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Traders of learning

AK Ghosh | New Delhi |

The recent controversy over private hospitals may be overshadowed by major decisions that are on the anvil in the running of private schools in West Bengal. The screws are set to be tightened on these institutions and it is felt that privately managed schools require more rational and broad-based guidelines for governance.

In a country with a majority of children languishing in hunger and malnutrition, the phenomenal rise in the cost of education is disproportionate to the standard offered. The resultant hardship on families forced to send their children to expensive private schools is a social anachronism which the government seems anxious to address. Admittedly, setting up private schools is no longer an act of philanthropy, but an attractive investment for the corporate sector. Education has been continuously debased and educational institutions have become a part of a flourishing business enterprise.

Periodically, the Centre unveils a national education policy, which is essentially a statement of intent to improve the quality and content of education. And with the recent triumph of the free market philosophy, education is now open to crass commercial exploitation. There is a technical expression ~ “donation” ~ for selling a seat in an educational institution, a price which only the rich can afford to pay. Privatised education thus implies unequal distribution of educational opportunities.

The more the World Bank and the international Monetary Fund insist that public expenditure for social purposes be reduced to the barest minimum, the greater will be the emerging affluence of private enterpreneurs running educational rackets, and lesser will be the prospects for the economically weak to benefit from the fruits of learning. Money buys education; lack of purchasing power means virtual lack of education. The logic of the free market is amazing: only the rich shall inherit knowledge and skills which shall, in turn, ensure further riches for them.

Once an educational racket is in control, one can mint money through the capitation fee, which is sometimes camouflaged by a polite expression ~ “donation”. A cardinal principle of a monopolised arrangement is to restrict entry for that is how one can hike the price of admission. Economists describe this phenomenon as the interplay of the elasticity of demand and supply; the supply must be sufficiently inelastic so that admission-seekers, who constitute the demand side are willing to pay through their nose.

As the nation slips back into the cusp of colonialism, the craze for English medium educational institutions rises to fever pitch. The enterpreneurs are only too anxious to exploit the situation. True, private schools have to meet rising costs from their own resources, which include the fees they collect from their students. But the sharp increase in fees and donations has not been generally endorsed by parents who send their wards to private schools in the hope that they will receive a good education. Some even argue that the accountability of teachers must be ensured. Given the lack of such accountability, most students are compelled to rely on private tuition which increases the financial pressure on guardians.

There is a well-grounded complaint that public education is sub-standard as teaching is casual and management inefficient. The heavy workload of private schools runs counter to the proper strategy for development of young minds. The curriculum is not scientific and as often as not the course is rather burdensome.

There is a high price tag for extra-curricular activities; this only encourages a vicious consumer psychology. Parents are apparently satisfied with the discipline and superficial glamour of these schools, but are generally ignorant of the fact that infrastructure and educational facilities are inadequate in many of these schools. Students have to bear the brunt of an exceedingly heavy syllabus, high tuition fees, unreasonable session charges and development fees and other charges like computer fees even for tiny tots.

Other fees include a magazine fund, an excursion fund, a science fee, sports fee, library fee and so on. The authorities prefer to supply their own material for uniforms and other necessities or specify tailors and stationery shops where the rates are invariably higher than what prevails in the local market. Some of these schools encourage a well coordinated racket and it is the child who ultimately suffers. Publishers churn out substandard books which institutions prescribe as compulsory. The teachers are offered lower salaries than what the government has prescribed, many of them are temporary and are even asked to work under contract.

These institutions need to be run by a properly constituted managing committee under a registered society or trust which should be of a non-proprietary character. They must conform to the specifications relating to space and accommodation, laboratory and library facilities, provision for co-curricular activities, well-qualified staff with salaries at par with the corresponding categories in government schools. Private English-medium schools have mushroomed not as an act of philanthropy or a gesture of dedication to a social cause, but with the objective of selling education. The rights of religious or linguistic minorities to establish and administer educational institutions are often questioned.

It is imperative that privately managed schools require more rational and broadbased guidelines from the government. The recent exorbitant hike in “donations” has aggravated the issue. The government has to come forward with comprehensive guidelines and certain concrete rules and regulations aimed at improving the quality of school education. However, any drastic measure of state control should not be encouraged. The National Education Policy (1986-92) has suggested decentralisation at all levels, favouring responsive and participatory management tempered with an element of autonomy and accountability.

The West Bengal government is reportedly considering the proposal mooted by the All Bengal Teachers’ Association to bear full salaries of teaching and non-teaching employees. If executed, the government would certainly be taking the opportunity to interfere in the running of such institutions. Despite rising prices, government schools charge much less. Teachers in private schools are not always generously paid, whereas their counterparts in government managed schools can be sure of decent salaries and inbuilt security of service. Many of these schools lack trained personnel as well.

In reality, however, state governments are finding it increasingly difficult to effectively manage their own institutions. The administration is more streamlined in private schools. This largely explains the tremendous rush for admission. The Supreme Court had once observed: “Commercialisation of education cannot and should not be permitted”. It is encouraging that the government has eventually come forward to combat profiteering by traders of education. Increased salaries, swanky buildings and reduced fees ~ in the absence of quality education ~ are very poor parameters of a good system of education.

The writer is former Associate Professor, Dept of English, Gurudas College, Kolkata