The Conundrum of Private Education | Sahar Bandial

In recent weeks, parents in urban centres have picked up the slogan “No fee till low fee” to object to un-notified and exorbitant fee hikes by private educational institutions. They have taken to the streets, launched campaigns on social media and approached high offices to draw attention to what they see as unfair and exploitive behaviour by commercialised educational enterprises.

Some response has been forthcoming. The chief minister of Punjab took notice of the matter and assured that private schools and colleges will not be permitted to arbitrarily raise fees. The DCO, Lahore promised to conduct an audit of these institutions. Commissioner Karachi Shoaib Siddiqui ordered that all fee increases, undertaken without prior permission of the government, be withdrawn. Following complaints, the Competition Commission of Pakistan has initiated an inquiry to determine whether the escalation in private school fees is a consequence of possible anti-competitive behaviour. These inquiries, audits and questions are a welcome development, possibly bringing under control a previously unregulated sector.

Yet, the simplistic reactions that this campaign has invoked tend to obscure the real issues inherent in our educational crisis. We have pitted the private against the public domain and deemed the former guilty of exploiting the vacuum left by poor government delivery in the education sector. We accuse business houses of having commercialised the most basic public good, a most fundamental human right — education — to reap undue benefit and unthinkable profit.

While the fee hike may be warranting of the censure it received, the demonisation of the ‘private’ sector is not so justified. Studies have demonstrated that the emergence and growth of private schools has made a significant contribution towards an increase in the overall enrolment rate, particularly in rural areas where government-run ghost schools appear to be the only ‘non-option’ (Andrabi, 2008). A review of the poor quality of instruction and infrastructure at government schools would further substantiate the important role private schools have come to play in our education sector. According to reports, low-cost private schools account for approximately 40 per cent of school enrollment in Pakistan. In the midst of grave government failure to provide competitive and quality education to our children, we cannot underestimate the importance of the private school system.

The private provision of education, however, is marked by its own evils. The difference in the nature and quality of instruction in private and public sectors embeds social and economic schisms that may well polarise society beyond cure. Though hailed for imparting a (relatively) better standard of education, many low-cost private schools cut costs and compromise on quality. According to a Unesco report, 36 per cent of grade five students are unable to read a sentence in English, a skill that they are expected to learn in grade two. The pursuit of profit drives the enterprise of private education to higher fee structure that we lament today.

Can the government take a laissez faire approach to private education and allow the market to even out imbalances till demand readjusts against the fee hike? The answer is a resolute no. Education is not comparable to any market-driven private good. It is key in shaping the minds and future of our youth and ought not to be left to self-regulation. The state is under a constitutional responsibility to provide free and compulsory education to children between five to 16 years of age. It has failed to fulfil this responsibility and must, at least, step in to check the exploitation in the private provision of education.

Some regulation in the province does exist. Pursuant to the Punjab Free and Compulsory Education Act of 2014, private educational institutions are prohibited from charging capitation fee and are obligated to educate a certain (disadvantaged) proportion of their student body for free. The Punjab Private Educational Institutions (Promotion and Regulation) Ordinance of 1984 governs the registration of educational institutions in the private sector. This, however, is not enough. We require comprehensive and effective government oversight of private schools, which regulates not only fee structures but also the quality and content of instruction. The state will not have the moral authority to enforce such regulation till it fixes its delivery of this basic public good.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 15th, 2015.

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