Public-private partnership (PPP) has become a fashionable slogan in new development strategies, particularly over the last couple of decades. It is projected as an innovative idea to tap private resources and to encourage the active participation of the private sector in national development. It is more forcefully advocated when public resources are projected to be inadequate to meet needs. PPP is already being adopted in several infrastructure development sectors, such as the development of airports, railways, roads, and so on. But, going by media reports, these have mixed outcomes. The policy initiatives are no longer confined to these; they are being extended to human development sectors such as education and health.
In the case of education, PPP has been proposed as an important strategy in the Eleventh Five Year Plan. Among many things, the Eleventh Plan has proposed the setting up of 6,000 new model schools in secondary education, affiliated to the Central Board of Secondary Education. Of these, 2,500 are to be under the PPP model. The intention is to set up these schools in the backward regions and remote areas where good schooling facilities do not exist, so that quality education is accessible in the backward regions as well.
According to the model finalised by the Planning Commission in consultation with the private sector, these schools will be set up by 2014 and will have the capacity to educate 65 lakh students, of whom 25 lakh will be from the deprived sections. Each school will have about 2,500 students, 1,000 of whom will be from deprived sections and charged a token fee. Fifty per cent of the 1,000 students will be from the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes and the Other Backward Classes. They will be required to pay a monthly fee of Rs.25 each. The rest of the children, who will be from other deprived sections — non-income tax paying families — will be required to pay a fee of Rs.50 a month . The remaining costs of these students, estimated to be Rs.1,000 to Rs.1,200 a head per month, will be reimbursed by the Union government to the schools. It is estimated that the government will have to pay Rs.10,500 crore until 2017. The amount is likely to go up with escalating prices, in general, and increasing costs of education, in particular.
Over and above this, the schools may get access to relevant funds from the Centre and the State governments under different schemes. The schools will be free to admit anyone to the remaining 1,500 seats and charge any amount of fee.
Corporate companies with a minimum net worth of Rs.25 lakh are eligible to set up schools under this model. Each entity should deposit Rs.50 lakh with the government for the first school it proposes to set up, and Rs.25 lakh per additional school. Each can set up as many as 25 schools. Non-profit companies with prior experience in education need to deposit Rs.25 lakh for each school. The schools will need to have the sort of infrastructure available in the best private schools.
There are a few important aspects that are clear in this model. One, it involves a massive transfer of resources from the exchequer to private schools. Two, the schools have unlimited freedom in all aspects of governance, including specifically the fees to be charged from the 1,500 students. The model thus allows the so-called non-profit institutions to work for, and actually make, profits. Third, the government has little control over these schools. Except to insist that 1,000 students from the deprived sections be admitted and that they be charged a certain fee, it cannot do much.
As a result, the model, which claims that it is not for privatisation, and that it will not allowthe profit motive to enter the field of education, will promote the opposite: privatisation and, in practice, a high degree of commercialisation. It is privatisation and commercialisation with a difference — utilising public funds. Most important, the PPP model does not feel the need to view education as being distinct from the production of commercial goods and building of infrastructure.
We have vast experience with another — somewhat similar but different —type of PPP in education, though it is rarely referred to as PPP. This is the government-aided private school system, a system that is not being encouraged nowadays by any State government for financial reasons. This model involved the setting up of a school by a private, non-profit seeking organisation — a trust or voluntary organisation and, in some cases, business entity — with its own funds and running the school by the same body for a minimum number of years before it became eligible for government aid for recurring expenditure. Essentially, but not exclusively, what was involved was the salary expenditure of the staff.
These schools are subject to government regulation and are required to follow most of the government rules and regulations in terms of admissions, fees, scholarships, other incentives and subsidies, recruitment of staff, salary structure, and so on. In effect, they are no different from government schools, but for management by the private sector. These schools were found to be funded by the government up to nearly 95 per cent of the recurring and, sometimes, a part of non-recurring expenditure. Because of some malpractices by school managements, many schools were to be taken over by the government or the staff was to be directly paid by the government.
The main difference between the aided school system, which now forms a major part of the secondary school system in India, and the proposed PPP model, is with respect to government control and correspondingly the role of the private management. The present PPP model conceived in the neo-liberal times provides for no government or any type of social control on education. In fact, it provides for unlimited power to the private sector. According to earlier thinking, these schools were to become ‘voucher schools', and totally privatised, after 10 years, when government funding would cease. Secondly, the aided school system has not actually provided scope to make profits, though some schools have made profits by adopting unfair methods. In contrast, the PPP model openly allows for profit-making, as schools are free to fix fee levels and the government has no role with respect to either the fee rates or the expenditure of the schools. After all, it is now recognised that no private company will set up a school unless “a reasonable return on investment” is ensured.
Above all, the earlier modes of PPP, including the aided school system, aimed to encourage philanthropy and generate voluntary contributions to the education sector. But the objectives of the present mode seem to be altogether different. It invites commercial companies, whose ulterior motives often conflict with educational goals in setting up schools and for whom there is no difference between education and, say, the production of cars, refrigerators and soaps, as long as it ensures attractive profits.
Instead of encouraging philanthropy and inculcating a sense of social responsibility in the private sector, the government is inviting it to do normal business in education with huge government subsidies, perhaps including in the upper primary education in secondary schools which come under the scope of the Right to Education Act that promises free and compulsory elementary education.
(Jandhyala B.G. Tilak is Professor at the National University of Educational Planning and Administration, New Delhi. Email: email@example.com)