Monday, February 11, 2008


And no, it's about that party across the border. But first, let us get the random stuff out of the way.


It rained in Hyderabad this morning. Apres le deluge, hornbills.

(Note besplattered and bedraggled beeeater (?) in the bottom right of the frame.)

These twits are obviously very far away, but rather endearingly bumbling through the wet foliage.


Mathematical jokes have appeared here before. A variation on the theme is to be found at the "Wild About Math" blog. The "Deferential Equations" one is side splitting.


The search for the Democratic presidential nominee has now resulted in the creation of two new electoral constituencies whose behaviour psephologists must be falling over each other to understand and predict. With a black man and a white woman as the front runners, black women and white men in the electorate find themselves in the unique position of having been sliced and diced into a "vote bank". How will they vote? Will race pip gender, or what?

The NPR type commentators are positively tickling themselves silly into paroxyms of pleasure trying to figure out what these two demographics will do? A Hillary-Obama (Hilbama?) ticket might just turn out to be solid gold, but it's such a pity it will be wasted because this (of all elections) should be a wrap for the Dems. A scarecrow endorsed by Ted Kennedy should do the trick (although, against that notorious outlier McCain, one must be cautious about making predictions freely).

We live in interesting times, the radio need not be turned off.


In a seminal discovery made about 3 minutes ago, we realize that mashing up dates (i.e. khajoor) with those Amul cheese cubes (or chiplets or whatever) results in the most delicious and pasty confection ever. Mmm. Try it. Remember, you heard it here first.

Yes, we skipped breakfast, and these two things were all we could find in the fridge that were consumable at short notice. This is how Alexander Fleming discovered pencillin.


Long post. Ram wrote us an email pointing to an article (PDF) in the Economic and Political Weekly (EPW). The author is Prof. Krishna Kumar, director of NCERT. The article is titled "Partners in Education" and is apparently about:

Public-Private Partnership in school education is projected as a strategy to distribute the ownership of institutions, rather than tasks within institutions, between private entrepreneurs and NGOS on the one hand, and the government or state on the other. While the rationale for PPP is inefficiency of the government, the means offered to overcome it actually promise no relief or improvement. PPP is not an idea, but rather an ideology which promotes privatisation as a means of reducing the government’s responsibility to increase the number of schools.

Ram wanted some of us (including Melli and Rajni) to comment on how we thought Asha (with which we have all been associated one way or the other) fitted into the NGO scheme suggested by Prof. Kumar. This resulted in Ludwig actually spending a boatload of time reading the article and trying to parse it, and a very, very long email comment, which basically follows, in lieu of the usual insane blog post.

So much for where I think Asha lies in the spectrum of NGOs (i.e. this is my answer to your question!). That being said, I think the article has some problems, mostly to do with the way the argument is presented, which I will try and describe. My basic point is that the article is somewhat confusing and this clouds the argument.

The line of reasoning in the article appears to be as follows:

1. There are valid sounding arguments for why the state should be dislodged from the business of education. Data on teacher absenteeism, dropout rates, achievement etc. proves that state investment in schools is wasteful. On a less quantitative and more rhetorical level, there is the argument that "quality" in state schools is abysmal. The state has failed, therefore a privatized system is needed.

2. One flaw in this argument is that votaries of privatization are seemingly unable to point to a successful model where the state does not serve as the primary education provider. There are no answers to this query, and in any case this question is increasingly never asked.

3. One way to confer increased legitimacy on any argument is to claim that it is a new idea. So the name "public private partnership" (PPP) is invented and touted as the silver bullet.

4. However, the idea of private intervention in education is quite old, and what is being called PPP has been around for many years now, since colonial times at least, in the form of the aided-school model. There are structural weaknesses in this model which have been visible for the last 100 years, but effectively, it continues to be promoted under the new name (PPP).

5. [So far, so good. Here is where, in my opinion, the confusion (textual, logical) starts.] Kumar says:

"Offering solid evidence of the meagreness of structural change in education since colonial days, the state-aided private-initiative model of institutional expansion has earned a renewed and vigorous favour today. And the state continues to feel persistently reluctant to own up to its primary responsibility for educating all its children in ways that would necessitate reforms in the system. This aspect of the meaning of PPP is quite apparent."

This, I confess, is somewhat incomprehensible to me. I'm afraid I cannot fathom what the "aspect of the meaning of PPP" is. Likely, my training (such as it is) is insufficient for me to parse this paragraph. If you can decipher and explain, I will be obliged. Further:

"The meaning which lurks in the zone of opacity has to do with the culture of outsourcing, especially in the context of non-government organisations (NGOs)."

A segue into the NGO section ("NGO Outsourcing") of the article follows (we briefly bid goodbye to the PPP angle). An important point (to my mind) is that no distinction is made between not-for-profit NGOs and for-profit NGOs (businesses).

6. Broad descriptions of the 3 types of NGOs (discussed above, in the context of the Asha position).

7. The NGOs, regardless of what type they are, have contributed to making the PPP argument sound more plausible i.e. NGOs (especially the corporate ones) assert that the state is redundant, run their own school systems, and in some sense "prove" the claim that PPP (in the sense of setting up a parallel system of schooling) works. This is in contrast with the notion of PPP where the private party (HSTP, MVF, for example) aids/supplements existing state school systems.

8. "In the history of private education, philanthropic efforts leading to high-quality education have played a very limited role, while profit-seeking has been an inappropriate (and illegal) goal to acknowledge. Private providers and their supporters therefore continue to succeed in shielding the normal, entrepreneurial aspect of educational ventures." Only the judiciary has so far called a spade a spade and said that these private entities are nothing more than profit seeking enterprises (by saying that setting up schools is part of their "right to occupation").

9. The state's response to pro-privatization claims is increasingly muted, thanks partly to the "speedy spread of the ideological discourse associated with neoliberalisation and globalisation among government officials." From this rises the instrumentalist view of the state where it is just another player in the market, one that merely performs a set of tasks without regard to the long term health of the system. An advantage of this view is that it makes the state look different from a corrupt regime of bureaucracy and less prone to political indoctrination.

10. The state doesn't view existing or past successful PPPs (for that is what they are/were) such as Ekalavya or the MV Foundation programme as a partnership, which is a pity.

11. There are other glaring gaps in the education scenario such as teacher training etc. which need to be addressed in a serious way. We need IIT-IIM style institutions to deal with this. Why don't PPP votaries advocate these things?

Phew. OK, my email is in danger of turning out to be longer than the original article, but it is helping me make more sense of the original. Would it be fair to say that in summary, what Krishna Kumar is saying is the following:

People are advocating PPP in education.
They are doing so claiming that the current state system of schooling has failed, and that PPP will improve the efficiency of the system i.e. improvements in quality and efficiency is the _main_ reason why PPP ('bad' profit seeking PPP) in education should be encouraged.
What they are hiding is that the real reason for PPP is that it might be very profitable. It is somehow politically incorrect to say that PPP is about making a profit and not about philanthropy/improving the system etc. and so they have to resort to the "state has failed, PPP will make things better" argument, to look good.
The activity and attitude of some NGOs (the 'corporate' ones especially) give credence to the PPP argument by repeating it.
An important argument against PPP (i.e the 'bad' privatization and corporatization of education by setting up a parallel schooling system rather than improving the existing system (HSTP, MVF) PPP) is that it hasn't been shown to work anywhere before. Most (all?) nations with advanced levels of education involved considerable state contribution.
So PPP may not work.

OK, so in my view, Krishna Kumar's main gripe is that "(i) PPP votaries claim that PPP is about improving efficiency and not about profit (ii) PPPs (the 'bad' ones) haven't worked historically anywhere".

This really doesn't constitute a solid argument against PPPs (the 'bad' ones) itself, no? At best it is an accusation of hypocrisy/bad faith/whatever against PPP supporters, "You're claiming that you support PPP for one reason, but the actual reason is something else."

If this is the main thrust of the article, I find it a somewhat complicated way to state the case (resulting in even more complicated emails!). On the other hand, if the article is about arguing against PPPs themselves...

Someone of the libertarian ilk will happily concede that "Yes, PPPs are about making money for the NGOs involved we don't deny that, the improvements in education/increased efficiency are side effects of this activity. The fact that there are no instances of a majority PPP driven effort successfully improving the lot of education in a country is neither here nor there, it hasn't been tried so you can't claim it will fail."

In my opinion, a coherent argument against PPPs has not been presented in this article. At the very least, some instances of PPP (the 'bad' ones) based programmes in other comparable parts of the world that have failed totally would have helped. Questions/arguments involving some reasonably basic economics, common sense and straightforward reasoning would have also been great. Some points might be:

How many successful private schools exist in the remote rural areas? (see this)
How can they be profitable and high quality at the same time?
Is it really possible to set up a perfect 'market' like system, where parents can switch kids from a bad school to a good one at will?
If government schools don't work, how do you explain Kendriya Vidyalayas and other such schools? Why do they work?

Of course, these are all very lowbrow for an EPW piece :-) but I am sure it is possible to spin the necessary verbiage around this foundation.

Note that one of the confusions in the original article is that I feel the need to keep distinguishing between the 'good' PPPs (MVF, HSTP) and the 'bad' PPPs (profit seeking), it would've been nice to use different terminology for both, no?

OK, this is long enough. I hope I've made my point clear.

In response, Melli (among other things) said that:

(1) Interesting that you felt that the article does not make the case against PPP strongly. I felt it made the case, but after reading your note I realized it is my bias which influences my thinking - I agree with most of what KK says anyway, so I was not looking for a strong case so to speak. In my mind, education is a state responsibility, simply because "for all, equally" is not something the market can ensure. The market is inherently unequal in my opinion functions on the basis that there are multiple levels. That is OK when it comes to say the transportation system, where one can say "I cannot afford to go in a luxury bus which will go on time, so I will go in this cheaper, standing room only bus". Education, IMHO, has to be "for all" and "equal".

To which we said:

Note that I carefully did not say anywhere that I didn't agree with KK :-) I'm sure I haven't given it anywhere near the kind of thought you all have, but in general even I don't see how PPPs ('bad' PPPs!) will change anything fundamentally. My role in the reply was to try and show that _if_ the purpose of the article was to critique PPPs, that wasn't done too well, and to play a limited devil's advocate role and show what points someone who is a "neoliberal" or "libertarian" or whatever could potentially raise to critique the critique. In general I mostly concur with your #1, with the caveat that I'm open to arguments which will convince me fully one way or the other.

A further point that Melli made was:

Oh, and one more point - I think it is well-worth answering the question of why KVs work and state run govt. schools do not. In past discussions we have come to realize some points: (a) KV has Rs. 6000 per child, whereas a govt. school has Rs. 2000 per child. (b) the quality of hired teachers - maybe because KVs are smaller in number and central govt. jobs are more 'prestigious' they do attract good people - some headmasters/mistresses and teachers are simply excellent at KVs (as a side point we do not have enough excellent teachers to staff all govt. schools in the country, there are some funny stats on that). Additionally, the KV headmaster/mistress seems to have some autonomy, which might make a critical difference (c) KV children are typically _not_ first generation learners, and as Ram says for first generation learners the teacher-student ratio should be 1:5. But this begs the question of why the Navodaya Vidyalayas (KVs in rural areas, introduced in Rajiv Gandhi's time) are doing well. Apparently they are doing quite well. Ram had some thoughts on figuring out these differences, but now he is happily at Puvidham, so we have to wait for him to come back before we can analyze this further :) Seriously, I think we should explore why this is so. KVs and Navodaya Vidyalayas show that govt. institutions can be well run (a Navodaya Vidyalaya near Mandya is apparently extraordinarily good, so says my old school (a KV type school) headmistress). What is their hiring mechanism? Are the students really first generation learners? How much autonomy do they have? (Autonomy clearly plays a role - as we can see from the success of IITs, another state institution, but run autonomously by a board with I suppose appropriate checks and balances).

To which we said:

I think we've had these discussions ourselves before, and pretty much all the points you make are possibly factors. I have a slightly more high falutin' thought behind why KVs work, which is a kind of class based analysis. The children in KVs come from the same socio-economic background (largely) as their teachers, indeed quite often the children of the teachers are _in_ the KVs that their parents teach at. This is possibly a factor in KV teachers/administrators having strong motivation to care of their own. The sense of accountability towards other parents etc. is a lot stronger. We like to take care of our own, and each class watches out for itself implicitly. I really haven't studied the Navodaya Vidyalaya system at all, but what you say sounds interesting.

Basically what we're saying is that a KV teacher/staff member has a degree of empathy with a KV parent (due their congruent socio-economic backgrounds) that results in more accountable behaviour from the teacher/staff member. Your average village or basti schoolteacher or headmistress with a B. Ed. or whatever doesn't have any stake in the lives of the villagers or construction workers whose kids (s)he teaches. Each 'class' looks out for its own.

Anyway, the discussion continues...

1 comment:

Hyderabadiz said...

We have a news post on Hyderabadi Comedy: Bakra. Best wishes.