It has become routine for private schools to increase the fees by 30-40 per cent every year. Parents are visibly disturbed. Many are seeking Government intervention to fix the fees and stop this fleecing of parents. But Government intervention cannot come in bits and pieces. It will be logical for the Government to specify the selection, salaries and work conditions of teachers and all other requirements once it starts interfering in the school management. It will become difficult for the management to hire good teachers and fire bad ones. The quality will necessarily suffer. The Government has already made an intrusive interference in private schools through the Right to Education Act. Students of untested capability have to be admitted in a class solely on basis of their age; and they have to be compulsorily promoted. This creates an imbalance within the class with some students speeding ahead while others lagging far behind.
We have seen how the Government has totally destroyed the public schools.There was a time when Government schools even in a small towns had a good reputation. But that was then. Today the Government schools are in shambles while private schools of much better reputation have sprung up. Government interference is likely to lead private schools into the same pit that the Government schools find themselves today. Let there be no doubt that the Government bureaucracy is eagerly waiting to take command of the private schools. It will open up a second stream of income for them. Parents should not walk into this trap.
The parents generally believe that high fees and good quality education come together. But the fact is that, if at all, there exists a very weak relationship between the two. The Dubai School Inspection Bureau had rated two schools that offer Indian curriculum as ‘outstanding.’ Of these, the Dubai Modern High School charges 28k dirhams per year against the Indian High School charging only 4k dirhams. Yet both are ranked as outstanding. Similarly in Abu Dhabi, the Knowledge and Human Development Authority had ranked both the Raffles World Academy and Al Diyafah High School as ‘good’. The former charges 26k dirhams while the latter charges only 9k dirhams for Kindergarten.
Similar results are obtained from the United States. The Wabash National Study examined 45 colleges based on their spending on educational purposes while also looking at their scores on student learning. The four measures of student learning were (1) good teaching with high quality interactions with faculty; (2) high expectations and academic challenge; (3) interaction with ideas and people different from one's own; and (4) deep learning. The study found that “there was only a very small relationship between spending on education and the quality of the educational experience as measured by those four factors.” The relationship was so small according to the study leader Charles Blaich said that a college would have to spend an additional $5 million per 1,000 students to increase the “good practice” score (on a scale of 100) by a single point. The study isolated 10 colleges that had very similar scores on the good practices related to teaching. Their spending per student ranged from $9,225 to $53,521. Yet all of these colleges were showing similar levels of student learning. I have not seen a similar study for India but I reckon the same situation prevail here. After all, Lal Bahadur Shastri did not study in an air-conditioned classroom!
These studies indicate that there is virtually no relationship between the expenditures and quality of education. This happens, I think, because the high-fee schools invest large amounts in facilities such as an air-conditioned auditorium which do not add much to the learning. Yet, parents flock to high-fee schools under the belief
that high fees is indicative of better quality. They are actually paying for facilities and profits made by the schools in a mistaken belief that they are getting better quality teaching. The learning from these studies is to look at quality directly; and not imply it via fees.
The role of the Government must be to facilitate the assessment of quality. A ‘Transparency in Schools Act’ must be brought which requires the schools to post a host of information on their websites. This may include: number of sports awards won, number of students fallen sick in school, results in board exams of the last five academic sessions, number of awards won by teachers, salaries, qualifications and number of leave taken by teachers, student-teacher ratio and, most importantly, the balance sheet. An independent statutory authority may be established that may rank all the schools somewhat like the star-rankings given to hotels. These information will enable the parents to assess whether they are truly paying for better education; or for mere physical facilities and profits of the school owners. The logic is that private schools may make all the profit they want but they must be required to disclose it because a public interest is involved. The situation of private schools is like that of Public Limited Companies which have to file the
balance sheets with the Government and which are available for public scrutiny.
The situation of schools that have been given land at concessional rates or are entitled to Income Tax exemptions is qualitatively different. They cannot be allowed to make profits on the facilities provided at concessional rates. The fees in such schools must be fixed by a committee consisting of representatives of parents and government and school management. Their accounts should be available for detailed scrutiny and they should also be answerable.
We must prevent Government interference in education at all costs. Profiteering can be controlled by transparency and competition. But government intervention will destroy the teaching itself. Private schools are a much lesser evil than government. I would like to quote Tagore: “today the Bengali people's thinking has strayed afar from the villages. Therefore the temples here are today dilapidated, there is no one to repair them. Ponds have become polluted, there is no one to take out the dirt. Big mansions lie vacant, one does not hear the music of celebration there. Today the responsibility of providing water rests of the sarkar bahadur. The burden of providing health rests on sarkar bahadur. And for getting education one has to knock on the doors of sarkar bahadur. The tree which blossomed itself, is today beseeching the sky with its naked branches for a rain of flowers. Even if its prayer were to be fulfilled what would be the meaning of those sky-flowers?” Let us, therefore, find ways to control the beast of profiteering without inviting the dragon that is the Government.
-Dr Bharat Jhunjhunwala
(The author was formerly Professor of Economics at IIM Bengaluru)