Liberals and Education in the 21st Century

Common Woes and Diverse Solutions
Message14.01.2016Manali Shah

In designing the HOW, everyone agreed that the VOICE of the consumers of education (parents, children) needs to be amplified beyond the ceremonial role played today. The voices of the producers of education (teachers, government education departments, schools) are the dominant ones today. This is unsustainable given today’s economic and social realities. There is an obligation to all providers of education to listen to all stakeholders. This includes, in particular, another group of stakeholders, future employers, who today rarely have a say in design and implementation of educational inputs.

The first critical topic on the HOW was to question the dependence on the state for financing of education and the need to explore innovative solutions that enabled more efficient and effective use of the funds (e.g. vouchers, tax benefits, publicly listed education providers, charter schools, etc). The Brazilian example has shown impressively how edupreneurs have improved education access, especially in the field of higher education. A reliable cash flow independent of the state or complementary to the state will give educational institutions the room to be more flexible and yet more accountable at the same time.

The liberal approach is to encourage and invite all potential actors to play their part in the finance and provision of education. Liberals accept and promote the idea of education as an entrepreneurial activity and for profit. A precondition for encouraging entrepreneurship is to avoid excessive regulation. Regulations have to be designed in a way that attracts entrepreneurs, allows profit and encourages quality education.


Timely, accurate and independent learning assessments can be reliable sources of feedback to all stakeholders and can enable effective change in the classroom, in education design and also with respect to policy. The ranking of schools, teachers and principals will help to promote competition and meritocracy. The overall effect of ranking and comparing schools and universities is to create transparency and greater reliability of comparisons made. Both public and public actors should be encouraged to engage in comparing services provided, quality and outcomes. The SIMCE in Chile designed to assess the universal voucher system, the OECD-run global PISA studies, and citizen led ASER demonstrate the importance of such assessments and also the variety of ways in which assessments can be designed and conducted.

Use of technology was one the most debated and discussed topics. It is seen to improve access, quality and creativity when it is used. It also has great potential beyond the classroom, in ongoing teacher learning, monitoring of teaching and also in the administration of educational institutions. The use of devices per se does not lead to greater improvements. Effectiveness depends on content design and the guidance provided to students and teachers in the use of these devices. An session with the online learning team at the KIT helped participants to understand that online education cannot be seen as a replacement for on-site education but as a means of a) backup for students and b) offering opportunities for advanced learning to a wider public. Training and administrative support for professors is important if the aim is to have more of them ready to engage in online education.


Liberals also believe that an education system must be able to focus on talent and special abilities – because modern societies are highly differentiated and further innovation is a likely outcome of such a process. Conversely an education system based on “one-size-fits- all” will undermine economic and social development and limit the pool of human capital one can tap into. The visit to an innovative school (the CJD Gymnasium in Königswinter) helped us understand the why and how of designing a programme for gifted children and also for children with special needs.

Liberals are against disproportionate focus on tertiary education and privileged elites at the expense of others. Occupational skills are just as important as academic skills. In many countries occupational and technical skills are underdeveloped and, of course, unemployment is always partially a problem of lack of qualification. Liberals want to encourage and incentivise private occupational training on a big scale and, if necessary, establish public-private partnerships in occupational training (an example is that of the German “dual model“ – presented at length during our visit to the Chamber of Small Industries in Stuttgart). An interaction over skype with the founder of the Argentinian branch of the global chain “Junior Achievement” gave a another good practical example how to prepare young people for the future – as entrepreneurs.

Higher education should also adapt to current realities – striking a balance between personal interest and commercial requirements, practice and theory, teaching and research, education and market. Today‘s reality is one of good ideas, division of labour and interdisciplinarity. This must be reflected in the curricula for higher education: incentives for unconventional ideas, project orientation of teaching, group work and networking and individual tutoring. In higher education, dependence on the state was seen to largely diminish performance. The role of the government, it was felt, should be limited (to infrastructure and help in bringing in outside funding, experts and stakeholders). The rest (quality of education, hiring and firing of teachers, procuring projects, and publication of research, etc.) should be left to the market and to competition.


SO WHAT: A Caveat for Education Reform

The success of the German system of education—a highly qualified work force with very few people without qualifications and one of the lowest unemployment rates in the EU—has its origins in a business-friendly environment, a long tradition in self organization, very active citizen participation (attaching great value to education, especially vocational training), very strong institutions, and a truly decentralized system that actually devolves power to the state and local levels. The interaction with the FDP representative in Baden-Württemberg helped participants bridge the gap between liberal principles and how they translate into concrete policy recommendations.

While there is an overwhelming agreement that reforms are essential, liberals believe that strong institutions (state capacity) are necessary for reforms to work—to enforce contracts, address market failures, reduce corruption and inefficiencies in spending and effectively implement policies. Greater autonomy and decentralisation will work only if the institutions are strong and will not work if they are weak.
Liberals also believe that strong community participation in the administration of schools must be encouraged.

Therefore, for liberals, education reform is not just a matter of changing policies adopted by the government but also involves overseeing implementation – especially monitoring the impact of these reforms on the learning outcomes and ultimate quality of life. The story of Centre for Civil Society in India shows the multiple strategies that can help shift both the climate of opinion and policy towards a more liberal education system.

Change Story

Tying it all Together

The connections depicted in the attached picture are a reflection of the dynamic and complex nature of the issue of education. There are multiple causalities and domino effects that sometimes make one feel almost clueless about where reform should START in order to be successful and sustainable. The participants, however, saw that liberal values and principles offer a strong foundation for designing an appropriate framework of governance for education – one that puts quality education and choice at the heart of the current education conundrum.





1.   James Bartholomew, Education Without the State: British private and charitable schooling in the 19th century and beyond and James Tooley, RTE & Budget Private Schools-What would Gandhi Think?
2.   An example of government indoctrination of children from Argentina highlighting the danger of government’s role in curriculum design



Manali Shah

Manali Shah

Manali enjoys working with organisations as a facilitator of engaging and productive conversations as well as longer term participatory strategy. Besides her independent consulting, she co-facilitates with other organisation development groups in India and teaches „training and development“ as guest faculty to masters students of Development Communications at Jamia Milia Islamia University.

She has worked with Indian and international organisations since 2001 spread across organisational functions (programs, HR, training, fundraising, OD) and profile (implementor and funder) gave her a realistic understanding of the big picture as well as the nuts, bolts and fuel for getting there. She has had a varied experience working with different types of organisations (civil society, political organisations, networks) working on diverse issues (education, economic freedom, governance) in South Asia and Nigeria. She worked at the South Asia regional office of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation as a programme executive from 2009-12.

Her learning journey: Certification in Organisation Change Facilitation (Human and Institutional Development Forum-HIDF, Bangalore); Training in Facilitation, Moderation, Strategic Planning (Friedrich Naumann Foundation-Germany; Genuine Contact Space-Delhi)