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A SCHOOL FOR SALE - Public awareness can curtail commercialism in education

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By AndrÉ BÉteille The author is Professor Emeritus of Sociology, Delhi School of Economics, and National Research Professor
  • Published 2.06.11
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Not very long ago, I received a letter which left me perplexed. The letter contained an offer for the purchase of a school. People have from time to time tried to sell me all kinds of things, from used air-conditioners to homeopathic treatment for hair loss, but I did not even know that there was a trade in the sale and purchase of schools.

The letter in question was addressed to me by name but I doubt that the person who wrote it knew much about me except that I was the chairman of the managing committee of a prominent school in south Delhi. The subject of the letter was marked in the appropriate place as “Proposal for M&A, tie-up or take-over of School in DLF Gurgaon”. It pointed out that the organization it represented had a well-established and reputed nursery school on a plot measuring 0.37 acres and with a covered area of 4,000 square feet. It was not made very clear as to which was the more tempting part of the offer, the little children in their innocence and joy or the prime land with its well-constructed covered area.

I rang up the principal the same morning and asked her whether we should not discuss the letter. She seemed censorious not only about the offer but also about my question. She told me somewhat coldly that she had sent the letter to me because it was addressed to me, and that if it had been addressed to her she would have put it in the waste-paper basket.

When I brought the same matter up with another person who is not a school principal or a school manager, but active nevertheless in the promotion of education, I got a different answer. He asked me why, if a useful service was being provided in a country that badly needed such a service, I should object because those offering the service expected to be paid. He told me that I was simply a prisoner of the ideological prejudices common to Left intellectuals in India whose mindless hostility to business had harmed the development of both education and the economy.

There are now many who advocate the use of the ‘business model’ in every kind of institution, association and organization. There are various reasons behind the growing appeal of the business model. Most people think of the government and the market as virtually the only two alternatives for the satisfaction of wants. After some 60 years of government mismanagement in almost every sphere of activity, people are now ready to seize the opportunities offered by the market if only to escape the clutches of the government. But while business is a most important component of every modern society, its record of performance even in its own sphere of competence is not altogether unblemished, and one might ask if that sphere of competence itself extends to every field of society.

I do not wish to suggest that business is governed solely by the unscrupulous pursuit of material gain. There is a business ethic that is in significant respects different from the bureaucratic ethic. There is also a professional ethic, appropriate to such fields as law, medicine and education, which is, or ought to be, different from both. This simply means that a university, a hospital or a legal service cannot operate as just another business or just another department of the government. It does not mean, however, that they can operate without keeping in mind the rules of the government or the constraints of the market.

In an essay on the professions and social structure, the great American sociologist, Talcott Parsons, had pointed to the significance of professions such as law, medicine and education in the life of every modern society. He noted that the professions could make their contributions effectively only if they acted in the awareness that their role in society was different from that of business. He also pointed out that the professions did not enjoy the same significance in all societies but occupied a position of unique significance only in modern societies, by which he meant modern Western societies.

While acknowledging the independent significance of the professional ethic, we must not assume that it will be able to hold its own against the business ethic always and under all circumstances. The social significance of the professional ethic has waxed and waned with the decline and rise of the business model. There is little doubt that today that model is in the ascendant not only in India, but in most parts of the world. The economist Benjamin Friedman wrote in The New York Review of Books on April 29, 2010, “Some years ago my employer, Harvard University, decided to become a university with a hedge fund attached. Or maybe the idea was to be a hedge fund with a university attached.” This was no doubt written partly with tongue in cheek, but the message is quite clear. More than one American academic has told me that today the first thing that one must understand about the American university is that it is run like a business firm, so pressing are the problems of fund raising and fund management. And yet, the best American universities now have no rivals in the world.

I must make it clear in the end that in the field of education, the distinction between the business model and the professional model does not correspond necessarily with the distinction between private schools and government schools. Most government schools operate in accordance with the bureaucratic rather than the professional model, and there are private schools whose managers and teachers work with a keen awareness of their professional obligations as educators.

It is easy enough to establish and expand new professions, but there is no easy way of creating a professional ethic and insulating it from rampant commercialism or abject surrender to the bureaucracy. The professional ethic is not a gift of nature. It has to be cultivated and nurtured. What is required for this is not simply commitment and application from the professionals themselves but understanding and sympathy from the wider public. Educational institutions must be held to account for the funds they receive and use, but they should not be submitted to continuous pressure to generate their own revenues and to make profits in addition.

Businessmen can also be philanthropists, and the wiser ones among them recognize that the cultivation and transmission of knowledge need to be supported in the larger interest of society, and, indeed, in their own long-term interest. Philanthropists have always provided support to educational institutions, although this support has not been as generous in independent India as it might have been. In our times, even the most generous among philanthropists do not act only in the public interest. They are aware of the tax concessions and other benefits they receive by making donations to educational institutions, and there is no reason why they should not benefit from those concessions. But there are businessmen who take advantage of the concessions, and then run the institutions mainly for profit. This cannot be stopped altogether, but greater public awareness and vigilance can help to curtail its excesses.