The Uttar Pradesh government, under chief minister Yogi Adityanath’s personal push, is working on a plan to make public education free. There is already a catchy slogan—from KG (kindergarten) to PG (post graduation). The plan may seem revolutionary, but amounts to little more than tokenism. Fees are already quite low—in University of Lucknow, for instance, the monthly fee for a regular MA programme is a little below `700 while that for the most expensive self-financed MA programme, the monthly fee stands a little below `5,000. Education is free till the secondary level in public schools. Yet, successive ASER surveys show how, even in rural areas, parents are increasingly preferring private schools over public ones. In UP, 30.3% of the all school-going children were enrolled in private schools in 2006. By 2014, this had increased to over 51%. Also, these reports point at a significant lag in terms of quality of learning between government-run and private schools. And, as per NSSO data, more than a quarter of school students in the country bridge gaps in school-learning through private coaching . So, the problem is not fees impeding access to education, it is the poor quality of education and consequent poor learning outcomes, especially in government-run schools. In fact, the increasing private-school enrolment and private tuitions trends show that even the poor are willing to spend for better quality education.
The Adityanath government should work on improving the quality of learning in its schools and universities—students in government schools in the state, as per the last ASER survey that examined this, reported worse learning outcomes than students in government schools across the rest of the country. As per a Times of India report, nearly 3,700 PhD-holders applied for the job of 62 messenger posts in the telecom wing of UP police—the minimum educational qualification required is Class V-pass. Among other things, this is also a blistering commentary on the quality of higher education in the state. So, instead of making “KG to PG” free, if the state focuses on improving quality of education imparted at its schools, colleges and universities, students would benefit more. Addressing the quality-gaps in government school education, in particular, would not only mean better learning outcomes, it could also benefit families financially if it brings down dependence on private coaching or private school enrolment.