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Bloom and blossom in Punjab

April 03, 2016


PRIVATE education has bloomed and blossomed in Punjab over the last two decades. According to some estimates, almost 40pc of children who go to school in the province are enrolled with private institutions. The ratio of the students enrolled with private schools in major urban centres like Lahore is believed to be as high as 75pc.

“For various reasons people tend to believe – and rightly so – that their children could get better jobs, and live more comfortable life, in today’s competitive economy if they’re better educated,” Ali Kemal, an Islamabad-based economist, argued. “Since nob­ody trusts public schools, parents, who can afford, prefer private education. Hence, you may find at least a few private schools even in remote areas.”

Punjab has over the decades miserably failed to build enough schools and colleges to keep up with the rapid growth in population. The availability, let alone quality public education, in the remote and poorer districts, is even scarcer than in the politically more influential urban areas.

Not all public-sector schools are bad, but most of them are.

It doesn’t mean that private schools are totally free of the ills ailing the public-sector entities. What is missing from the public schools – trained teachers, required infrastructure, quality education, etc – are also missing from most private institutions. But, given a choice, a majority of parents prefer to send their children, especially boys, to private schools even if it comes at a price they can hardly afford to pay.

The quality and price of private education widely varies by household income and geographical location, with schools charging as low as Rs500 to Rs50,000 per month. “Quality (private) education is for the people who can afford it,” Abbas Rashid, a leading Lahore-based educationist and former editor, said.

Education serves as an equaliser. But not everyone has equal access to the same quality of education anywhere in the world. According to educationists like Abbas, there always was and will be a gap between the quality of education that rich, middle class and poor kids can access and afford.

“Though this gap is difficult to eliminate, improvement in the quality of education given at the state-run institutions can to a large extent help close it,” insisted Abbas. He was of the opinion the mainstream (public) education should have minimum standard.

It is commonly held that private school owners are motivated to invest in education by the prospect of massive profits. But Ali Cheema, a Lahore-based political economist, doesn’t agree. “Not everyone is pushed to invest in education for profit. There are also people who are driven by their sense of public service.”

The Punjab government has enacted a law preventing private school owners from arbitrarily raising fees and other charges after recent protests by parents in major urban centres. Additio­nally, the law requires the private education providers to register themselves with the government besides a few more regulatory restrictions. But experts warn the government against using “excessive force” against the investors.

“There has to be a reasonable framework for regulating private schools. But this regulatory framework must not be used for arm-twisting,” Abbas said. “The quality of education and private school teachers will significantly suffer if the government started to dictate private school owners on the matter of fees they charge.”

Ali Kemal was of the opinion that many people had invested in educational institutions in the wake of the energy crisis that began in the late 2000s. The investors, he said, were attracted to the sector because of the huge returns it offered to them.

In contrast, Ali Cheema said private schools had to charge fee for the services they provide and the owners needed to make a profit. He opposed the government’s decision to control the fees of the private schools, saying it amounted to imposing command economy in a free market.

Published in Dawn, April 3rd, 2016