Making things happen: Leverage public-private partnership

The recently announced National Education Policy is being lauded by most of those associated with education. It undoubtedly is a visionary document that takes a comprehensive look at this critical sector. At a conceptual level, the Policy can’t be faulted except perhaps in its inability to appreciate the role of the private sector in school education and the potential of public-private partnership.

Unfortunately, the policy expects almost everything to be done by the government, keeping the private sector at a safe distance. ”For-profit” continues to be a dirty word. The policy overlooks the fact that around 50 percent of children go to private schools and the number is increasing by the day. This ‘suspicion’ of anything that is non-government will make the tasks of those that will be responsible for implementation of the policy even more difficult.

Contrary to the belief of some people, private sector is already playing a big role in the social sector. It is directly participating in government schemes of social transformation and relief. Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY), hailed by the World Bank as “a model of good design and implementation with important lessons for other programmes in India”, rode on public-private partnership. 

The scheme was almost totally funded by the Government but the private sector insurance companies competed with public sector companies to provide insurance cover. Similarly, the private sector hospitals were empanelled along with the public hospitals to provide greater choice to the beneficiary. This healthy competition also improved the quality of delivery in government hospitals. The re-incarnation of RSBY, PMJAY (Prime Minister’s Jan Aarogya Yojana) is also thriving on public-private partnership to benefit millions of poor in the country.

After my stint in the coal sector, when I took over as Secretary, School Education, Government of India I soon discovered “that whereas in the coal sector, mining was underground and mafias operated above it, in the ‘minefield’ of school education it was the other way around. Al the mafias existed underground” (Ethical Dilemmas of a Civil Servant). The Right to Education Act, 2009 that was supposed to improve quality of education had done precious little and one of the primary reason was the ‘suspicion’ of the private sector.

This is not to say that they are all angels sitting in the private sector. There are indeed mafias there as well. However, these ‘bad apples’, though dominant, are limited in number. By leveraging the ‘good’ part of this segment and enabling them to expand, these ‘mafias’ can easily be isolated and made redundant.

 At another level the public-private partnership was making a huge difference in the field. As I travelled through the length and breadth of the country, I discovered some amazing models. How Sampark Foundation was transforming school education in interior parts of Chhattisgarh in collaboration with the state government was a revelation. The Akshara Foundation was doing the same under the inspired leadership of its Chairman, Ashok Kamath in Karnataka in sync with Ajay Seth, the then Principal Secretary, Education in Karnataka. 

Nand Kumar, Principal Secretary, School Education in Maharashtra was instrumental in promoting public-private partnership thereby bringing in qualitative improvement in delivery of education. Kaivalya Foundation, led by two stalwarts, Aditya Natraj and Manmohan, and their committed team were making the best use of a proactive School Education Secretary, Naresh Gangwar to impact quality of education in the state. Delhi’s transformation in school educated can also be attributed to this partnership.

There were many more such examples that made me believe that the humungous problems of school cannot be solved by government alone. These initiatives needed to be understood, evaluated, appreciated and replicated. All these and more such initiatives were identified, understood and scaled. The impact was becoming visible as these ‘performing’ NGOs were enabled to expand other domain to other states. The central government was now playing the role of a facilitator. It helped.

The NEP just makes a passing reference to the role of NGOs in the field of school education. For example, one of the chapters in the policy deals with getting the out-of-school children back. The Policy expects teachers to perform this role. If this were to happen, it would have happened long ago. Can the teachers do this job? Should the teachers who already feel burdened be doing this job? Perhaps, no. 

Is there an alternative? Yes. There are NGOs like Humana People to People already doing a wonderful job in tandem with the state governments. Can these efforts be replicated and scaled? Yes, because they are already being replicated. Scaling would require government support and facilitation. There are many such initiatives that are already happening in the field but for some unknown reason the Policy chooses to be indifferent.

Whether it is health or education, public-private partnership is already playing an important role. For it to become transformational, their role needs to be recognised and appreciated by the policymakers and “decision-takers”. By ignoring them we are missing out on a leverage that is already available and just hope for something to happen. The NEP hopes for 6% of GDP going to education sector. 

This ‘hope’ was expressed by Dr Kothari a few decades ago. It didn’t happen then. It will not happen now because it is not practically feasible to allocate that amount. The governments just don’t have the money. In fact, they are struggling to pay just the salaries of the teachers. Why can’t we be realistic and accept it? Why can’t we rid ourselves of our dislike for “for profit”? Many private schools are indeed making profits but not showing them as such. How about accepting a fact, allowing ‘profit’ to happen and taxing this profit. This will provide some part for “6%” that the Policy aspires for.