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Private schools need to be regulated

LiveMint logoLiveMint 10-05-2017 Anurag Behar

The boy was moving from class IX to X in his own school. His fee details were handwritten on the school’s letterhead. Here are all the line items in rupees: Admission 8,000, Uniform 7,500, Books 3,200, Annual Fees 16,000, Yoga & Sports 4,000, Building 5,500, School Magazine 2,000, Computer & Internet 3,000. The total of all this is Rs49,200. The boy’s father showed me this paper. The sum was to be paid before he could start class X.

The father was seeking help. He earns Rs12,000 per month and his wife Rs9,000. He has had a similar chat with me each of the past three years, while the fee demanded by the school has gone up from Rs27,000 to Rs49,200. The first time he spoke to me, I went and checked out the school. It is one of thousands in our cities, with a cheap glass frontage to impress, and no real education. I suggested that he move his son to the nearby government school, which also I had checked. He wasn’t convinced, and somehow managed the fees that year.

Next year there was another dimension to the problem. He had done his own checking out and was convinced that the government school was better. But his son and wife were clear that the son would not move. Such a move would be perceived as a big comedown in their social circles. Also, “English-medium” mattered, despite the claim being only on paper. The son stayed in the school, and the father paid the fee along with arbitrary increases, and his debt increased accordingly.

This year will be a repetition. He knows that the school only wants to make money. But he is helpless, unable to battle the school, and unable to move his son out, caught in a web of social pressures and expectations. It’s likely you know a few people who go through similar exploitation.

Across the country, media has been abuzz with stories of the exploitative fees of private schools and the efforts of some state governments to intervene. This is a national malady and it needs to be cured. The cure requires that we recognize that education is a quasi-public good that cannot be delivered effectively through market mechanisms. The ideal would have been a high-quality, equitable, common public school system. That is something that we should work towards, but at this moment we must also tackle the messy reality that we are caught in. Part of the solution lies in more effective regulation. The current regulatory regime is perverse—over-regulation in letter leading to a culture of graft and poor governance in practice.

Poor governance in education allows concentrated oligopolies to develop. This manifests in many ways, including in the quality of education having no relation to the fees that parents pay. The nexus between bad governance and bad schools crowds out good education.

With over 250,000 private schools spread everywhere, and our current sociopolitical culture, any regulatory mechanism will be far from perfect. Let me propose some elements of the design of a system which will help it become as effective as possible in this reality.

First, we should recognize that the regulation of schools is the domain of state governments.

Second, the regulatory mandate must be limited to only the minimal essentials. Genuine philanthropic private initiative must not be stifled. Regulation need have only two goals. One, that all private and public schools meet standards in basic academic and operational aspects: for example, the number of teachers and their qualifications, classrooms, safety. The other goal should be to protect the public from the exploitative practices of schools.

Third, the states must form an independent, quasi-judicial school regulatory body. Today, the state departments of education are conflicted as they are regulators and also the largest operators of schools. An independent body protected from political and bureaucratic interference will enable efficiency through focus, improve probity by forcing transparency, and increase accountability. Such bodies will not be perfect, but would be a substantial improvement.

Fourth, the school regulator must demand that schools be not-for-profit, as required by law. And for substantiating this, annual financial audits, executed with the same rigour as in companies, must be required. Accounting standards need to be developed for schools with the objective of eliminating practices that are often used for skimming money from such not-for-profit entities: for example, “management” cannot be outsourced. Again, this won’t be perfect, because our audit ecosystem is not perfect. But then, we have nothing better.

Fifth, the schools must publish their fees publicly every year for the following three years, and thereafter no changes should be permitted. Fees must not be capped. There is no way of determining appropriate levels for capping, and any such effort will provide room for more corruption.

Sixth, a grievance redressal mechanism for parents should be made available, on stability of fees, other financial matters and safety. The quasi-judicial status of the regulator will enable this.

For good, equitable education there is no substitute for a robust public system. But till we get there, such a regulatory mechanism will reduce rampant exploitation of the public and help improve educational quality.

Anurag Behar is the chief executive officer of Azim Premji Foundation and leads the sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd. He writes every fortnight on issues of ecology and education.

Comments are welcome at othersphere@livemint.com. Read Anurag’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/otherspher

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