In education systems that have an oligarchic organization, with a small number of large private and/or public players, educracies acquire a kind of totalitarian rather than an egalitarian expression.
From a current example in India, the government is flexing educratic muscles on a set of private affiliated (to a national education board) schools that comprise around 1% of all schools in India, but a much larger segment and visible segment within all private schools (about 25% of the total, as of 2014). These schools are affiliated to the CBSE and in fact gain their credibility itself from the affiliation, and are large autonomous in their practices and governance. Some of these schools have gained tremendous national and international visibility for their alumni, quality and hard work. However, the extent of profiteering has been largely governed by the extent of their own missions and conscience.
So it does happen that when excessive profiteering occurs (and what is excessive is largely subjective), the school becomes a place for commercial exploitation of parents. Often times, the exploitation increases without any corresponding increase in quality or outcomes. In fact, it becomes a rule that the more you have, the more you get. Monies appropriated within one school foundation cycle (average breakeven is 5-7 years), provide room for expansion and often viral growth of branches and franchisees.
At some point, some governments feel compelled to reign in these practices – when it becomes politically expedient or populist, or when other twisted motives of control and cultural or ideological influence emerge – not necessarily at the point that systems need change, but even after years of ignoring these problems.
When this happens, as it is happening in this instance in India, questions of quality and growth are rarely asked or answered. It is fairly easy to regulate, but difficult to state that it will solve the core problems of quality. By fixing fees, removing profiteering at schools, abolishing black money, increasing control over school affairs to extend from mere affiliation to more control and regulation over school internal and hitherto autonomous ways of working, the system of control and coordination is being extended.
This will have many benefits, predominantly in the region of reducing exploitation by private schools. In that respect, no parent will find fault with the inherent populist and necessary nature of the regulation. Some things do need to be kept in mind though, particularly from an edTech ecosystem perspective.
- The fledgling ecosystem of edTech companies are already battling problems of customer acquisition and scale. With pressure on fees, most schools will not be able to pass on marked up edTech costs (like of smartclasses) to students and will therefore have no incentives to deploy the additional services (except to do a me-too marketing spiel).
- Existing service providers or digital and allied forms of courseware will be under increased stress to operate in uncertain investment environments and venture capital will cease and desist until the situation improves. This will impact growth of the sector negatively.
- The government ecosystem for edTech is very primitive yet and there are few capabilities within the system to create and employ edTech. This constraint is not going away anywhere soon. There must be a solution to this for the long term, with a key component being research.
The next questions that need to be answered with equal vigor are around quality, not just of these 1% schools, but of all the school system itself.
Will mandating courseware developed by a state sponsored institution necessarily improve quality and do we need such uniformity in materials?
Will elimination of or deep negative impact on edTech procurement by these schools be desirable and can the gap be filled?
Does this still allow high quality schools to operate with the flexibility they need and maintain their ability to hire more expensive teachers and infrastructure?
Do we need uniform learning indicators for all our schools?
Do we need differentiated and pluralistic strategies towards edTech?
Do we need to foster an edTech sector at all or can government take that responsibility?