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Teachers & bureaucrats

June 07, 2013

“THE education department, believe me, is much more corrupt than the police department.” This is how one teacher put it in a conversation we were recently having about problems public school teachers face.

He wanted to convey the height of corruption; what better department to use for comparison than the police? He knew I was not convinced, so he repeated it two or three times, with more emphasis each time. And then he went on to give examples.

As soon as your name comes on the wait-list of candidates who might be hired as teachers, the clerk ‘mafia’ reaches your home to get a cut for letting your name through. Then, postings and transfers are ‘facilitated’ by clerks, too, while promotions also need paying for. One of the teachers, who works as a head teacher, said that the clerk ‘mafia’ was a blackmailing racket, with female teachers the main victims. She seemed to suggest that money was not the only type of payment that was expected, accepted and given.

According to these teachers the rot was not only amongst the clerks in the education department, it has permeated higher levels as well. There were district education officers who were known to be corrupt; these officers not only took a cut in the various transactions mentioned, they also made money in the procurement of furniture and/or supplies and took a share when authorising the release of funds.

But the teachers were objective enough to realise the other side of the coin. They acknowledged that only about one-fourth of the teachers in Punjab, in their opinion, were in the teaching profession because they wanted to be teachers and enjoyed it. The rest, they opined, were in the profession because they could not find other jobs that were as good and paid as well. They also said that there is corruption in the system because of the teachers, too. So, without going into causality, teachers feed a corrupt system on one side and are victims of it on the other.

A lot of teachers are also close to specific officers, they said, or were recruited on the recommendation of an MNA/ MPA or a local notable. Some of these teachers get choice postings, many do not work hard and since they cannot be disciplined by their respective head teacher or headmaster, they get away with doing nothing.

These teachers had a lot of complaints about society at large. Teachers in rural areas are considered kammies (of a lower order) by the local notables, in some places treated as domestic servants. Some officers also treat their subordinates and the teachers working in their jurisdictions as servants; society at large does not give teachers the respect they deserve.

However, none of the teachers I met said that their salaries were low. Adjustments in salaries over the last few years, at least in Punjab, seem to have addressed the income issue for the time being.

Mainstream parties that have been elected to government recently in Islamabad and in the provinces had, in their manifestos, promised major reforms in the education system. The time has come for them to start work on delivering on these promises.

Most of the parties have said that they will put more money into public education, and devolve the management of the education system to the district and lower tiers of government. While more money is definitely needed and governance does need to go down to the district, tehsil and even school level, many of the points mentioned will not be automatically addressed by merely putting in more money or devolving the system.

There is nothing to stop district or even tehsil set-ups from remaining corrupt or becoming as corrupt as the teachers felt the current system is. And local authorities and set-ups might be even more vulnerable to being captured by local elites than the provincial set-up. The dangers of making the system even worse are quite substantial.

In addition, parallel to the thinking on the land-registration system and the police system, we have to find ways of using technology, and the codification of and access to information, to reduce corruption and the abuse of power that seems very entrenched in the education system. Why can we not have information about all teachers and their career records on computers? Why can we not make the posting/transfer criteria more transparent, as well as the way they are applied to individual cases? If this is done in tandem with other changes such as putting in more money and taking decision-making to lower tiers, automated systems managed out of provincial capitals can become a means of effective monitoring as well.

Similarly, the recruitment process can also be made much more transparent and open. The power of the bureaucracy — and it does not matter if it is the education or police bureaucracy or the patwari — comes from limiting access to information and keeping key systems non-transparent and ad hoc.

Irrespective of whether the complaints of the teachers I met were exaggerated, and irrespective of whether it is the teachers that are more to blame than clerks or the officers in the education bureaucracy, the problems are clear. The proposed solutions, of putting in more money and decentralising decision-making, will not be sufficient to address the issues. They can, in fact, make the system even worse.

A necessary part of the reform has to come from the introduction of very strong information systems that make the criteria for hiring, postings, transfers and other service issues clear and accessible, and make the implementation of these criteria open and transparent as well.

The writer is senior adviser, Pakistan at Open Society Foundations, associate professor of economics, LUMS, and a visiting fellow at IDEAS, Lahore.