Tight public finances or otherwise, uniform subsidies are not the answer

By Megha Nayar. Megha is a 26-year old Communications professional from India, who has always lived for the written word. She is a copy-cum-content writer and editor by day, and a wordweaver by night. She is passionate about short stories, flash fiction and poetry, and is looking to publish her first collection of short stories soon. *2nd prize for the NUHA Adult Blogging Prize 2013*

During class X (grade ten), considered the most crucial year of an Indian student’s academic life, we were feverishly revising for our annual exams. During the final preparations, I noticed one of our classmates merrily doodling in her notebook. She seemed least inclined to study. “Don’t you want to revise? Aren’t you scared of bad scores?” I naively asked her. She smirked. “I don’t need to. I belong to the lower castes, and we benefit from reservation. Even if I manage a 50% score, I’ll still get through to medical school.”

Reservation and subsidies are not the same thing. But I’d go so far as to brand them cousins, if not siblings, in the damage and injustice they do, not just to the students, but to the nation as a whole. While the former often gives undeserving students an advantage over the meritorious, the latter is a blanket norm that measures all levels of acumen with the same yardstick.

What constitutes a subsidy? In layman and somewhat harsh terms, it is a discount on education to those that can’t afford it at market price. While some nations choose to provide subsidies based on individual needs, many others have uniform subsidies on a particular branch or branches of education, based on the age and socio-economic condition of the student’s family or the urgent need for professionals in a particular vocation, or both.

In a strict sense, to subsidize education is to make knowledge available cheaper, to prompt more people into academic excellence, to make it possible for the underprivileged classes to access a good life.

From a distance, this sounds like a utopian concept. It also sounds extremely pro-poor and developmental, creating the impression that this sort of magnanimity will uplift the lower classes of society. But zoom in closer and you realise that like everything that is not well-deserved, subsidies too are unlikely to be taken seriously unless they are implemented with exceptional intelligence.

In India, for instance, primary education up to grade VIII is subsidized by the central and state governments. In public schools, which mainly house students from the lower middle-income group and below, this is an inevitable measure if students are to go to school at all. Quite a few Indians believe that an extra child at work means two additional hands – tempting parents to initiate children into menial jobs. Worse, about 33% of Indians are excruciatingly poor, subsisting on less than US$ 1.25 a day. In such an environment, education of children is a lesser priority than the concern of how to put together a square meal by the end of the day. For these parents to send their children to school, free or subsidized education does become a necessary incentive.

However, when it comes to higher education, what do you make of private schools that receive government grants despite being attended by students perfectly capable of paying for their education?

I attended a school and an undergraduate college which were both partly funded by the state government. As a blanket subsidy, the state paid the major chunk of our tuition fees. In both places, I paid a paltry Rs 500 to Rs 1,000 a year (US$8 to US$18) – a fraction of what I’d have paid in a non-funded, entirely private institution. In school, I was one of 180 students in my class receiving this privilege. In college, I was one of 600.

I can say this without doubt, that almost all of us came from families that could very well have afforded to pay the full fees, without needing to avail any subsidy.

This is the core problem with subsidies – if they’re implemented across an entire spectrum without bifurcation, it’s impossible to judge how many really need it, and how many will be spoon fed with undeserved privilege.

When it comes to specialized education, we must consider that every stream has its own specific needs. While a postgraduate course in, say Journalism or Humanities, can be conducted with minimal additional apparatus, a degree in medicine or industrial design may work out more expensive in terms of the infrastructure involved. The cost of inviting an engineer to conduct a guest lecture may not be the same as that charged by a top-notch artist for conducting workshops. Why just faculty, even the amount of field work and practical exposure necessitated by each field is different. In that sense, students graduating from different fields will each be benefitted from state subsidies to the tune of different amounts. Their gains may vary vastly – and not necessarily according to their economic status, or in proportion to their ‘neediness’.

Also, what does one do with young people who’ve gained access to a particular stream of education, thanks to subsidies, but are ill-equipped to do justice to it? In the case of my classmate who went on to become a doctor – would you want to trust her with your life? If subsidies make it possible for me to access the most prestigious art school in the country, will that automatically make me a painter? If anything, I will be wasting a seat – a seat that could have gone to a more deserving candidate who had, perhaps, been preparing all their lives to get there!

It is also important to debunk some major myths that are purportedly ‘pro-education’ but seem latently myopic:

1. Education is the foundation of a nation. Hence, academic subsidies are a sound investment of public money. Education is, without doubt, the primary area of concern for any country. But in these times of heavy recession and unstable economies, it would be a short-sighted decision to issue blanket subsidies. The burden would be borne by other needy sectors, such as civic amenities. In India, for example, there are too few operational schools and too few teachers to accommodate all the students. Is this not an equal area of priority regarding investment of public money?

2. India is in the grip of ceaseless scams. Billions of rupees are lost to corruption. Why not use the money for education instead? The answer to one ailment cannot be another! Taking vulnerable public money away from plunderers, only to squander it away in mindless subsidies, is hardly a solution.

3. A blanket subsidy is the price you pay for developing education, never mind that all who benefit are not necessarily needy. In India alone, the money lost to subsidies given out to the non-deserving will run into inestimable billions. This is simply a lazy answer to the larger question of how to determine who should benefit.

We also tend to forget that it is unfair and even degrading to assume that intelligent, gifted students are incapable of earning their own education. Why provide a subsidy right away, without giving the student a chance to prove his / her merit? Besides, if every student sits smug in the knowledge that they will receive assistance, will that not impact their motivation and overall performance?

I am not suggesting that subsidies in higher education should be done away with altogether. But there should be sound means of identifying the areas where financial intervention from the state is necessary, and to what extent. This includes the age, sex, socio-economic conditions and other constraints, if any, faced by students.

The existing costs of courses, especially the more prestigious ones, need to be examined. Private institutes charging unreasonable fees must be made to explain their fee breakdown. The system of one-time donations (additional amounts coerced out of parents at the time of admission, then unaccounted for) must be immediately eliminated. Student loans should be readily available, at low or no interest rates at least from the public sector banks, so that students can finish their education and then pay their loans at their convenience. If needed, the quantity of scholarship money given out by government-funded institutes can be hiked, so as to give underprivileged students more scope. Additional scholarships may be introduced too.

If all of the above measures receive adequate attention, I am positive we will be able to encourage more efficient and more effective higher education, not just in India but across the globe, without succumbing to the temptation of easy, blanket subsidies.

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