FROM BUSINESS WORLD OF 14 SEPTEMBER 2006
Educating with intelligence
The government is making ambitious and expensive plans to implement its resolve to introduce reservation for the so called other backward castes (OBC). Its intention is to expand the tertiary education system so much that the increase in reserved seats will not lead to a reduction in unreserved seats. It hopes thereby to buy peace with forward castes.
The government is trying to avoid hard decisions. That is not necessarily to be decried; compromise is a part of politics. But compromise in this case will be bought at the cost of the nation. For the expansion in the education system will be paid for by the taxpayer; just because it has forcibly deprived him of his money, the government does not acquire a right to waste it. It still needs to be asked: is the expansion economically justified, and are there better alternatives? An analysis of data from the 55th round of the National Sample Survey (NSS) by Rana Hasan and Aashish Mehta in Economic and Political Weekly (XLI:35) points towards answers that go against the government’s proposed course.
The NSS figures they present show that a surprisingly high proportion of males aged 17-30 who pass secondary school and qualify to go to college actually end up there; the proportion for the entire country is 56 per cent. It is higher in towns (64 per cent) than in villages (48 per cent). It is lower for OBCs (50 per cent) than for forward castes (61 per cent); but the difference is not large enough to call for a special policy. The group for which the proportion is lowest (45 per cent) is scheduled tribes, especially those that live in villages (40 per cent); the rest are not particularly underrepresented in tertiary education. These are figures of males actually going to college; in addition there would be those who have already been through college in this age group. Thus, access to college education is not inadequate in India, and no population group is particularly disadvantaged in this respect.
But the proportion of males aged 17-30 who finish secondary school is just 18 per cent. And it is here that forward castes steal a march over the rest. For 27 per cent of their males aged 17-30 finish secondary school. For OBCs, the proportion is 14 per cent. But it is not they who are the most disadvantaged; the proportion is 11 per cent for Muslims, and 10 per cent for scheduled castes, and for scheduled tribes.
It is in secondary schooling that there is a yawning gap between towns and villages. Of males aged 17-30, 30 per cent finish school in towns, and only 13 per cent in villages. In its obsession with literacy, the government has proliferated primary schools. But it has neglected secondary schooling; so most children that go to school give up too early. This must limit the returns to education as well as the incentive to go to school. More children will go to primary schools if there are more secondary schools to go on to.
Schools do not require government investment. Facilities in government schools are so poor, and teachers in them are so truant, that private schools have come up in the remotest villages. They do a better job of schooling at a lower cost, for the salaries of their teachers are market-determined, whereas bureaucrats’ trade unions push up government teachers’ salaries. Their fees are low – often low enough even for poor parents. All that the government needs to do is to set up standardized examinations at fixed stages that would reveal the quality of the education children receive.
That does not require much money; the government would save much money and India would get educated faster if we relied on competition in the private sector. The money the government saves should be spent on boosting completion rates. All children that pass board examinations at the end of 4, 8 and 12 years of schooling should get scholarships that are so generous that poor parents would be able to live off their children’s scholarship. And brighter children should be given such huge scholarships that they can ride their own scooter to secondary school and car to college. No, not a Mercedes; just the Rs 1-lac Bengali-made Tata Red Star.