Friday, November 20, 2015

05 Why government should keep running schools in muddle kingdom

The liberal economist tends to have little faith in muddle kingdom governance, and encourages it to get out of most sectors that can be better served by the private sector. Education is one of such sectors. Take a leading liberal right-of-muddle economist, Arvind Panagariya, who has been drafted by the Modi government to head the NITI Aayog or National Institution for Transforming India, the phoenix-like reincarnation of the Planning Commission (that itself has been consigned to the web archives). He advices that the state should, instead of trying to run government  schools for the masses, give cash vouchers so that each family can exercise its own choice among the schools available, both private and public (Panagariya, 2008). Presumably, this will also apply to institutes of higher learning, where the principle is urged of the beneficiary paying the full cost of education (or borrowing to pay back later), and of deregulation so that private entities (including foreign ones) can set up their own institutions as a commercial undertaking.

On the other hand, it is inconceivable that any popularly elected government is actually going to do some such thing. Indeed it is the same Modi government that has proceeded briskly to set up the additional IITs and IIMs and Central Universities and so on. There is no talk of government getting out of it, or of being less than competent in running the school system, and other hard headed liberalistic ideology.

Education has a certain almost spiritual connotation for the average citizen of muddle kingdom, where the Word is respected far beyond its material significance.  India has for centuries (or even, millennia) been known as a knowledge-based, even a knowledge-generating,  civilization. Of course the sciences developed in this civilization may not stand the test of modern western positive methods, but in its day and age, represented some fairly important achievements that contributed to the growth of world civilization. Works of erudition and creativity in mathematics, linguistics, materials, medicine, politics, fine arts, performing arts, aesthetics, philosophy, ethics, and so on still fascinate and instruct us; our religious, spiritual and ethical treatises, of course, have spread far and wide, at least in the east.

Another reason why the state sponsoring of school and college education is such a sensitive issue is that sharing of knowledge was restricted in that civilization, or rather denied to large sections of the people. A huge effort is under way to change this situation, and the state has a fundamental duty to actively sponsor this process on the ground. Any attempt to wriggle out of this responsibility, under the good intention of conforming to the economic efficiency principles of neo-liberal economic ideology, may well be misinterpreted as a backhanded attempt to cheat the traditionally discriminated-against of their constitutional rights.

Many of us who are senior citizens now, must surely have availed of the benefits of government educational facilities at different levels. In my own case, I had short stints in missionary schools, but longer stints at the government ‘model’ schools at Trivandrum and Trichur in Kerala, and in the Central School at Madras (I am using all old names to show my vintage and indicate the period this refers to!). It may be that one was fortunate to be in Kerala since this state apparently invested more and earlier on in public education and health, see Pulapre Balakrihnan’s recent article in the EPW of 10 January 2015, I then did a bachelor’s degree in a Jesuit college, but thereafter enjoyed the benefit of one of the IITs for my Master’s. I think the tuition and hostel fees were pretty low at that time (and even today, government institutions charge much less than the private). Indeed private schools are much costlier than getting a post-graduate degree in today’s dispensation. Now all of us, who got our education and our fantastic degrees from these modest government facilities, find ourselves so well-off that we can grandly declare them redundant.

We should not ignore the fact, however, that here are hundreds of millions who are still just entering the whole process of becoming educated, and most of them will not be able to afford costly private institutions, however well equipped The same goes for many other public facilities, like mass transport, tourist facilities, hospitals, markets, postage and communications, and so on. Except for cell phones, perhaps, people do find government cheaper (if they can put up with the crowding, the ordinary or run-down infrastructure, and not so customer-friendly procedures of muddle kingdom). Most countries do still maintain the network of public (government) schools as a basic responsibility of the state. We can well imagine the howls of injured protest that will be set up by those upper middle-class people who glibly say that government should get out of services, if for example the police forces were to be withdrawn and citizens asked to arrange for their own security and regulation of traffic. That is, we are selective in the things we want government to do, and once we ourselves are not in need of a specific service, somehow it becomes easy to make it not a part of the government’s business, even when we ourselves have been beneficiaries and know that it has been done fairly effectively in the recent past. That way, big magnates would probably like to run their own little state on some island!

Notwithstanding the social obligation to run the a school system, there is objective evidence about the very poor performance of the students in the average government schools in the countryside. Far from conceding defeat and quitting the sector, the 12th Five Year Plan (we are not sure whether the plans are also scrapped along with the Planning Commission) has now turned the spotlight on improving the quality, now that the enrolment of children is close to a 100% in the elementary level. The 12th Plan document recounts in detail the various steps proposed to improve the curriculum, the mode of imparting education, improving physical infrastructure, teacher training and recruitment, and monitoring, evaluation and governance (among other things). Also on the cards is increased involvement of civil society, the corporate sector, local communities, and so on.

In the midst of all this, one factor that does not seem to have been considered is the working conditions of the teachers. There is a tendency to straightaway impute most of the responsibility for the bleak standards to teacher incompetence or indifference. Much is made of teacher absenteeism, for instance, and it is felt that until the local communities are made the boss of the teachers, this bad state will persist. The other side of this, however, is the need to deal with the teachers as an honourable profession, just like doctors or engineers. From impressions gathered, it would seem that there is a tendency to treat the teacher community as a source of ready manpower for all sorts of tasks: data collection, enumeration, census, elections, surveys, and so on. One wonders how many days of the year are occupied with such laborious tasks. Surely none of our better-off urban middle class youngsters would like to subject themselves to such treatment in the government school system: they would rather join private schools where there are no such onerous duties and no problem of transfers, either.

Another issue is that of multi-age multi-level single-teacher classrooms, which presumably are the ones portrayed in popular media where the sole teacher hangs up his umbrella, delegates the class to the older students, and disappears for the day. Obviously, there are better chances of teaching and learning getting done if there are a certain number of staff, a certain ‘minimum mass’ of manpower. One has to also understand that in muddle kingdom, where personal problems are always taking people away from their jobs, one has to carry at least, say, 20% more personnel than strictly required. It may even be worse: if one believes in the reality of the 20:80 rule, 20% of the personnel are actually carrying 80% of the load, so this implies that there are 4 underproductive members to each productive member of the staff! To make sure that those 20% highly productive, self-motivated, superior employees are available, the organization has to recruit some 4 to 5 times the number required! There is another principle called the rule of fives, where of 5 persons, 2 may be very competent, but 2 may be dead weight; only the person in the middle may have a chance of being motivated to better performance. In this scenario, to have 3 reasonably competent staff members, you need to enrol 5!

The complaint is frequently heard that government employees are not highly motivated or even capable of being enthused! We have to be a bit careful before jumping to such conclusions. My own experience in the forest service has been that basically, most people would like to have a sense of competence, a sense of self-worth and fulfilment, and this usually comes in large part from the main job or profession. There may be environmental factors, like the lack of recognition as a respected professional, absence of minimum mass, etc. as mentioned above, that are coming in the way of performance. Everybody appreciates a modicum of control and autonomy in doing their jobs, and perhaps teachers get the worst deal as they are sandwiched between demanding parents, recalcitrant students, uninteresting curriculums, and overbearing administrations. I feel the British colonials knew better than most administrators how to evoke a passionate involvement in the job among state employees; one method was to establish high professional standards and stick to them. In my own experience in the forest department, I found that the concept of a ‘service’ or ‘corps’, especially of uniformed personnel subjected to some sort of centralized training and building up of the ‘esprit de corps’ makes quite a difference. Perhaps some such thing can be tried for the teaching profession as well.

Balakrishnan, Pulapre. 2015. Kerala and the Rest of India. What We Can Learn from Each Other’s Development Experience.  Economic & Political Weekly, Vol. L No.2, 10 January 2015, pp.34-41. Accessed November 2015 at

Panagariya, Arvind. 2008. India: The Emerging Giant. Oxford University Press.  

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