We are facing an acute shortage of schools and colleges today leading to high-cutoffs and high reservations. We need to find ways of setting up many new schools and colleges quickly - in the urban areas where the population density is steadily increasing and in the rural areas where there are not enough schools and colleges. Special Education Parks (SPED Parks) might be a way to address the shortage.
The real estate and transportation angles to increasing the supply of education
Apart from the academic challenges of what to teach, who will teach and how to teach, there are two other challenges in increasing supply: real estate and transportation. In the urban areas, the real estate problem is going to be very acute, but in the rural areas real estate less so and transportation more so.
Let's look at urban areas first. Where is the space for new schools or colleges to start up in the cities? Or for that matter existing schools or colleges in the cities to expand? All the real estate in the cities is being taken up for residential and commercial development, a creeping phenomenon that also yields far higher returns, far quicker, than running a school. The Government itself will be unable to acquire land in the cities to build new schools. We will probably see skyscraper schools and colleges not too far in the future.
With supply falling far short of the demand, there is severe competition amongst parents to get their children into the schools that do a reasonably good job. Even average schools are now in a seller's market - they are able to charge a high premium and/or "donations". The schools demand that parents comply with their "rules and regulations" and get away without transparency or responding to parents' requests, complaints and queries (not that all schools do so). Parents have little choice but to meekly acquiesce, for fear of being asked to "take it or leave it." Frustrated, parents are now putting pressure on the Government and the legislators and demanding fee caps (sometimes to an unreasonable extent) and other kinds of controls on school managements to rein them in.
Many schools ration the number of application forms doled out and parents are more than willing to stand in queue for over 12 hours including an entire night just to be able to get their hands on an application form. Some parents even choose to shift their residence closer to a desirable school since some of those schools restrict admissions to students living within a radius of a few kilometres from the school. Those parents who are unable to get their kids into schools in the neighbourhood have no choice but to look for schools farther away from their residence. The demand for schools in the suburbs has also been going up, and the shortage of land for schools is just as much even in the suburbs and areas farther out. It will only get worse.
If parents are able to get their children into schools that are farther away, the next challenge is transportation. Many schools do run school buses, but children have to put up with long commutes in packed buses, whether it be a school bus or public transport. Buses are hostage to city traffic during peak hours.
Higher education faces the same problem too. The recent hue and cry about high cut-offs for admission to Delhi University Colleges is a manifestation of the huge gap between supply and demand in the number of available seats in good colleges. The thousands of crores a year industry that has sprouted up to coach students for the IITs, IIMs and other institutes is another manifestation of the same. On some occasions, age has to be used as a tie-breaker when too many candidates, who have all scored maximum marks, apply for too few seats. Capitation fees and donations abound in higher education too.
What will be the situation 10-15 years from now when millions more of students will be looking for access to school and college education if there aren't enough institutions to cater to their needs?
What can we do today to address this growing problem?
A trend in Chennai could be a pointer to the way to go. When the Tamil Nadu Government encouraged the setting up of self-financing engineering colleges starting in the early to mid nineties, many colleges sprouted up to address the needs of students in and around Chennai. With enough land not being available within the city or in the suburbs, the colleges went beyond the suburbs. Today there are over a 100 engineering colleges scattered across Chennai and its two neighbouring districts within a 40-50 km radius of Chennai. Every day, each of these colleges runs a fleet of buses to pick up the students in the morning from various points in the city and drop them back in the city in the evening, with the buses presumably idling the whole day. If all the colleges that are serving the needs of Chennai's students had been clustered together in 5 locations of 20 colleges each, that may have turned out to be a more optimal arrangement in many ways.
The Special Education Park (SPED Park) model
Tweaking the Chennai model a bit, we could look at setting up Special Education Parks (SPED Parks) around the major metros and Tier 2 towns across the country . Here's how it could work.
A city (a metro or say a city like Bhopal or Vishakapatnam) identifies a large area (about a few hundred acres) beyond its suburbs as a Special Education Park (SPED Park). The Government acquires the land and invests in building a large number of government schools and colleges in the SPED Park and also offers land to private parties, for a price, to set up many more schools and colleges in the SPED Park.
The city builds a fast Metro Rail line or a Bus Rapid Transit Road (BRT) connecting the SPED Park to various parts of the city through the Metro network and the road network to provide quick, noiseless, pollution-free and safe access to the SPED Park for a large number of people. The SPED Park is divided into a school sector and a college sector with a number of schools and colleges in their respective sectors. All schools share large common playgrounds and sports facilities, a large auditorium, a very large state-of-the-art library and laboratory facilities. All colleges share a set of hostels, a large library and also other facilities like state of the art laboratories, a student activity centre, a hostel, an auditorium, a food court and sports facilities. The Metro/BRT terminus of all the multiple metro/BRT lines coming into the SPED Park is centrally located in the SPED Park and all the schools and colleges in the SPED Park can be within a 5-10 minute walk from the Metro terminus. A frequent local shuttle service can also be organised from the Metro/BRT terminus to different parts of the SPED Park.
The benefits of the SPED Park model
- Today every school needs to invest in land not only for the classrooms but also for a playground, library and laboratory facilities and buses which are usually idle for a good part of the day and also idle during the winter and summer holidays. In a SPED Park, many schools can share all of these facilities thereby defraying the investment in the infrastructure across multiple schools. This can result in substantial savings of capital expenditure and optimal capacity utilisation of real estate and transportation.
- The schools/colleges can pay a usage fee per month per student to enable their students to gain access to state of the art laboratories and libraries and other facilities. The institutions don't each need to invest in capital expenditure anymore. They only need to incur monthly expenditure based on the number of students on their rolls. The common infrastructure can be set up and run by an infrastructure company that invests in the capital expense and charges schools for access to the infrastructure to recover its investment over many years. This can be termed as an infrastructure investment akin to that in roads, ports, airports etc.
- The SPED Park model will help to quickly expand the supply of schools in a city at one shot in a concentrated manner - a highly cost effective solution.
- The Metro/BRT will be a cost efficient form of transport and can run trains/buses every couple of minutes during the peak school commute hours of 7.00AM to 8.00 AM to transport the school and college students to the SPED Park and then redploy all those trains/buses to run on various other lines across the city through the day and back on the SPED routes in the evening to let students return home. This will result in optimal usage of the transport facilities.
- The cost of laying a Metro/BRT corridor from the SPED Park to various points in the city should be borne by the Government. Any student with an ID card can be allowed to travel free on the Metro/BRT by swiping his or her ID card. In case the Government wants to recover a part of the transport costs, it can recover a nominal amount per student per month from every school rather than asking each student to pay for transport separately.
- The clustering of schools and colleges can be advantageous in many ways. Schools and colleges can not only share infrastructure but also ideas, and learn from one another. They may even be able to share teachers. Within a SPED park, various other extracurricular activities can also be scheduled in the school zone from sports competitions, cultural competitions, public lectures etc to reach out to a large number of students.
- Housing colonies for teachers and the other staff working in the SPED Park can also be built adjacent to the SPED Park to enable all those working there to live close to their workplace. Indeed, the SPED Park can become the nucleus for future satellite townships.
In the case of rural areas, the SPED Park model can be adapted to suit the rural needs. Unlike in the cities, the population density is far lower in the rural areas with the population scattered across many villages. A rural SPED Park can be set up (for e.g. in small towns like Namakkal in Tamil Nadu or Barmer in Rajasthan or Kalna in W. Bengal) to serve all the villages within a 40 km radius of the town. The key will be to ensure reliable and safe bus services linking all the villages to the SPED Park to enable students to reach the SPED Park from their villages. Any student with an ID card can be allowed to travel free on the buses to and from the SPED to their villages. Every SPED Park can have a cluster of schools and colleges (for vocational education, arts and sciences, engineering, medicine, nursing, teacher training, management etc..). Indeed, Business Parks can be built adjacent to SPED Parks to house manufacturing and service businesses to provide employment opportunities to all those students graduating from the colleges in the SPED Park.
To implement a SPED park will require investment and a rethink on a variety of policy fronts:
(a) the real-estate and zoning plan for a city/town and its outskirts to plan for the city's radial growth for the next 20-30 years including the needs of satellite cities and towns.
(b) the transportation plan for a city and its satellite towns and suburbs in the urban areas and for a town and all the villages within a 50km radius of the town.
(c) our existing regulations for educational institutions that require each and every school/college to have a playground of a certain size, laboratories of a certain size, a separate library etc. If mobile phone companies that compete very aggressively in the market for customers are able to share tower infrastructure without any problems, there is no reason why school/college infrastructure cannot also be shared.
We need to ask ourselves the following question:
Knowing what we know today, if we were to design a set of rules, regulations and policies and set up the infrastructure to help us achieve our goals of
A. providing a quality school education for every single child and
B. increasing the Gross Enrolment Ratio for higher education from about 12 to 25 or 30, and
C. most importantly, achieve these goals without fail by 2020,
what kinds of rules, regulations and policies should we have today?
The answer to that question will be quite different from the regulations and polices that we have today, which were conceived in very different times. If we are to achieve our goal of providing a quality education for all in a timebound manner, we must ask and answer this question without being hostage to our legacy views on education.