Education at the cost of ethics?

Seetha Anand Vaidyam

In our land there existed gurukulams to which parents sent their children to be prepared for life. At the end of their education a gurudakshina was offered to the guru or the teacher. The gurudakshina that was offered was in accordance with what each parent could afford. There was no specific amount prescribed, simply because the learning that was imparted was considered priceless and the dakshina was merely a humble token of appreciation for the love, care, and involvement of the guru. Today, such gestures seem too sophisticated and idealistic! While we certainly need a more concrete framework and guidelines for educational transactions, it is astounding to see the shape and size that profits and revenue in educational institutes have taken. It is not just about the mounting costs of education, fee hikes, etc. These may be seen as inevitable due to the general inflation and its corresponding effects, but they do not entirely account for the rapid commercialization of this sector. Now what is the difference between financial viability and commercialization? The following narratives will perhaps make it somewhat clear.

  • I received a call from a relative recently. She was confused, agitated, and frustrated. The reason behind her woes – her daughter’s school. The school was laying undue pressure from the middle of the year to pay the school fee for the next year. If the child’s admission for the next year was confirmed the previous year itself and they paid part of the amount, they would get a concession in the fee. So students studying in the same class would be paying different amounts in the same year! The parent has a transferable job and it was unfair to arm twist her into paying more simply because the parents could not confirm an admission for the following year in the middle of the current year. (This makes me wonder – Will the school not be viable if it did not collect the fee so much in advance? Or will it make a ‘dent’ in the kind of car the owner of the school drives?)
  • The next story is from a relative who was a conscientious parent, who believed in giving her child healthy wholesome foods. The child was demanding chocolates and packaged snack items that were being sent home with the child every now and then from school. Further questioning led to the information that the school had a commercial understanding with certain companies that sell chocolates, packaged snacks, and instant foods (the kinds that we are advised by nutritionists to avoid). These companies were allowed to market their products (read: pressurize children into buying them) in the school premises and children were given samples of the products and promotional material about them. Children in turn pressurized parents into buying these products. When some parents questioned the school they were told that this was part of the revenue that the school made and that they were free to leave the school if they were unhappy about it! (How can schools that have lessons on healthy eating even think of such forms of revenue generation?)
  • One school asked its teachers to sign salary receipts for a said amount but in actuality paid them a lower sum in cash. There is yet another case of a school that terminated the tenure of some of its teachers at the end of the school year and recruited them afresh so as to avoid paying them during the summer holidays. (Saving money at what cost? Teachers drive the success of a school and when they are not valued, the quality of education is compromised.)
  • Children with allergies are asked to refrain from eating certain foods. One parent whose child was allergic to certain foods requested the school to exempt the child from having school food due to health reasons. The school, after a lot of hesitation, agreed but asked the parent to pay the lunch fee irrespective of whether or not the child ate the school meal, as it was part of the “package”. (What kind of education can be expected from schools that follow such mercenary policies?)
  • One residential school was sending the children home for an unscheduled break. While most students and parents were happy to get some bonus time together, some who probed into the matter learned that the sudden holiday was given in order to hoodwink inspectors coming to inspect the facilities of a college which was also run by the same management. Part of the school buildings, hostel, and infrastructure were being projected as belonging to the college so as to facilitate recognition and certification! Even the school name board was being covered up and replaced. (How can educators speak of falling standards of morals, rampant corruption and ethics when practices such as these are brushed under the carpet?)

And … I thought we sent children to school to learn not just academics but also good values!

In the process of getting clarity between financial viability and commercialization, I have become thoroughly confused about the relationship between commercialization of education and ethics. Is there a difference? Isn’t it unethical to be commercial in a field such as education?

For four decades now I have been experiencing school education in India, as a student, as a parent, as a teacher and now as a trainer. While I feel very passionate about being associated with the field of education, it has also shocked me no end to see the growing commercialization/unethical practices in education in India.

Escalating fees and money collected under the guise of contributing to a host of needs such as building fund, fetes, and annual day functions is just the tip of the iceberg. The tie ups with uniform suppliers, thrusting of unnecessary stationery items, partnering with coaching centers, hospitals and aptitude consultants and what not, the list is endless and unimaginable for straightforward parents. Further, below the iceberg is the whole spectrum of higher/college education. The teams of brokers engaged in settling capitation fees, the bargaining, the various percentages/‘cuts’ that have to be shelved at various levels while ‘negotiating’ for an admission into professional courses may not just send your head spinning at the complexity but will make you nauseous while trying to digest the levels to which commercialization of education has descended.

There is no doubt that an educational institution, just like any functioning entity, has a right to meet its financial requirements. It is important to be financially viable in order to sustain in the service. However, what defies acceptance are the type and extent of means adopted. This has undoubtedly resulted in the lowered standards of education. The focus of schools today appears to be not just to provide holistic education but how to maximize revenue and extract money from their clients – the hapless parents. Children learn more through experience and example rather than through lecturing/preaching and oral instructions. If educational institutes do not practice what they preach, then we cannot hope for true education to be imparted through them.

Corrective measure should include –

  • A strict code of guidelines to be adhered to while formulating fee collection policies, including a slab on the fee that could be collected by a school.
  • Ban on schools marketing any products.
  • Simplifying teaching aids and techniques and ban on unnecessary expensive gadgets.
  • Stringent laws to enforce transparency in school financial dealings.
  • Appointing parent and government representatives in school account management.
  • Measures to exempt schools from taxes and thereby making them truly non-commercial. When profits are not made taxes do not have to be paid.
  • Encouraging educational philosophers/thinkers to enter into the field of education.
  • Giving parent bodies a more formal recognition to play a role in school policy formation.

Schools are where seeds of ideas, values, and knowledge are sown. If the seeds and the environment are not healthy, it will not be conducive to the growth of healthy individuals and strong characters.

The author is an Early Childhood Curriculum Developer, Trainer, and Remedial Therapist. She works through Ananda, a Foundation for holistic and healthy learning and living. She can be reached at seethaanand@yahoo.com.

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