FE Editorial : More choice, minister

Written by The Financial Express | Updated: Jun 27 2009, 06:35am hrs
After a long time, India has a human resource minister energising rather than encumbering the education debate. In happy contrast to predecessors Arjun Singh and Murli Manohar Joshi, Kapil Sibal looks inclined to move fast on everything from setting up a central regulator for universities to detraumatising the exam system for schools, from punishing educational malpractices to pushing through the Right to Education Billall of which find a place in the 100-day blueprint for his ministry. But, as Kaushik Basus dissent note to the report on rejuvenating higher education suggestswe publish an extract on this pageits possible that the minister is not setting the bar high enough. Basus suggestions include setting up of a ratings mechanism for all higher education institutions, allowing a differential pay scale that would reward star teachers and researchers, permitting private sector institutions that charge as high fees as they wish and making India an education hub that advertises and pursues customers globally. Sure, such private institutions would be flush only with rich kids. But state funds could then be concentrated to provide cheaper quality education to the rest. This quality upgrade is critical at the level of basic education, too.

Our columnists have argued that if the government could do only one thing to lift most out of poverty and accelerate the economy, this is education reform. So far, so agreed with the minister. But, they have also pointed out that governments are not too good in providing choice and goods of quality to the less well-off, which is why poor families that need every last penny will stretch it to send their kids to private schools instead of educating them for free, which is why we have recommended that the government take some of the money it hands out to school administrators and turn it over for voucher schemes. Amazing result: an education thats publicly funded but privately delivered. Second, teachers salaries need to be debated at this level too, in order to increase accountability and incentivise performance. Third, another problem with government patronage, specially identified by NGO studies, is that it promotes deceptive data. For instance, increasing enrollments are unreliable indicators of reading and maths skills actually imparted. Finally, on the question of whether India should do away with standard X board exams, something the minister seems keen on doing, we find ourselves being a little wary. Given this systems proven ability to produce hardy and competitive students, who are then driven into different arenas of excellence, killing it in a hurry may not be the best of ideas. Perhaps, in this as on other fronts, supplying choices may be the best thing.