Thursday, June 16, 2011

Other Sphere : Profits and Schools

Author:- Anurag Behar

Profit is not a legitimate pursuit in a social relationship of trusteeship such as education. The six-ft-three-inch frame, and a boxer's build, suggests that Prabhu can handle whatever may be required to be handled in Bellary. Although, what Prabhu handles is altogether more innocuous and a lot more meaningful than what is usually handled in Bellary. He runs a well-regarded school.

When I met him last, he had come back from a short course at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He narrated in a matter-of-fact manner, how he started more than 10 years ago with the belief that he would run a high-quality, financially self-sustaining school, and how hard that has been. His experience has taught him that the attempt to run a good-quality school is very hard to make financially self-sustaining.

His ideas of quality have taught him to respect a set of basics, and he doesn't compromise on these basics. These include: the number of teachers in school, their compensation, their professional development and that of other staff, improvements in curriculum, curriculum support material and infrastructure. In his experience the cost structure built up by the basics demands that he charges a price in the market (school fees), which is unavailable. The size of that segment of the market that can pay that fee is so small that the costs are unsustainable. And this is Bellary, not exactly the most impoverished of places in India.

Prabhu has an MBA, with many years of history in business; he is not a dreamy-eyed idealist. It's just that he wants to run a good school, without compromises. He bravely trudges along on the edge of financial abyss, often supporting the school through income from other business and contributions made by like-minded philanthropists.

His story is, in no way, unique. There are hundreds of such people, across the country, striving for good education, within their means and context. There are also many more, running schools for profit. They will never state their goal, but that is the truth. You can see that in the compromise that they make on the basics, often shockingly so. While in a country as large as India, there are always exceptions, there are few other ways to profit in schools.

Profits and money are not just important, but essential, in any society. But money, finance and economics may be very limiting and invalid perspectives, in certain contexts. Actions driven by them may just not work, in these domains.

It doesn't work in schools. A closer look, even through the limited view of education as a "service", in the framework of markets, is enough to highlight some of these reasons. One set of issues arises from the ever-present information and knowledge asymmetry between the provider of education i.e., the school, and its users i.e., children and parents. In a situation like this, the provider must do their best—an honest attempt to deliver good service—irrespective of whether the user discriminates between what is good and not-so-good.

This is a professional obligation. You do expect that a doctor would do her honest best for her patient, although the patient may have no idea what is good (or best). The school situation is akin, but the professional obligation on the school is even greater. This is because of two reasons.

One, at a real, practical level the ability of the user to "shop around" for alternative providers is very limited, because the rhythm of schooling makes location an almost insurmountable constraint. Two, the school is responsible in very deep ways, for the present and future life of the child, and by the collective future of its students, it also influences society.

In this situation of asymmetry, to do an honest job of its professional obligation, the schools' cost structures become such that the fee required to make it sustainable (forget profitable), is not available. It's not available primarily because it's simply unaffordable by a very large majority in the country.

The unfortunate fact is that there are hundreds of seemingly respectable schools giving short shrift to the basics of good education. This pursuit of profits through short shrift is scandalous. In the doctor analogy, this is like "I will keep charging you a relatively low fee, because that is what you can pay, but not cure you, though I know what it takes to cure you; because this is my business".

I have just scratched the surface of the issue of profits and education. Let me leave for other occasions, attempts to talk about even more fundamental issues in this regard, e.g. what is the value of education, which, in turn, is linked to the issue of the purpose of education, the long term and often immeasurable impact of school education and so on.

At the heart of all this is an acceptance that money and economics are not necessarily the most relevant frames of reference for all human endeavors. And that profit is not a legitimate pursuit in a social relationship of trusteeship such as education.