called for greater private participation in education and reconsideration of the not-for-profit precondition. It suggested easing of entry barriers including land acquisition for education institutions and legislation to facilitate private participation in education, and viable models for public-private partnerships.

Responding, Dr. Jandhyala Tilak, former professor and vice chancellor of the National University of Educational Planning and Administration, Delhi, opposed this review proposal and criticised the mid-term report of the Planning Commission (dismantled in 2014). In a detailed and considered rebuttal of the proposal, not advanced before or since, published in Economic & Political Weekly (February 26, 2011), Tilak offered five arguments against for-profit education: (i) private institutions indulge in unfair practices; (ii) the 25 percent quota in private schools for poor neighbourhood children under s.12 (1) (c) of the Right of Children to Free & Compulsory Education (RTE) Act, 2009 encourages profit-making at public expense; (iii) no country worldwide has ever successfully achieved universal K-12 education through for-profit education; (iv) private schools avail subsidies and concessions and therefore, they shouldn’t be allowed to earn profit; and (v) even a strictly regulated private sector cannot significantly contribute to universal education.

Tilak’s first objection to the pragmatic approach recommended by the 11th Plan appraisal is prevalence of unfair practices in private institutions. The brunt of Prof. Tilak’s argument is that because some private schools indulge in unfair practices, no private education institution should be allowed to earn a profit. By this logic, if a few software companies (such as Satyam) dupe their shareholders, all for-profit software companies should be banned. If some politicians distribute cash or liquor to buy votes, no politician should be allowed to contest elections.

The second objection is that since s.12 (2) of the RTE Act partially compensates private schools for the expenditure incurred by them to educate poor neighbourhood children admitted under s.12 (1) (c), they are in effect being subsidised by the state to the extent of 25 percent of their expenditure. This argument is also deeply flawed. On the contrary, s. 12 (1) (c) of the RTE Act in fact nationalises 25 percent of primary education capacity in all private unaided schools.

The third argument that no country has been successful in providing universal elementary education by encouraging private schools is wholly inapplicable to India. One of four primary/elementary schools in India is privately promoted and 40 percent of school-going children are in private education. If to this, one adds the estimated 60 million children in over 400,000 private budget schools, the percentage of children in private K-10 education is 60 percent.

The fourth argument is that because the government provides concessions to some private schools, it is justified in banning all for-profit schools. This argument is equally flawed. If government were to allow private schools to register as companies and raise capital from the market, they wouldn’t need subsidies and concessions.

According to Tilak, even “if strictly regulated and enforced,” private schools cannot significantly contribute to K-12 education. Like all Left intellectuals who believe in the omniscience and omnipresence of the State in all segments and sectors of the economy, Tilak is undisturbed that imposition of heavily subsidised quotas for special categories, teachers’ salaries and tuition fee ceilings on private schools infringe their autonomy by imposing unreasonable conditions and controls.

All citizens have a fundamental right to establish and administer educational institutions of their choice, levy reasonable tuition fees and reinvest profits into education. This was the judgement of the Supreme Court in the T.M.A. Pai Foundation Case (2002). Therefore, it follows that they should also be permitted to promote for-profit companies in exercise of this right. Yet this is not permitted.

The plain truth is that for-profit private schools despite being controlled and constricted, produce far better learning outcomes than government schools. Therefore, the public interest demands that private schools should not be cabined, cribbed and confined as they are at present. To do so will prove detrimental to the growth and development of the Indian economy in the long run.

(Prashant Narang is a Delhi-based advocate and researcher at Centre for Civil Society)

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