NEP 2020: Missed chance to raise the bar with a hybrid business model

Vijaya Sherry Chand

The National Education Policy 2020 has been in the public domain for some time now and seems to have been received well. This is the third national policy (after 1968 and 1986/92), and being what is called a framework policy, is expected to focus on the broad goals and directions. While there is much that is to be appreciated in the document, one challenge that is at the root of many problems in Indian education and will become increasingly problematic in the future, remains unaddressed. And that is the need to develop a more nuanced understanding of the non-profit nature of education. One needs to set aside the compulsion to act either as a votary of ‘privatisation’ or as a defender of the public-good characterisation of all education, and see what is good for us in the coming two to three decades.

Historicity of the view

Education in India is a non-profit activity — operationalised by the requirement of registration as a non-profit (either as a Society or Trust or non-profit company). There are strong historical reasons for this view — our belief about what education has to be, political compulsions to portray education as a nation-building activity, and the selflessness associated with education, among others.

The non-profit stipulation, however, has not stopped people from entering education in a major way — especially after the mid-1970s when the entrepreneurial instinct took over in the context of the State’s inability to sustain the pace of higher education expansion up to the early 1960s, and increasing market demand or a willingness of people to pay. Given the market dimension, it is understandable that this growth was mostly in some professional spheres, such as engineering and management.

Regulations plenty

The non-profit stipulation has also not stopped people from distorting the non-profit nature of education. We have a long record of controversies over capitation fees, outrage over profiteering, and ingenious accounting arrangements to derive profit from a non-profit. As a result, the role of judiciary has been critical in regulating a number of issues such as fees and admissions. Accompanying this judicial intervention has been the effort of the State to regulate private institutions — from the demands made early on by some State Governments to demand 50 per cent of the seats to Kapil Sibal’s unsuccessful ‘The Prohibition of Unfair Practice in Technical Educational Institutions, Medical Educational Institutions and Universities Bill’ of 2010.

All these attempts are based on the non-profit stipulation as an inviolable principle. And over time, two distinct private sector segments have emerged in the policy makers’ perceptions: those motivated by a sense of selfless service (the philanthropic service-minded actors) and those who are out to subvert the non-profit stipulation and engage in “profiteering” and have “commercialised” education.

Two sides

The NEP 2020 continues with this two-fold classification. It is the philanthropic service-minded players who are to be encouraged; the other category is to be discouraged. However, this can happen only when we acknowledge the pressures that the State has been experiencing in supporting education and ensuring the relevance and quality of such education; the need therefore to attract the right kind of people who can bring in resources to enrich education; and the desirability of removing the incentives to engage in subverting the non-profit stipulation. These assume extra salience given the ambitious enrolment and quality goals that the NEP lays down. Why are these targets ambitious?

In recent years, the role of the State in the expansion has become constrained. The growth, especially in the school sector, has been in the unaided-private sector. A recent report on the state of private schools in the country puts the figure of children in private-unaided schools at 35 per cent, up from a quarter of that a century ago. Significantly, much of this growth is in rural areas, and it is low cost — that the ‘low cost’ is sustained by employing teachers at market-clearing wages is a different matter.

Correspondingly, the state of schooling sector has come under pressure, with higher per-pupil costs. This has led the NEP to suggest a number of steps to consolidate the public schools, through, for example, an old idea called the ‘school complex’ (the unit being not a school but a cluster of schools with a secondary school at the centre and the lower schools in a defined radius forming the nodes). All indications are that the growth in the private sector is going to continue, but if the quality of education in these relatively younger forms of education is to be nurtured, and a fresh infusion of resources and partners is needed.

State of higher education sector

In the higher education sector, the trend is similar. According to the 2018 All India Survey of Higher Education, 343 of our 903 universities are privately managed, but this sector, over a six-year period, had grown by 67 per cent against 17 per cent for state public universities, and very little growth in the other kinds of universities. We know that 78 per cent of our roughly 39,000 colleges are privately managed, with slightly less than two-thirds of these being private-unaided. We also know that most of our undergraduate enrolment (more than two-thirds) focuses on BA/BSc/BCom. Reading between the lines of the NEP, one can infer that it is this segment that the document targets with its focus on skill development and new modes of imparting new-age skills to our youth. Given the declining role of the State in setting up new higher education institutions, and the reorientation challenges facing the already substantial college sector, fresh resources and partners are needed here, too.

There is another important reason for focusing on a new kind of institution. Hidden in the same survey of higher education is an interesting piece of information: over the period 2011-2018 (six or seven years depending on the indicator), the total enrolment in higher education among SC/ST/OBC and Muslim increased by 55 to 57 per cent, whereas the General category increased only by four percent.

Does this mean that future increases in enrolment are going to be from our more disadvantaged sections? From the social justice perspective, one can argue that this new enrolment should begin with the new-age skills the policy wants to promote, rather than get into the same rut which is afflicting our college sector.

Hybrid model

So, now the key question: Why would a new kind of partner, one with the resources and a concern for education, and not necessarily belonging to the philanthropic segment, want to enter? An assurance that a hybrid of the profit and the non-profit is possible will help. Nowhere in the world is a profit-model looked upon with favour, and it certainly is not the model we want, But, given the situation in which we find ourselves, can we also (in addition to the usual state funding) begin to think of our own version of a regulated repatriation model? Such repatriation, or return on investment, would be a function of two things: the quality rating by an independent and effective accreditation system (as proposed in the policy) and adherence to expect outcome achievement norms as assessed by an independent assessor (again as proposed in the policy).

Of course, the criminal justice deterrent that Kapil Sibal proposed in his Bill has to be included. This proposal acknowledges that some legitimate return, subject to certain conditions, may be allowed. The NEP 2020 may have missed an opportunity to take a bold stand on this issue — one expects a framework policy to focus on the contentious issues that have plagued our system. The failure to address this issue may lead to a perpetuation of the same sub-optimal conditions that we see in higher education and schooling. Of course, such a proposal will be contested and democratically debated — that is to be expected. But at least a beginning could have been made.

This article was first published in Business Line on Campus on 18 August 2020.

(The writer is Professor, Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad, and Chair, Ravi J. Matthai Centre for Educational Innovation.)