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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Education in India at the crossroads

The debate

Roughly one decade ago, there was a strong debate in India about how we should tackle the problem of education. There were two views:
On one side were those who felt that nothing was fundamentally wrong; all that was needed was more money. So we should just continue building more government schools and hiring more civil servants to act as school teachers, and we'll be fine.
On the other side were the reformers, who argued that the basic incentives in Indian education were wrong. Putting more money down a dysfunctional system was pointless.
The Intensifiers won this debate. An informal coalition of educationists (i.e. the incumbent education system) and leftists came together, supported by the World Bank, which pushed for mere enlargement of Indian education, without questioning the foundations.

All of us are involved in this story at many levels. At the simplest, we are the customers of the education establishment. We pay income tax and VAT and a few other taxes. On top of this, we pay the 2% education cess. In return for this, we get certain educational services. These influence our kids, and they influence all the young people that we encounter in this young country. Trillions of rupees have been spent, and more than a decade has gone by. It is time to assess the performance of this strategy.

Three blocks of evidence are now visible, which tell us that the Intensifiers were wrong. The old strategy, which was invigorated by a vast rise in spending, was the wrong one.

Evidence #1: OECD PISA results for India

This story is well told in a recent blog post by Lant Pritchett. Bottom line: The first internationally comparable measurement of what children learn has been done. The sample correctly includes urban and rural children; it correctly includes children going to private or public schools; there are no first order mistakes in what was done. It tells us that Indian education policy has failed miserably: the results have come out at the bottom of the world.

Evidence #2: ASER 2011 results

Pratham has been running surveys which measure characteristics of children and schools in rural India (only). Their latest survey results, for 2011 show the following facts.

First, rural kids learn less at public school. Here's a simple example of what the evidence shows. Surveyors ask kids in class III to recognise numbers upto 100. Here are the numbers, for the proportion of kids in class III who cannot recognise numbers upto 100:

In 2008, the failure rate with private schools was roughly 17 per cent. Government schools were much worse at over 30 per cent. A short three years later, conditions had deteriorated sharply in government schools. The failure rate had gone up to 40 per cent. Private schools had also worsened slightly, to a failure rate of 20 per cent. By 2011, a big gap had opened up between the two: private schools are failing to teach 20 per cent of the kids while government schools are failing with a full 40 per cent of their kids.

Parents in India face the choice between sending their children to a government school, which is free and serves a mid-day meal, versus sending them to a private school where they pay fees. Yet, an increasing fraction of parents choose to send their children to a private school, paying tuition fees from their own pockets, while government schools are free. The relationship between a parent and a private school is a transaction between consenting adults. The relationship between a parent and a government school involves all of us, because we are paying for it.

Given the low income of parents in India, their use of private schools is a striking indictment of what the Intensifiers have wrought:

At class II, the fraction of rural children in private school went up from 19 per cent (2007) to 23 per cent (2011). At class VII, this rose more slowly to levels slightly above 20 per cent.

Evidence #3: CMIE household survey

CMIE has data for the year ended March 2011 about the behaviour of 169,492 households, about their expenditure on school/college fees and tuition fees. Here's the picture for the quarter ended September 2011; all values as percent of overall expenditure:

Income class School/college fees Private tuition fees
Rich - I 4.79 0.66
Rich - II 3.79 0.51
High Middle Income - I 3.54 0.63
High Middle Income - II3.12 0.65
High Middle Income - III2.44 0.68
Middle Income - I 1.93 0.59
Middle Income - II 1.62 0.45
Lower Middle Income - I1.38 0.49
Lower Middle Income - II1.05 0.60
Poor - I 0.76 0.58
Poor - II 1.13 0.28
Overall 2.10 0.57

If parents chose to stay within public sector schools, their expenditure on fees would have been zero. The table shows that across all income groups of India, there is movement towards private provision of education, both by paying fees at schools and by paying for private tuition classes. These two elements add up to 2.67 per cent of overall expenses of households. (The CMIE household survey separately measures expenses on books, journals, stationary, additional professional education, education overseas, hobby classes and other education expenses. This helps us gain confidence in the extent to which the two fields in the table above narrowly pin down the feature of interest).

These decisions of well intentioned parents are the strongest indictment of education policy in India. The product being given out by the Intensifiers is such a terrible one, the parents of India are walking away from it even though it is free and the alternative is not and the parents are poor.


For more than a decade, the Intensifiers have controlled Indian education policy. They have said: Leave education to the education establishment, do nothing radical, just give us more money, we will deliver results. Now we know that they were wrong. They took the money, but failed to deliver the results.

Kapil Sibal has said that his ministry should not be held responsible for the stream of bad news that is coming out. To me, this seems to be dodging accountability. His ministry is responsible for Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan, for the Right To Education Act, for blocking OECD PISA from being done in India, etc. The bureaucratic consensus of his ministry represents the education establishment.

The key phrase that needs to be emphasised today is accountability. If a contractor took money from you, and failed to deliver on building your house, you would sack him. (You would also take him to court, to recover the money that was paid to him, for services not delivered). In similar fashion, education is too important to be left to the educationists. We need to start over.

What is to be done

  • We need to start over in the field of education, with a fresh management team, one that is not a part of the status quo, one that is rooted in the worlds of incentives, public policy and public administration.
  • In 2004, we were told that in return for a tax rate increase of 2%, in the form of an education cess, we would obtain improvements in education. We now know that those improvements did not come about. Hence, that tax rate increase should go. (Even if sharp improvements in educational outcomes had been obtained, the education cess was a mistake in terms of basic public finance, and needs to go. Public expenditures on education should simply come out of general tax revenues; there is no need to have a cess.)
  • The flow of public money into the status quo needs to go down sharply. There is no reason to put money into something that fails to deliver the goods. First we must prove that a mechanism delivers results, and only after that should we put money into it. This is the common sense that a housewife would apply. She would not spent gigabucks on promises from people who have failed to deliver.
  • OECD PISA measurement needs to take place every year at every district. The production of this data is a public good that the government can and should do. It can be fully contracted out to private firms so as to avoid the problems of public sector production. Datasets about student characteristics and school characteristics should be released, covering every district and every year, so as to enable research.
  • Civil servant teachers, who have tenured (permanent) have no incentive to teach well, regardless of their qualifications or high income. We can't sack them, but what we need to do on a massive scale is to stop recruiting them. The existing stock can be reallocated to other civil servant functions where staff is in short supply. Through this, it would become possible to whittle away at the accumulated stock over the coming 20 years.


  1. Here's another way of looking at the problem

    1. So we know, some part of the system is not working properly. But do we have just one option, that is to finger out government our can we come up with some really good business models which could deliver education & that too at a reasonable rate??
      I think, there are solutions. The idea is to direct energies towards encouraging them.

  2. Very Interesting Read. Well ,balanced view of current scenario. However, we need to expand the list of "What is to be done ", We need to intensify the debate, create awareness, find alternative models, support poeple and project taking radical paths and so on ....!
    You might wish to give a look to my blog on education -

  3. I think those Pisa results, albeit correctly administered, have a terrible dampening effect on the entire community. Indians who are happy to criticise the country use it to flog it further. The results of students in some city schools, aiming to go abroad for an education, need not fit into the PISA paradigm of 73rd in 74. Therefore, an understanding of results of urban vs rural need to be published to be fair. Rural and urban students are as different from each other as oranges to apples. So let us know the city grades before we demolish everyone because we used the same paintbrush.

    When we talk of failure rates we need to cast a glance at the reliability and validity of questions asked and see if they are reflective of higher order thinking, application and personal responses. The news then might be worse than the ones published.

    The expense on education is not too high, it is the accountability that is the problem because we are looking at getting garbage for peanuts here. The government needs to have transparent and open parameters for their licencing act to differentiate between education merchants and professional facilitators. There is a coalgate there that no one is unearthing. Everyone who makes a few bucks wants in on education, so film stars, politicians and builders have clusters of schools.

    Schools themselves have no mandatory criteria for reinvestment in teacher education, the pathetically outdated B.Ed courses are never looked at and revamped by Kapil Sibals. Pick up the rigour in final levels of your Board level examinations in terms of higher thinking questions and application based problems and see how the machinery gears up to make it happen. It is simple. But who will bell the cat that seems to be lapping up lucrative cream? In masks of hypocrisy this conspiracy of mediocrity in which all stakeholders (teachers, schools, parents and kids) are equal participants, sit smug with their marksheets, until a PISA slaps the bad news on their faces. Then the blame game begins and cosmetic solutions are blogged and discussed. Usha Pandit

  4. Considering the situation in India still rural and government schools have not enough facilities related to education and lots of needs to be done. Apart from that if we look into urban schools and colleges the education is inclined towards theories only and most of our youth are not ready for the industries. I think not only fees of private schools or cost of the education is the only issue but the most important issue is the curriculum of the course, method and approach to deliver the same are the most unnoticed issues. I know education does not mean to make products those are ready for industries but apart from 10 different goals it should be one of them to give practical exposure by innovative "learning by doing " approach. I think changing educational framework and updating course curriculum is the challenging issue for our government and it should be the top most concern for our all political parties. It’s my reflection after reading your blog and I want to know views of all the readers of this blog as its debatable issues and if we want to change anything than this is the best medium to express our own reflection and we have to encourage people to come forward and discuss these issues and share on social media so, that these issues are reflected in political agenda soon and we can witnessed change in education system of India.

  5. The blog treads on a contentious topic and I feel that in the Indian context the following points need to be addressed in the educational system
    •Private schools charge exorbitant fees but they do provide good amenities, so the government should follow suit though at an affordable price
    •The basic framework of imparting education needs to be revamped to make the students industry ready

  6. Are our private schools really any better than government schools? Fancy facilities don't teach children to think independently and create their own work. Ask a child from the fancy private schools a question which is not in the book and the child says, "My teacher didn't teach me that!"
    The need for the hour is not providing education for the masses though private institutions. Administrators don't have any understanding of the philosophy or the strategies of education. We need to work to better our government schools by holding people accountable from the government departments onwards!

  7. No one directing the education in right direction. The basic reason is avoided. Read my two brains story to get basic reason. or on

    There is basic reason why we are as we are, why we remain and will be as we are, until we change out thinking and thus until we teach our students to think and grow rather than take it and vomit it.

    our system has created a separation layer between real life and education. It is pressure from parents and society that some children are going to school for rote learning and vomiting on examination. NO one likes it, and everyone who will be free to escape it, will escape it.
    Do you want to like see boring movie and writing their dialogue, because someone will take exam?
    Make education interesting by involving students in teaching process, by increasing their curiosity, by relating the facts from real life examples. Situation will automatically improve.

  8. There is a need for revamping the education policy in our country. Skill based education system should be introduced and for it, Teachers should be included in the mechanism of policy framing as they are familiar about the necessities required. Thus it will prove beneficial and improve the status of education in India. Privatization is not the solution to the issue rather a combined effort could bring in better results. Thanks for the informative post, keep sharing the updates.


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