Meera Srinivasan

t is all about money — when people say that about education, they certainly have a point.

Access to good education has, for long, been grounded in students’ socio-economic status. But increasingly, there is a greater acknowledgement that matters such as aims of education, achievement in education, choices in curriculum, teaching and learning methods — are driven, to a significant degree, by economic considerations.

The fact that tests such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) make a lot of noise across countries, points to the prevalent notion of education in relation to economic purposes and national productivity. The aims of education, at an individual, familial and policy level, now have an unmistakable emphasis on education as a means to economic empowerment.

In that sense, economics serves as an input as well as an indicator of educational outcomes. While acknowledging this, it is rather important to be wary of a simplistic correlation, and to constantly challenge those aspects which the market-oriented approach to education — a loud manifestation of the correlation — remains silent on.

Saumen Chattopadhyay raises some of those critical questions in this book, grounding his analysis in larger theoretical frameworks, both in economics and in education.

In a context where state funding for education continues to be low, it becomes crucial to look at education using the prism of economics.

As the author himself notes, economics of education as a sub-discipline of neo-classical economics, emerged in the 1960s. It lost steam over the next few decades, except for a few key contributions. All the same, since economics helps evaluate indicators of development in a neutral manner, standing out in its ability to minimise subjectivity, it is important to keep its relevance in mind in general and particularly in regard to education.

To start with, the book seeks to give a comprehensive overview of major developments in economic theory in the understanding of education, and also sets out to take a nuanced look at policy making in regard to education. Many of these reflections are very relevant to the contemporary education scenario in India.

The author engages with two major paradigms in economics of education – the human capital approach and input-output analysis. The human capital approach essentially looks at education and training as investments in human beings that enhance their ability for productivity, and subsequently, earnings. Using statistical tools, Prof. Chattopadhyay analyses perceptions of the ‘rate of return’ from this investment made in people.

The book features fairly elaborate discussions on the two paradigms, with useful references to important contributions made to the discourse by subject experts. Further, the author critically examines four perspectives on the human capital theory — Amartya Sen’s capability approach that linked education to the broader discourse on development; Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis’s Marxian critique of the human capital approach, Tapas Majumdar’s social choice approach; and the theory of signalling. What follows is a useful reflection on the notion of education as a public good, which often influences decisions on financing higher education.

Since the market is not known for its concern for social change or need, the author observes that it will fail in the realm of higher education. It will impact access in a serious manner.  While mainstream economic theory makes out market principles to be levellers, a market structure in the field of education is far more complex, fraught with the danger of further perpetuating the existing inequality.

The book also takes on neo-liberal policies, raising critical questions about financing and mode of delivery, and presses for regulation in higher education in order to ensure that institutions are not exclusionary. The State has failed in making quality education accessible to all, as is evident from many of the government-run schools and colleges in the country. All the same, a market-driven approach or privatisation may not have the answers to the problem because of its inherent indifference to problems like inequality.

This would automatically imply that there is an urgent need to enhance funding for higher education in India, to enable better access and affordability.

In this rigorous and honest attempt at looking at education in relation to economics, simultaneously acknowledging the limitations of economic theories when applied to education,  Chattopadhyay presents a valuable resource for policy makers and anyone who wishes to understand the intimate equation between economics and education. Of course, the intimacy will never be enough to justify the market’s dominance of the sector. 

( Meera Srinivasan is a journalist with The Hindu specialising in education )