School For All Times of India Editorial, 3 November  2008

India’s greatest wealth lies in its human resources. Universal schooling of decent quality could be the single biggest move it makes towards future

prosperity. Towards this end the government has mooted a Right to Education Bill which promises free education for every child in the 6-14 age group. But it remains cagey about details, citing the Election Commission’s model code as the reason for not disclosing the full text.

Education requires substantive, not just symbolic action. Merely passing laws, without sustained political attention that plugs yawning financial and administrative gaps in the school sector, is going to fail. One of the problems of taking a purely legislative view is to define who will be held responsible if a child doesn’t attend school. Will it be the local body, the state government, the Centre, the child’s guardians? There is plenty of scope for passing the buck, and we don’t have the full details of the Bill.

A related problem is to set out clearly who will pick up the bill for universal education, estimated to cost Rs 55,000 crore a year to implement. It’s supposed to be split between Centre and states, but the precise formula for doing so — and whether states are on-board with the scheme — is unknown. The most controversial provision of the Bill is to drag the private sector in, by imposing an obligation on private schools to take in at least 25 per cent of its students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Their fees will supposedly be paid by the government, a promise it’s unlikely to keep. Providing free education for all should be unambiguously the government’s responsibility. Countries haven’t made rapid strides towards universal literacy by palming off the responsibility on the private sector. That will stunt the growth of the private sector rather than lead to universal literacy.

The private sector, however, can act as a force multiplier and take some of the government’s burden off if the right incentives are given to it. For that to happen, it must be allowed to run on private sector principles. Corporates should be encouraged to set up their own chains of branded schools, which would both serve their human resource needs and disseminate quality education across the country.

To draw in the best professionals it’s necessary to legitimize profits in education and provide autonomy to the private sector. The government should also envisage private-public collaborations where it throws in some combination of money, land, scholarships and tax breaks, but leaves the management of schools in professional hands. Out-of-the-box thinking is called for to provide education the big bang it sorely needs.