Amartya Sen revisited

NEW DELHI: Amartya Sen complains (TOI, November 19) that I have not quoted him properly and distorted his views on education. Okay, let’s quote him at length.

Sen had written for the Pratichi Trust about a field study in West Bengal covering standard government schools and Shishu Shiksha Kendras (SSKs). Government teachers earn up to ten times as much as SSK teachers, yet parent dissatisfaction with government teachers (24%) is almost thrice as much as for SSK teachers (9%). Government teacher absenteeism is 75 per cent in schools with a majority of SC/STs, against 33% in schools where higher castes predominate. Of a sample of young children, 80% of those with private tuitions could write their names, but only 7% of others. Appalling!

The reason? Unionised teachers with political clout are accountable only to state capitals, not the communities they serve, and so get away with anything. My solution is to disempower the unions and empower the communities/parents. But Sen’s most acerbic attack is on private tuitions.

“The evil of private tuition must be uncompromisingly overcome. While this cannot be achieved overnight, given the low quality of school teaching, it has to be borne in mind that the safety valve of private tutoring – available to the more wealthy children from more powerful families – makes the teachers less concerned about not getting enough done in school.

“One evil breeds anther, and the inequity of private tuition not only reflects the inefficiency of the school system, it also helps to reinforce that inefficiency. Perhaps the strongest argument for banning private tuition lies in the recognition that its presence makes the more influential – and richer – parents less concerned about the quality of normal schooling. If private tuition becomes unavailable, the more powerful families will become more dependent on the schools for the education of their children (as the poor and less influential families already are) and the likely pressure this may generate on the running of schools may well be critically important for their efficient functioning.”

In my earlier column I attacked this passage for suggesting a ban on tuitions. Sen in his response denies having suggested a ban. This, I suspect, will mystify anyone reading the above passage. Still, I am gratified that Sen accepts the legitimacy of tuitions.

Sen speaks approvingly of a state ban on private tuitions by teachers. But his logic in the above quotation clearly applies to all tuitions, not just those by government teachers. By this logic, Sen should declare that Harvard University enables the rich to escape the shortcomings of government colleges, and so is an evil that must be uncompromisingly overcome. Instead, he is joining Harvard at a fat salary.

Take his logic further to other fields. Government health services are appalling, so the evil of private doctors must be uncompromisingly overcome. Government transport is terrible, so the evil of private transport must uncompromisingly be overcome. Government tubewells are moribund, so the evil of private tubewells must be uncompromisingly overcome. Hilarious!

His logic is fallacious. The vicious cycle he describes assumes that government teachers are unpunishable. But if communities can discipline them, the vicious cycle disappears. Many countries have shown that good private education and good public education are compatible, provided government teachers are punishable by local communities. Sen takes unpunishability as given, and from this jumps to the conclusion that the evil lies in private tuitions. Wrong. The evil is non-accountability of teachers. Tuition is a safety valve that can save the poor too if they are empowered with school vouchers.

That is why my earlier column strongly suggested empowering communities to discipline teachers, as in China. It also suggested vouchers. Sen is deafeningly silent on both suggestions, and claims that my solution is to let government teachers give tuitions. Rubbish, I want errant teachers sacked.

Sen does indeed suggest reforms like giving more legal power to parent-teacher associations, maybe even authorising them to withhold school appropriations. But surely the remedy is to discipline errant teachers, not close down schools. Power needs to go to communities/parents rather than PTAs. Sen and I agree that reform is needed.

The difference is that I insist on starting by empowering communities and making teachers punishable. I am dismayed by Sen’s reluctance to act or even talk tough with errant teachers. Listen.

“The high incidence of teacher absenteeism and other forms of neglect cannot be countered just through moral exhortation… Institutional collaboration would be needed in this”.

Dear reader, are you not struck by the difference in tone between Sen’s roaring denunciation of private tuition and his timid phraseology on errant teachers? Are you not dismayed, as I am, that errant teachers who have ruined the lives of millions of children should be cajoled instead of disciplined? Do you share my pain at betrayal by a guru I have long admired as a champion of empowerment?

What do you think?