—Illustration by Mir Suhail for the Kashmir Reader, republished with permission.
—Illustration by Mir Suhail for the Kashmir Reader, republished with permission.

Many of you must be aware by now, a protest movement has begun in Punjab against the recent fee hikes in private schools. These schools, among the country's most prestigious, have suddenly increased their fees without any explanation or argument, and expect students to pay up or pack up.

Parents have taken to the streets in Lahore, Islamabad and Sahiwal, voicing outrage at these inordinate increments that do not correlate to the current economic climate.

The schools under discussion here are among the most popular, top-tier 'brands' of education. They have numerous branches in almost every city across the country, and are the kind of places parents usually clamour to get their children enrolled into.

At first, there was an introduction of a withholding tax that has now become part of the outrage, which ranges from Rs20,000/year up to 50,000/year.

This, on top of the fees they are already paying. Tax-filers will theoretically be able to get a return on these taxes, but to non-filers, this amount is sunk. This is not how you incentivise taxation, but this is not strictly a schools’ problem.

To be clear, people are not lamenting three to four-figure fee bumps that come into effect annually (those are understandable and factor into teachers’ and staff’s cost of living increases).

Instead, what's outraging parents is the recently levied increments of between 15-20 per cent (varies from school to school). These were enforced without any notice, justification or even consent.

What is the reason behind the hikes, parents want to know. Surely, schools cannot just slap on massive accruals without any economic justification, and then expect parents to keep filling in their coffers because they have no other option?

Haemorrhaging money — How private school fee structures operate

In order to get into these schools you will be charged an application fee, after which they charge you a registration fee (not the same thing apparently). Then, they charge a security deposit and an advanced monthly fee. Some schools even have a category of “annual charges”. I am told the latter are for covering the costs of school trips, etc.

So far, you will have spent around Rs100,000 to 150,000 without your child having set foot in the school. Understandably, junior classes are cheaper, that is how they reel you in and start slapping on ludicrous markups annually.

Then there is the actual fee; the cheaper ones go to Rs8,000/month, the expensive ones up to Rs20,000/month, and the average residing around Rs12,000/month. That is scheduled for an annual increment as is, on top of the amount you will pay for stationary, books, notebooks, uniforms, transportation, and the miscellaneous expenses that go with it.

All in all, you are looking at educating a child for upwards of 400,000/year!

Buying prestige — The right transaction?

The one counter-argument that is surfacing is, “don’t send your child to such an expensive school if you cannot afford to.” This is vulgar rhetoric. Schools have no set pattern for increments, so you cannot plan ahead for situations when they suddenly hit you with fee hikes that require a second income to fulfill.

Educating children is not a matter of making the right transaction for parents; they are not looking for the best deal, they are looking for a long-term relationship. Some schools certainly care about their students, but their emotions are tethered entirely to the parents’ ability to keep up with their ever-evolving fee structures.

Moreover, schools with branches (read franchises) all over the country suffer from a lack of consistency. You cannot take a student from one city to another and then expect the child to pick up on everything without a hitch.

There are entirely different cultures between these branches, yet, exactly the same fee structures. You will pay the same amount in Karachi as you will in Sheikhupura and will never have a child with the same academic prowess. This is another pitfall of running academics strictly as a business.

There are certain schools that have always been expensive. Parents know that they are buying prestige, and they can afford it. These parents are not the most vociferous on this subject, so their example is also rendered obsolete.

I discovered that there are people teaching at schools who consider five days off a year a great deal, even though a very few make a decent living as teachers. There are schools that fine a full day’s salary for coming in five minutes late. Annual trips getting delayed on account of security issues is also a prevalent issue, their amounts getting refunded is not.

So private schools are doing everything to pinch every penny anywhere they can. How they keep hiring teachers and children enrolled is beyond my understanding. These places should have been shut down at the first sign of such misconduct.

Presently, parents are protesting these increments en masse, and have a big protest scheduled in Lahore on Monday.

There is also news of higher-ups taking notice and demanding regulation, but there has not been any action so far. Everything is proceeding as usual, while the schools happily hold children’s education hostage — they know that parents will eventually pay whatever the schools want.

Then, there are schools who have set fees and a very strict admission criteria – they make sure to only take in students who can ensure high results. This artificially inflates the school’s performance/results, and its market, because at the end of the day, parents just want to enroll their children into a school with the best opportunities.

Education is important, and raising children requires sacrifice, so you should understand that things are bad when parents refuse to pay fees unless regulations are set in place.

Without regulations, this behaviour seems incompetent at best and extortive at worst.



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