The Hindu Business Line, June 03, 2008

In India, Government spends a huge amount of public money on school education but the outcomes are much below expectations. The problem with the existing system is that much of the public money allocated for government schools is spent inefficiently as students with access to schooling either do not enrol or drop out or the money is siphoned off through channels of corruption that plague the implementation of most social schemes in India. This problem can be resolved by in troducing competition through education vouchers.

More than 90 per cent of the population has access to primary schools located within a kilometre of their residence. But the conditions of these schools are deplorable and not conducive for learning. Majority of the schools run in one or two rooms each with the same number of teachers. Apart from the lack of space, certain other features of these schools leave much to be desired :

The unhygienic surroundings with lack of sanitation facilities for girls; the substandard quality of teaching; the high student-teacher ratio; the indiscipline among teachers themselves etc. As a result, enrolment is low and drop-out rates are high, implying wastage of public money which often runs into crores of rupees and ostensibly constitutes public expenditure for the poor.

Diversion of funds

A UNESCO study shows that the Indian literacy rate of 65 per cent is one of the lowest in Asia even though around 4 per cent of GDP in spent on education — much higher than the Asian average of 3.6 per cent of GDP. The problem is not the size of the budget but its inefficient implementation and corruption. The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) reports are full of cases of diversion of funds provided for school education for unauthorised use.

For example, this year’s CAG report highlights that government officials in six States have siphoned off Rs 47.1 crore meant for Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, a central government educational programme meant for school children. Another programme, the mid-day meal campaign, introduced with the objective of increasing enrolment and ensuring better nutritional status among the children also suffered the same fate.

Efficacy of education system

Experience all over the world suggests that it is not so much the size of the government education budget, but how the budget is spent, that determines the efficacy of the education system. In India, one of the important reasons for inadequate effectiveness of government expenditure on schools has been the inability of the government to provide targeted educational assistance to needy students.

Note that the number of schools targeted by the government is large; thus, its funds are spread thinly which makes their efficient utilisation necessary for achieving the desired results. Thus, it has to be ensured that salaries for teachers are well spent — they not only come to work regularly but spend their time in schools productively. If such measures are not taken, increasing the public expenditure on education to even 6 per cent of GDP will not help in correcting the situation. Such increases will only ensure the wastage of more public money which could have been better spent in other areas.

Though parents want good quality education for their children through better curricula and a joyful environment, they are often constrained by affordability and are unable to pay for good quality private schooling. Thus, their wards continue to languish in government schools with the attendant problems. In this situation, how does the government ensure the access of the poor student to good quality schools? A feasible approach is the provision of direct government assistance to students instead of government schools.

Subsidising education

Education vouchers typically transfer purchasing power to needy students rather than government schools. The purpose is to empower the poor households to choose the school that best meets the needs of their children irrespective of whether the school is affiliated to the government, the private sector or a non-government organisation. This implies that government funds go to providers, through poor households, who prove themselves to be superior to others through competition. This is different from government expenditure on earmarked government schools which carves out a captive market for such schools by subsidising education for those who cannot otherwise afford it.

Freedom of choice

Some doubts about the success of vouchers on the ground persist. It is feared that the poor will not be able to make the right choices regarding the quality of schools and it will damage the system of government schools. The choice argument against vouchers does not stand up to scrutiny as they will only encourage parents to visit private schools.

Thus, their choice is widened with parents retaining the choice of sending their children to schools attended by them before the issue of education vouchers. The freedom of choice enjoyed by parents will also force the schools, both public and private, to improve their quality to attract students. This will be an important step in improving the quality of education to poor students. However, the outcomes will be better if they are limited to a moderate numbers of poor students in urban/semi-urban areas or the adjoining rural areas, where private schools are available and have the necessary capacity.

However, it has to be ensured, through proper regulation, that the schools, where vouchers are admissible, have the academic autonomy to determine their syllabi and choose their teachers and, thereby, regulate the quality of education offered by them.

(The authors are associated with CUTS International, a research, advocacy and networking group)

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