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Why micro-manage education?

Jayanthi Iyengar

Both the government and the courts would best let competition amongst education-providers minimise costs for users, rather than micro-manage the pricing of education.

RAPID changes are happening in the education sector, as elsewhere, and many a time the judiciary appears a mite behind the times, in this market age. The Supreme Court's rulings, including the one capping the fees charged by the private institutions and the current ruling relating to the fee structure of the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs), are cases in point.

The underlying philosophy governing these rulings is the principle of equity. The court seems to feel that it is the role of the education provider, private and/or public, to provide reasonably priced education. The court also feels impelled to step in to correct anomalies wherever the service-provider or the executive fail in this role.

This is a commendable goal but impractical in an era when user charges have come into vogue and people today pay market prices for a range of services including the use of roads, energy and even water.

Going by the court's logic, the users of water are as entitled to concessions — on what is actually a free resource — as is the child who is desirous of educating himself. After all, there are as many children wanting to join schools in India as there are child water-bearers, whose childhood is lost in bearing water to meet their family's water requirements.

Yet, one finds that the judiciary is not as emotional when it comes to people being charged market prices for the use of such services as sewage, water, power and/or communications as it is when it comes to education.

Overall, the impression that one gets is that the judiciary sees for itself a yeoman's role in education because it believes literacy is an important social tool for elevating and improving the lives of people. Hence, it tends to categorise it differently, rather than treat it as any other service.

There cannot be too many arguments in this age about the importance of education or its ability to empower the people. Yet, the court's approach takes a beating when its starts treating education as a charitable service, to be subsidised by the state, industry and/or philanthropic groups.

Such an approach would defeat the very cause the judiciary wants to espouse for it is too dangerous to link the future of a country's citizenry to the vagaries of charity and charitable institutions. Experience has shown that despite incentivizing educational activity with tax concessions — which is why most educational institutions are registered as charities — the philanthropic initiative alone has not been able to fill the gap in the sector.

The role of the state in education is interesting. Even in an era when education was seen as one of the many mandatory developmental roles of the government, the existence of charitable educational institutions proves that the state had too willingly surrendered its role in this sector.

The socialist era and the nationalist resurgence of recent years have ensured that the government continues to play its role as an educator, but even a cursory glance shows that if there's one thing which is missing here, apart from quality, it is equity.

One just needs to casually look around to see thousands of Indian children who have never stepped into institutions of learning, not even at the primary school level. Those that have do not have access to teachers. Those who have teachers do not have proper school buildings. Where buildings exist, there are no libraries. For those who do manage to cross the primary school level, there are not enough higher secondary schools. Where such schools exist, the quality of education is varied, rendering a child going through the very same schooling system in Aurangabad unequal to the one in Ahmedabad. Schools do not have computers though they have budgets. Many schools do not even have playgrounds, which are essential for all-round development.

In this situation, can the courts afford to stop at just the IIMs and private engineering colleges, ignoring the plight of the millions of children who get no education or of indifferent quality? Besides, can the courts really afford to take the government to task for failing to play efficiently the role of a service-provider? Also, who is to decide what is fair pricing for education?

Even in an equitable society, this is a difficult enough question but when it comes to a country like India, it is a near-impossible situation. The courts today feel a fee structure of Rs 30,000 per annum is reasonable enough for the IIMs. But ask a farmer in the fields. For him, this is a lifetime saving.

Further, if the IIMs can provide quality education at Rs 30,000 per annum, what makes the National Institute of Fashion Technology, which is under the Ministry of Textiles, decide that it is entitled to charge about Rs 30,000 per semester for its courses, some of which run into eight semesters. One can argue that hi-fashion is elitist, but the perception totally changes when one takes note of the fact that beauty and boutiques are two of India's successful small businesses being conducted with elan from Kashmir to Kanyakumari.

Reform is good and reforming education and the educational system is the need of the hour, but this goal would not be served by artificially tinkering with the fee structure of select institutions. Institution-building takes a long time and building institutions of the quality and calibre of IIMs and IITs takes even longer.

Both the government and the courts would best let competition amongst education-providers minimise costs for users, rather than micro-manage the pricing of education in some institutions, setting off even more serious problems.

(The author is a freelance writer and can be contacted at

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