Imagine for a bit what it would be like if education were provided by private sector firms. Can it be done? Would a socially optimal amount, variety, and quality of education be provided? Would there be market failures? If so, how can those market failures be corrected? Can one devise mechanisms to correct those failures?
The answer to whether the private sector can provide education is clearly ‘yes’ because around the world for a very long time private firms have provided education very successfully. Both private sector for-profit and not-for-profit business models exist. Education, at some level of description, is a service like any of a very large variety of goods and services provided very efficiently by the market. The generalization that markets work holds quite meaningfully in the specific case of education broadly.
It may be worthwhile to briefly expand on what “markets work” means, say, in the context of a good such as computers (both hardware and software.) Basically, there is a demand for computers, or in other words, people are willing to buy them. Firms supply to the market to make a profit. They innovate to increase the variety of the goods to increase their revenues, and figure out ways to reduce their costs so that they have greater profits. Like the large number of profit-seeking firms on the supply side, on the demand side, a very large number of consumers also enter the market with the generalized desire to get the most bang for their buck. The competition that arises from the self-interested behavior of consumers and producers ruthlessly forces unfit computers (and therefore the firms that make them) out of the market and relentlessly drives up the quality and variety, while prices constantly fall.
It is a Schumpeterian world out there – red in tooth and claw. But out of the dance of creative destruction, emerges things that no one—however smart or wise—could have ever predicted. Let me stress that: no one knows what amazing stuff the market will deliver, who will make it, how it will be made, how much it will cost, what it will be priced at, how it will be improved upon and by whom. Nobody knows, and that includes government bureaucrats or politicians, regardless of how strenuously they claim to know. The inescapable fact is that every innovation, every object that you use, every service that you enjoy, arose overwhelmingly in the private sector, through the risk-taking, imaginative, innovative, entrepreneurial spirit of individuals driven by a basic desire to make a buck.
So is there no role for the government? Yes there is. First, it has to ensure what is called a “level playing field,” to set the rules, to resolve disputes, and maintain such institutions that are necessary for supporting the functioning of the market. Second, in case of market failures (which we will not go into here as this is not a text book on basic economics), to do what it can reasonably do without making the problem any worse. If the government cannot do better than the imperfect markets can, then it is better for us to live with the results of the market failures.
Here then is the basic recommendation that one is forced to make: let the private sector supply educational services in India. The government must not be in the business of providing education at any level. Let the market have a go at it. The government of India is not capable of providing education. It has demonstrated its incapacity over decades, and there is no reason to believe that it is even theoretically up to the job. Education is too critically important for the future of India for it to be left to the government. In today’s world, more than ever, education is a dynamic service. It requires innovation, creativity, entrepreneurial talent, risk-taking ability and human resources—all of which are sorely missing in the government. It is government control of the sector which has had the unfortunate consequence of Indian education to resemble Keynes’ characterization of education as “the inculcation of the incomprehensible into the indifferent by the incompetent.”
Part 8: Scarcity
Consider this list: cars, scooters, telephone service, airline ticket, seats in schools and colleges, electricity, and railway tickets. Think of the year 1980. Notice the common feature of the list: shortages. Now consider the list in the year 2007. Notice some things on the list are no longer scarce. It cannot be mere coincidence that only those items which the government has released it stranglehold on are no longer scarce. Could it be possible that if the government lets go of its vise-like grip of schools and colleges, that shortage of educational services will also be a thing of the past?
Given sufficient time, shortages have a way of entering into our worldview so that we simply start considering them as normal and acceptable. Today the power supply where I live in Pune failed for over two hours. It is remarkable that I have accepted that power in India is unreliable and don’t work up a sweat (only figuratively speaking, though.) It is part of our survival mechanism. We adjust to unreasonable situations. That’s how it is, we explain, and cope with it. We have become inured to the mad struggle that people go through to get their children into schools and colleges. We forget how astonishingly unnatural it is that something as basic as a good education involves almost superhuman effort.
Chronic shortages do not occur naturally. You can have acute sporadic shortages due to shocks to the system. But chronic shortages have to be carefully engineered and the machinery that creates shortages has to be kept in good working order. Otherwise the natural tendency for a market is to close the gap between the quantity demanded and the quantity supplied. This is a fundamental truth about the world of humans.
One effect of persistent shortage is low quality. Lacking the discipline enforced by the customer’s freedom of choice, suppliers don’t have an incentive to ensure quality. The consumer is happy to receive even shoddy goods and services because it is a struggle to get anything at all. Take it or leave it, is the basic attitude of the producers in a sellers’ market.
In summary, it is misguided government policy that lies at the root of our dismal education system. The policy change required is to allow the private sector unfettered access to the education market. Will the private sector supply educational services? An unqualified yes because there is money to be made. Currently around 10 percent of GDP is spent on education, which amounts to around US$60 billion. Half of India’s population is below 25 years of age. That defines the addressable market for educational services. If the supply of educational services were to meet the suppressed demand, the annual spending on education will be many multiple times the current level.
Which brings up one of the most important matter associated with education. There is an implicit ban against for-profit educational institutions in India. Why this is so is hard to understand. For-profit producers of other goods and services are not banned. Indeed, it is clear to see that for-profit organizations produce most of the critically important goods and services. The only caveat is that these for-profit firms have to face competition. That’s the bottom line: allow all firms to enter the market, regardless of whether they are for profit or not. The market forces will regulate the firms so that the supply rises to meet the demand, the quality improves, and the prices reflect the underlying costs.
One final point: what about the poor? First, for education up to the secondary level, those who are unable to pay for their education should be publicly supported through vouchers which are redeemable at private schools of choice. Second, for post secondary education, those who are unable to pay should be given loans. Recall that post secondary education has a short payback period and the return on investment in education is positive. So the loan recovery with interest is not a problem.