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August 2, 2009

Lighting Kapil Sibal’s Path

Kapil Sibal has brought a breath of fresh air to the debate on education reform. He has set out a 100 day agenda and thrown up many ideas since he took office. What are his prospects for accomplishing meaningful reform within the next 5 years of the electoral cycle? Let us consider the possibilities.

There are two overarching themes of reform on the anvil – drastically expanding supply and regulating for quality. Fortunately for Mr Sibal, there is broad consensus on these being the sine qua non for education reform. The differences of opinion are on the means towards achieving these ends. Mr Sibal needs to ensure that he keeps the focus relentlessly on the ends.

Mr Sibal must set two specific goals in the expansion of supply of education. The first is to educate each and every one of the around 250 million children who will be in the age group of 5-14 by 2020. The second is to double the Gross Enrolment Ratio in higher education from about 12 today to 25 by 2020. These goals should drive the reform agenda.

The reforms can be boiled down to three specific issues. How do we fund education for all? Who should run the educational institutions, and how should we regulate all these institutions? Let us look at each of them in turn.

How do we fund education for all?

There have been substantial increases in the state-funding for education over the past decade, with further increases planned over the next five years. Despite that, there is little hope for the state to be able to provide all the funding by itself to achieve our goals by 2020. The state’s funding will have to be augmented with substantial private investment from both institutions as well as individuals.

It is necessary to immediately open up education to for-profit organizations to attract private institutional investment. Although education is a de-jure non-profit activity today, it is more often than not, a de-facto for-profit activity, with the profits being disguised and illegally siphoned out in most cases by opportunists and fly-by-night operators. Permitting for-profit education will attract substantially large private investments from individuals and organisations who are willing to invest in education with the hope of contribution to national growth and making a fair profit legally. Indeed the profits can be invested right back into education to expand supply further. Non Banking Finance Companies and Mutual Fund Companies can launch specific education sector funds to attract investment from ordinary people for investment into educational institutions. Though Mr Sibal has declared his intention of opening up education to for-profit entities, he will need to build popular support to take on the vested interests as well as the vestiges of old dogma, who are bound to put up strong resistance. It will also require all of Mr Sibal’s legal acumen to navigate through the Supreme Court judgements on this matter, obtain clarifications from the Court if required, and push through the necessary legislation to make this a reality.

At an individual level, long term loans at interest rates comparable to that for housing loans must be made available to each and every student to fund their higher education. This will help bring in private investment from individuals and their families. These students can pay back the loans from their future earnings and that money can in turn help fund the next set of students.

Who should run our educational institutions?

The extent of the State’s role in the provision of education—-operating schools—needs to be debated. In the early decades after independence, when private participation in education was minimal, the State had to perforce be the provider of education too. The State’s ability to be a provider of high quality education has come under question in recent decades. Parents increasingly prefer to pay for private education, despite having access to free education in State schools. Many private schools charge much less per child than what the State spends per child in State-run schools, to provide education that is often perceived by parents as much higher in quality than that provided in the free State-run schools. Given this reality, the State ought to encourage more private provision of education, with State funding. This is already happening in the form of State-aided, but private run schools and needs to be expanded in a large way.

The idea of State-funded educational voucher programs has received much attention in India amongst policy makers and law makers over the past few years. Mr Sibal has already stated that he is open to voucher programs that directly fund the student and we must experiment with voucher programs.

How should we regulate the education providers?

While initiating reforms on the supply side, regulatory reform must be initiated in tandem. All schools and higher education institutions, whether state-run or privately run, must be subjected to strict regulation to ensure quality standards are adhered to. Mr Sibal has already come out in favour of independent and autonomous regulators, with the ability to act without fear or favour. These regulators must be established quickly and given the autonomy to get on with their job.

The Yashpal Committee Report has proposed the setting up of a new body, the National Council of Higher Education and Research, as an umbrella regulator of higher education. It remains to be seen what parts of the Yashpal Committee Report will be accepted and implemented. Mr Sibal has himself proposed a new agency to rate and accredit all schools, including the State-run ones.

The regulator must mandate every institution to publish a report twice a year for the benefit of not just the regulators but also the general public. The report must disclose details of the institution’s management, academic staff, infrastructure, resources, financials, academic performance, ratings and other relevant data. Transparency and access to detailed information will go a long way in ensuring that the institutions maintain quality standards in.

Mr Sibal’s prospects

By publishing his agenda Mr. Sibal has thrown open his ideas for debate and critical review. He has also provoked widespread participation in the debate on reform, eliciting feedback from not just the those involved in education, but the larger public as well. His proposal to make the Class X board examinations optional has galvanised public interest in the debate on education reform. Mr Sibal will need to constantly keep engaging with the public, get them on his side and build momentum for the important pieces of reforms, to overcome the resistance from various quarters both within and outside the government and his own party. Fortunately, the Prime Minister is said to be fully backing these initiatives.

The UPA Government will have to convince voters that reforms have led to tangible benefits for them by the time of the next general elections in 2014. Mr Sibal must refrain from spreading himself thin. He must focus on three or four key aspects of reform, and no more, and show substantial progress in these areas over the next five years.


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