A profitable education

While India’s new Right to Education Act seeks to bring free and compulsory education for all children, it seems to short-change them through an unrealistic vision of the private sector’s involvement.

In August 2009, the Right to Education Act was passed in the Indian Parliament with no debate, by the fewer than 60 members who happened to be attending the session that day. Not that the Act was an open-and-shut case: many critical issues, including who exactly would fund implementation of the new legislation, which promises free, compulsory elementary education, certainly warranted debate. For many, the most worrisome part of the Act, which came into effect on 1 April, is a clause that vests the ultimate funding responsibility with the state governments. Given the fiscal status of most of India's state governments, the worry now is that this single provision could quickly render the RTE Act irrelevant. Soon after notification of the bill, the chief ministers of both Uttar Pradesh and Bihar declared that they did not have the necessary funds for implementation. In the meantime, the recently passed central budget includes no financial commitment towards implementation. This would seem to suggest an imminent ramping-up of an already hotly contested model within the Indian education system: the outsourcing of responsibilities within the sector, including for teaching, to private entities, through so-called public-private partnerships.

It should be noted that the RTE Act has managed to change the language of the Indian education discourse from one of policy to one of rights – a notable achievement. At the same time, however, Clause 37 seems to take back this 'right', as it clearly prohibits legal proceedings against any government or school management with regard to anything done 'in good faith'. There are several other contentious issues involved, which deserved broader attention from Parliament. For instance, the legislation excludes children up to the age of six, and it is unclear as to whether those over 14 are covered, despite UN conventions that suggest that the definition of child should extend to 18 years of age.

The Act further strengthens the current unequal multi-tiered schooling structures, which include private and various types of government schools offering vastly differing qualities of education, and which have been widely criticised for fostering inequity. As cost-cutting measures in recent years, states have been changing policies of appointment of permanent teachers, instead choosing to appoint teachers on a contractual basis (generally known as 'para-teachers'), often under exploitative terms and conditions. In the Act, there is no indication of doing away with such policies to set uniform salary norms and working conditions at par with other professions, instead leaving payment decisions with the 'appropriate governments and the local authorities'. Indeed, one of the most disconcerting aspects of the RTE Act is that it shows little faith in teachers – only foreseeing the possibility of teacher 'committing default in performance of duties' and thus requiring disciplinary action.

A recent study of 50 schools from across Madhya Pradesh could not find a single institution that had all permanent teachers – they were a 'dying cadre', researchers were told. During the 1990s, MP argued that reaching all settlements for education would be too expensive, and so instead started a programme called the Education Guaranteed Scheme (EGS), staffed by poorly paid para-teachers called 'gurujis'. Today, the gurujis are still paid a miserly INR 2500 per month; after working for three years, gurujis can be upgraded to a consolidated pay of INR 4500-5500, but are still not entitled to other benefits, not even paid leave. Consequently, in most EGS schools, one or two teachers receive a monthly salary of upwards of INR 17,000, while the rest are receiving consolidated amounts of as low as INR 2500, for doing the same work. This has vitiated the school environment, leading to further deterioration in the quality of teaching. According to a December 2009 news report, lakhs of para-teachers have recently been appointed across the Indian landscape, from Jharkhand, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh to Madhya Pradesh and Orissa.

Employment of teachers on contracts has invited a significant amount of both support and criticism from educators and researchers. Supporters see this as the only way of achieving RTE goals, and a solution to the crippling resource crunch. Teachers, meanwhile, have been agitating for better working conditions, and have successfully forced several state governments to marginally modify service conditions (including the 'raise' to INR 4500 monthly salaries of para-teachers in MP, as noted above). While compensation and other conditions are still woefully inadequate, sustained protests have proven effective in keeping pressure on state governments to continue making incremental changes. This ability to apply pressure could soon be almost completely de-fanged, however: under the new model of public-private partnerships (PPPs), contracts would be signed between the contractor and the employee – not the provider of the funds.

The MP study also found that, in spite of declared policy goals of free elementary education, the burden of multiple fees and other charges are significant for parents. Indeed, these continue to act as a major deterrent in the education of children of marginalised communities. Some parents said that even paying two rupees per month for two or three children studying at the primary level is burdensome, forcing many children to drop out. How this will impact on an education system overseen in part by the private sector remains to be fully understood.

Economic context

Discussion on RTE will remain incomplete without engaging with the PPP model, under which since 2004 the government has been handing over education resources (including whole schools, school buildings and/or other infrastructure) to corporate and other private bodies. There are two strong arguments in favour of PPPs. One holds that the government does not have the resources to finance education, and that it is high time the private sector shares this responsibility. The second avers that teachers are overpaid, and that it is not possible to cut costs unless they are paid less.

The need for the private sector to share the cost of education certainly cannot be denied, but the current arrangements seem to be wilfully neglectful about the private sector's motivations. In today's neoliberal context, what motive other than profit could be involved in any company private group agreeing to take on such responsibilities? Further, how can profit-making bodies cost-effectively fulfil the goals of universalisation of education if governments have not been able to do so? And, most worrisome, is it really appropriate for corporate entities to be entrusted with promoting an agenda of social justice, equality and equity? Ominously, PPP promoters have already begun to suggest that school education would be advised to begin focusing solely on literacy and mathematical skills, and not on equity, justice or other larger goals of education.

Some have argued that there have always been PPPs in education, in the form of private schools set up by trusts, NGOs and other kinds of philanthropy. In fact, the two models have very different origins and motives: education philanthropy has had its roots in social and liberal democratic ideals, and the motive is not profit. In fact, constitutionally private schools were also to run on a principle of 'no profit, no loss'. Today's PPPs in education, on the other hand, are a product of a neoliberal market philosophy in which education is a commodity. Stating that non-profit private initiatives are too limiting, the Planning Commission is recommending PPP models that would be self-sustaining, and suggesting how private capital can earn profits through education. Of course, a PPP can ultimately take on many different forms, but the term cannot be divorced from its context: the neoliberal economic order.

So how can the government be simultaneously pushing RTE and PPPs? Where do the two converge, or do they run parallel? On the one hand in this situation is cost-cutting, which the PPPs argue is necessary for any universalisation of even elementary education; the reality, on the other hand, is the lack of government commitment to allocate adequate funds for RTE. The rhetoric of quality in the legislation neither provides any insight into the understanding of the ground realities, nor concrete action required to deal with the same. In fact, the factors that are detrimental to quality (multi-tiered schooling, academic input, teachers' working conditions, infrastructure, etc) are all left to the private bodies, or to 'appropriate' governments.

In this context, three central documents need close scrutiny: a note on PPPs circulated by the Ministry of Human Resource Development MHRD in 2009, inviting comments from the general public; a government report from 2004 on PPPs in the social sector; and a book written by an economist, Harry Anthony Patrinos (and published by the World Bank) on the impact of PPPs in education. The language used in these three documents is strikingly similar. The government's 2004 report calls PPPs a 'contractual system' between the government and private bodies, where accountability is to be jointly shared. The MHRD concept note and the Patrinos book elaborate on this, the former stating that PPPs constitute 'an approach used by the government to deliver quality services to its population by using expertise of the private sector'.

Thus, the government is admitting its failure in delivering quality services, and is proposing entering into a variety of private contracts – ranging from building construction and maintenance to teacher training and even teaching – in order to deliver education efficiently and cost-effectively. It is argued that these private arrangements will generate healthy competition among schools, while also opening the market in a way that will eventually offer greater choice for parents and students. Most importantly, according to Patrinos, PPPs provide flexibility in teacher contracting: 'For policy-makers, contracting is a middle ground between government delivery and outright privatisation and does not attract as much controversy and criticism as privatization.' Yet the government can choose private providers by means of open bidding, automatically awarding contracts to the lowest bidder. Such a system allows the government to bypass its own laws regarding payments and service conditions, as these become the responsibility of the private contractor, not the government.

Admittedly, PPPs are currently reserved for higher and higher-secondary schools, and not for elementary levels, with which the new RTE Act deals. But, as noted earlier, one of the most vigorous debates over the new legislation is its limited purview, with many assuming that the Act will eventually be pushed to cover higher-level education too. Yet if that happens, what kind of schools will be awaiting RTE-education children under the new PPP system? With the enactment of the RTE Act, some are arguing that they have been able to push back the PPP agenda. But on 17 May, HRD Minister Kapil Sibal announced that of the promised 6000 new 'model' schools, almost 3000 will be run in public-private partnerships. Do RTE and PPPs represent two contradictory world views, or do they complement one another? Before the government continues to make such far-reaching decisions, that is a question that needs rigorous debate.

~ Sadhna Saxena teaches at the Department of Education, University of Delhi.

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