A $100 million (Rs410 crore) education fund, set up in February by the philanthropic arm of Singapore-based privately-owned institutional investor Orient Global, is looking at private schools in India for children from low-income families.
“We have started looking at investment opportunities in private schools running in slums,” said James Tooley, president of the fund.
Tooley, who has worked as a professor of education in Newcastle University and first toured the slums of Hyderabad as a consultant to a World Bank project seven years ago, is looking for partners—entrepreneurs or companies—who run private schools in low-income areas.
“We can help them become bigger,” said Tooley. “Or, we can partner players who are interested in coming into the low-income sector”.
Orient Global has invested $1.1 billion in India’s financial sector, says its website. A Hong Kong-based spokesman for Orient Global refused to give any details about this investment. He also did not give details of Orient Global Foundation or the education fund, saying that these will be available in due course.
Tooley said the education fund is looking for returns on its investment.
Looking for returns: James Tooley, president, Orient Global Fund
“I am not expecting high returns, but I am expecting sustainability,” said Tooley, who said the fund will scout for opportunities in China and sub-Saharan Africa as well, after it is unveiled in India. “Of course, I will be happy if I can double the fund.”
Tooley did not disclose details of his business model, but said he was exploring tie-ups with microfinance providers, such as Hyderabad’s SKS Microfinance and Basix, to offer loans to entrepreneurs who wish to open schools in low-income areas.
But experts working in education in India and abroad doubt the sustainability of this investment. Some even question its need, saying such investment undermines any effort to reform the state-run education system in countries, such as India and China.
Experts find the fund’s expectations of returns also a tough challenge. Most states, with only a few exceptions, bar schools—even elite private ones—from legally making a profit, stipulating that they can only operate as non-profit-making trusts or societies.
“I do not know of any private schools in slums which make money. There are teaching shops which open up and charge money,” said Arun Kapur, director of the hard-to-get-into Vasant Valley School in Delhi, who has worked for 15 years with a non-governmental organization that runs schools in slums. His NGO sometimes partners with government schools as well.
Kapur said some parents in low-income groups prefer sending their children to these schools. “They might feel they are not getting everything in a government school”.
Other experts, such as Edward Vickers, senior lecturer in Institute of Education, University of London, who has worked in education for 15 years and taught in Hong Kong, criticize Tooley’s research, which showed a proliferation of private education in the world’s poorest areas.
Tooley said he found in the slums of Hyderabad, 65% of schoolchildren are in private unaided schools, which are often unrecognised by government (in India, a school can function through Class VIII without government recognition) and charge very low fees, affordable to parents on the poverty line. An essay based on this research, published in The Financial Times last year, was what attracted the attention of Orient Global.
“I am not disputing Tooley’s findings. If you look at these poor areas, the state is failing in everything, not just education. In these cases, you expect private people to fill the breach,” said Vickers. “But what is dangerous is that Tooley extrapolates this to say that state schooling in general is inferior to private schooling. In a state like Kerala, this is not so.”
Vickers says he feels that this emphasis on private education for the poor in could remove the responsibility of governments to run schools. “You want to repair the system, not privatize it.”