If implemented, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights’ (NCPCR) recommendation that annual fee hikes by private, unaided schools be capped at 10% of existing fees, will severely impair education in the country. As per a recent report in The Hindustan Times, the NCPCR’s draft fee-hike regulation—to be submitted to the Union HRD ministry—will feature a fee-formula as punitive measures for violating the cap. To be sure, there have been examples of arbitrary fee hikes, by up to 40% in some cases in Delhi and Mumbai. Though regulation of school fees is a state subject—indeed, states like Tamil Nadu, Punjab, Gujarat, Rajasthan, and most recently, Uttar Pradesh have brought in legislation to regulate private school fees—there has been a voluble demand for a central regulation on the same. But, a summary fee-hike yoke is akin to burning down the house to kill a few rats. NCPCR, and the government, will do well to keep in mind that private school fees (and hikes) may not be a barrier for expanding education’s reach in the country as much as the quality of education in government schools.
The poorer learning outcomes of government school students vis-a-vis their private school peers—ASER reports over the years have highlighted this— should reveal the the rot in government schools. But, if that doesn’t depict how acute the problem is, the fact that, between 2010-11 and 2014-15, enrolment in government schools fell by 11.1 million students while that in private schools grew by 16 million, as a 2017 analysis of the government-compiled District Information System for Education (DISE) data by Geeta Kingdon of University of London shows, should. As per Kingdon, private schools cater for 49% of urban and 21% of rural primary students—private, unaided schools constitute 24% of all schools, catering for 38% of school students. The strong trend of preference for private schools is also reflected in ASER data over the years.
Given how ASER focuses on rural India, where poor households are concentrated, it means concerns over quality of education are outweighing any pinch from fees, real or perceived. The preference in urban areas is thus likely to be much higher. Beyond the quality factor, the Kingdon study also reveals, using DISE data for 2010-11–2014-15, that the modal private unaided school fee per student was Rs 500 per month in urban areas whereas it was Rs 275 in rural areas. The all-India average worked out was Rs 417 per month. Given this is half of what the government spent— Rs 960 per month—on each student in government-funded schools (government and government-aided) in 20 major states, in 2014-15, the majority of private, unaided schools are delivering incomparable value. What’s more, Kingdon found that 70-85% of the students in private schools were paying a monthly fee of less than Rs 500 in poor states like Bihar, Odisha, MP, Rajasthan and UP.
To be sure, an analysis of NSS (2014) data by Rohan Joshi and Shristi Kumar of Centre for Civil Society shows that household with children enrolled in private schools spent more (Rs 9,500 per month) than those that had children enrolled in government schools (Rs 6,000). However, families—both urban and rural—in poorer states were spending much lower than families in richer states. This shows that there has been an explosion of budget private schools in the country that are filling the gap left by government schools. Increasing the reach of affordable education, thus, depends less on capping private school fees than on improving the quality of government school education. If the government can’t do that, then it should simply give households a cash-support for children’s education.