The thrust of the Indian education system during the early 2000s Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan was more on increasing enrollment. But skill-driven education using current technological innovation is becoming ever more critical. It’s what we need to reap our demographic dividend. This is where the efficiency of public exchequer spending comes into play. Band-aid fixes rarely work. What’s stopping the Narendra Modi government from launching a full-fledged school education voucher programme to usher in choice for parents?
Education vouchers are a straightforward yet critical financial instrument given by the government to parents that can be redeemed at schools of their choice, either private or government, depending on which one they think is performing better. This new system inverts the whole fiscal scenario where the State, instead of funding government schools directly, gives parents the agency to choose, perpetuating a virtuous cycle of schools competing for student admissions. Schools, in the quest to outperform each other, will focus more on foundational literacy and numeracy via demonstrable tangible results, better performance, cognitive development and skill up-gradation of students.
Pilot education voucher programmes run by state governments of Andhra Pradesh and Delhi in the past, in consultation with credible policy think tanks, have yielded green shoots. Such a policy can aid in meeting the objectives of the New National Education Policy (NEP) and National Initiative for Proficiency in Reading with Understanding and Numeracy (NIPUN) Bharat.
The genesis of the education voucher idea can be traced back to the iconic paper The Role of Government in Education by Milton Friedman, which later fructified into the pathbreaking Milwaukee’s Parental Choice Program in the 1990s in the United States. Empirical studies conducted later concluded that using a voucher to attend a private school increased the probability that students would score better, graduate from high school and enrol in college. Almost all European countries support school choice to leverage efficiency of public spending and in countries such as Belgium, Netherlands and Ireland, school choice is a constitutional right. Countries like Chile, Colombia and Cameroon have also widely embraced the education vouchers model as a means of increasing enrollment at the bottom end of their socioeconomic ladders. It increased the cognitive achievements of high school students, led to better behavioural outcomes such as teacher-student relationships, significantly reduced classroom disruptions, and in the long run even decreased the level of violence in society.
Private vs government schools
Opening and running schools in India requires a dozen permissions from government authorities with discretionary powers and rent-seeking. They impede genuine edupreneurs from entering the field and aid in the monopoly of established players with money and influence, usually politicians. An education voucher scheme would enable government schools to work towards improving their standards and survive in this competitive model. The cost-per-child spending is high in government schools vis-a-vis private schools, which means they will deliver better tangible results with limited resources.
Currently, India hosts the world’s most extensive schooling system with 25 crore students in 15 lakh schools, of which 11 lakh are government schools concentrated in rural pockets. But the share of students in private schools is increasing rapidly, with 70 per cent of students in private schools paying a fee of less than Rs 1,000 — five times cheaper than comparative state funding of government schools. Vouchers would be the life support system in such challenging times to build resilience.
On top of that, private schools are also subject to stringent regulations and meddling by education bureaucrats for inspections, accreditations and delayed fee reimbursements for previous years. The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on Affordable Private Schools (APS). Many of them are on the verge of closure due to depleting financial resources. Dr Kulbhushan Sharma, National President of the National Independent Schools Alliance, said: “Due to the Covid-19 crisis, schools were closed for more than 18 months, and many private schools were also shut as there has been a drop in student admissions. All this has resulted in a financial crisis for the teachers.”
In contrast, incompetent government-run schools still thrive, with many teachers’ unions holding the community together financially amidst an extended shutdown. They also continue to receive a regular salary with minimal accountability. On the other hand, APS survive only on minuscule fees as a primary revenue stream. Due to the non-profit nature of school education, getting credit line access is difficult. According to a report by a social impact consulting firm FSG, the education voucher model will be the new revenue source for over 2.7 lakh APS that cater to 40 per cent of the 80 million school students in the country. The voucher model would also aid in better technology tools upgrades for online education and pending salary.
One unseen long-term effect would be eroding the stratification of class and caste society. It would aid in thwarting prejudices by exposing the child to students from different socio-economic backgrounds. Parents can use these vouchers to afford good schools and, arrest the massive school dropout rates and increase in child labour especially accentuated by the pandemic due to financial constraints. This marriage of accountability and appropriate incentive structure for all stakeholders involved is the need of the hour.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s remark, “Sab kuch babu hi karenge?” was a scathing indictment of the deplorable state of bloated, inefficient bureaucracy that is marred by red-tapism. It reflects the distaste for coercive policies and is an honest admission of the incapacity of the State to deliver from the highest office. It’s a testimony of faith in the wealth creators and entrepreneurial energies of the private sector and youth leveraging technology via edtech to build new education business models.
While the present dispensation at the Centre leaves no stone unturned to blame Jawaharlal Nehru for the current ills that still cripple our country, it must also look at neglected and beleaguered primary education systems sacrificed at the cost of building higher education institutions. If PM Modi means business, he should walk the talk by pushing the education vouchers policy to correct historical blunders during Nehruvian socialism. If the PM truly wants to imbibe federalism and decentralisation to make India a ‘vishwaguru’, we first need to nurture our ‘shishyas’. And the stakeholders who have the biggest say in this are parents and students who are better judges of the utilisation of precious taxpayer money on education.
Arpit Awasthi is a Writing Fellow with the Fellowship for Freedom in India. He has completed his Masters’s in Digital System Design from Osmania University College of Engineering, Hyderabad. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)