Education rules are evolving. The Right to Education Act comes into force on April 1, and a Bill to create a National Commission for Higher Education and Research has been proposed. The Cabinet cleared the Foreign Universities Bill as well as three other proposals that create a National Education Tribunal, curb false advertising and capitation fees, and mandate accreditation for higher education.
The flurry of legislation is a start but cannot be the end. Next, focus must be on motivating quality education. The challenge is that the education system is a ‘coping organisation’: outputs (teaching) and outcomes (education) are essentially invisible for managers. One can visit a classroom to observe teaching. But most teacher-student interaction takes place without external monitors. On the visit day, we can test children for knowledge but not for what their teachers taught them—the test cannot distinguish between pre-existing knowledge and the additional wisdom the school imparts. Signs of a failing education system are obvious: teacher absenteeism, student truancy, illiteracy, innumeracy. Marks of a successful education system show up over time and across a broad set of indicators.
Education systems around the world have grappled with the challenges of large-scale management of the invisible factors. Three categories of solutions have emerged, each of which India could exploit effectively. The first option is to professionalise education but leave schools and teachers more or less alone afterwards. India is following this preventative approach for the most part—the rules on the books for accrediting schools exclude potential failures but do little to motivate success.
Efforts to professionalise individuals in education are sporadic and somewhat misplaced. They leave loopholes for primary education teachers (where market discipline for schools and teachers is the least) but impose strict gates for leadership in higher education (where the pool of customers is more mobile, giving schools an incentive to police themselves). The proposed National Council for Higher Education and Research, for example, would determine who is eligible to be a vice-chancellor of a university or institution of national importance. The system seems to be set up for discretion: it provides for minimum qualifications, but gives no recourse for people with these qualifications who are rejected.
Testing outcomes is a second option. Tests run the risk of creating artificial targets for learning unless they are constantly evaluated for their ability to assess skills needed for an increasingly complex global context, but they are a good option for primary education. We can all agree that literacy and numeracy are essential skills. Testing on a large scale with some collection of student data could create the statistical power to separate school effects from student abilities and assess school, if not teacher, performance.
India is explicitly not doing this, at least as a matter of public policy. The RTE Act doesn’t even leave the question open; it states, “No child shall be required to pass any Board examination till completion of elementary education.” NGOs such as Pratham and Educational Initiatives are picking up the slack, but this is not a substitute for the resources that the public sector can mobilise.
The third option is market discipline. Parents are often the people with the best ability and the strongest incentives to observe the quality of education that their children are getting. Letting them choose which schools to support, converts this knowledge into performance pressure . Employers can also motivate performance indirectly if their hiring affects parents’ and pupils perceptions of school quality. In principle, this is the best of the lot: parents adjust the ‘test’ they apply to keep up with the times and the range of ‘evaluators’ ensures that multiple dimensions of education are valued. Incentives are aligned—parents, unlike regulators, have a stake in the outcome. Parental duty aside, children are often retirement plans.
Market discipline offers the most ground for India to gain by providing control, along with a voice, and reducing the information asymmetries that prevent parents from being effective monitors. Voice is present, control is not. The RTE Act includes parents on School Management Committees, but gives them no authority to do more than recommend changes. Parental intention is there, ability is sometimes not: India has changed fast and parents are not always able to monitor their child’s progress in reading, writing and English, let alone higher education. Parental oversight is likely to be weakest at the schools whose teaching determines inter-generational upward mobility, the schools we would most want to perform. Small steps such as requiring non-binding primary school testing and mandating that the data be shown to parents, could help reduce this generational gap. The move to curb false advertising in higher education will help support oversight, but requiring credible reporting of placement details and alumni trajectories to all prospective students will help reduce the quality mystery.
Improving the invisible is always a tall order, but ignoring it is worse.
—The author is director, Centre for Development Finance at the Institute for Financial and Management Research, Chennai