Liberals and Education in the 21st Century

Common Woes and Diverse Solutions
Message14.01.2016Manali Shah
Re-imagining School

Heated arguments, passionate discussions and intensive sharing characterized the event that brought together 18 participants from 15 countries, an event that hoped to find some light at end of the tunnel on a topic that was very much close to their hearts. While 11 of the 15 countries had adult literacy rates of over 90%, the quality left much to be desired. The event didn’t begin in Gummersbach but online almost three weeks before. The online phase enabled participants to connect not just to each other but also with the topic in a deeper way. Participants shared their perspectives on the fundamentals of education, collated relevant country wide data on education, and also offered ideas on how they would address the most critical problems they see in their countries.

Working groups

Overall the participants were connected by their anger and frustration about the existing state of education in their countries and general mistrust in the state as the only solution—the low and declining standards, lack of quality education universally available to all, low quality teaching, low prestige and lack of interest in supplying vocational training services and the lack of political will to improve education systems. At the same time they were hopeful about innovative civil society solutions (from small budget private schools to publicly listed education providers) and reviving the tradition of civil society provision of education (something that was wiped out with the advent of compulsory education by the state 1) ). Almost every region showcased inspiring stories of edupreneurship (India, Egypt, Brazil)—individuals who despite the domineering state and the existing conditions were breaking new ground and showing that quality and cost do not always mutually exclude each other.

The WHY AND WHAT of education: purpose of education is primarily self development!

Apart from equipping people for employment in a constantly changing environment dominated by technology and information (the information society), very important functions of education include the ability to learn and think for oneself, to develop one’s powers of reason, to be able to interact with other members of society peacefully and productively, to be able to resolve conflicts using peaceful means, to participate in democracy and public decision-making processes, to share knowledge and work cooperatively in groups. So education serves to meet ALL three objectives—social, political and economic. Seen together, these transcend the classroom and education can thus be seen as part of a life-long learning process with equal importance attached both to early childhood education and adult education. Therefore, the objectives of education are manifold, there cannot be a single definition of “quality” or the “best school or university”.

In order to be successful education must also be a pleasurable experience. More attention needs to be given to incentives not only for learners but for all stakeholders. The focus of all educational institutions should be to encourage independent thought, innovation and excellence.

Purpose / Vision of Education

Liberal Values: The Foundation of a Good Education System

Participants agreed that education plays a very important role in liberal thought and that all values that are important for liberalism have implications for education. For instance, tolerance often needs to be taught. When you talk about choice you cannot exclude education (Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, “…Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children”). There is no one “best school” for allSubsidiarity as a liberal value implies a decentralized system of education. Reason demands that pupils and student develop their ability to think critically. The idea that every one is equal under the law implies that access to (quality) education must be open to all.

The desire for the respect for individual rights also raised some questions. Can the parents’ judgment about their children’s education always be trusted? Must the state make choices instead, choices for the purported good of children? What if parents send children to schools that are academically poor, but offer other important things like safety, community spirit? And what if parents don’t want to send their children to school and teach them privately instead? Such questions suggest a paternalistic approach liberals do not share. Choice for liberals is an important end in itself even though it may not always lead to the “desirable outcomes” social engineers would like to see. The liberal approach is “to let many flowers bloom.”

Liberal values

The HOW of an Effective and Efficient Education System

The education system of the 21st century must satisfactorily tap into the number of opportunities for education, opportunities that technological and economic progress bring forth in terms of greater demand for skills, greater financial resources for investment, the emergence of edupreneursip, greater access to content, specialization, and an increase of diversity in the classroom. At the same time there are worrying threats to education today that need to be addressed: increasing costs, declining standards, extremism, radicalization, technology overload.

No matter how much one believes in the role of the state in education, private schools and universities are a reality and also reflect parents making conscious choices towards accessing quality education for their children. Teachers of tomorrow, in responding to such challenges, will have to play a greater role as facilitators, coaches, mediators and mentors.

Framework Governance

Though there was universal agreement on the objectives of education, it was in the HOW that differences lay: How much of a role should the state and civil society play in critical functions of education? There are radical approaches, e.g. privatization and decentralization of the education system and moderate approaches that are incremental in nature, e.g. how to increase competition in the interests of increasing quality. This is something that was emphasized by Sascha Tamm, an expert working for the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF). There was an overwhelming agreement that the state has an umbrella role in policy making, financing and regulation and that civil society, on the other hand, must play a leading role in the delivery, curriculum 2) and assessment. Overall the state and civil society need to work together and cooperate in using each other’s experiences and know how, even in matters such as teacher training.

There was agreement that the principle of subsidiarity must apply to education. There are many examples showing that successful schools are schools that cater to local needs. This is also the case of Germany where school facilities are provided by the municipalities and the legal framework, curricula, and teachers are provided by the individual state governments. The federal government plays a very minor role.

Group work

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)