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Way forward

October 22, 2018

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The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

RECENTLY, Sindh’s Education Minister Sardar Ali Shah made a big fanfare of enrolling his eight-year-old daughter in a government school in Hyderabad. In a room full of cameramen, he spoke about the need to rebuild trust in public institutions.

Meanwhile, around the same time, the Supreme Court ordered upscale private schools to furnish audit reports, and formed a committee to be headed by the federal ombudsman, aiming to find a solution to the issue of exorbitant fees that parents — customers — have in recent years been protesting against in many of the larger cities. The problem is that many customers of private education networks feel that the institutions raise fees unexpectedly and inordinately, and without demonstrable justification.

And so, said Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar, there should be some capping or reasonableness in the fee structures, for the private sector must not be allowed to fleece its clients. “Education is something that should be imparted with passion,” he observed, heading a three-judge bench that had initiated suo motu proceedings into school fee hikes. While emphasising that the court was not going to close any private school or nationalise any institution — a reference back to the Bhutto era when many educational institutions were nationalised — he added that what the court wanted to see was that the provision of quality education must remain affordable for most parents.

The public education system is in dire need of reform.

Between these two stories is an account of a system that has gone terribly, badly, wrong. Mr Shah’s fanfare notwithstanding, his gesture in enrolling his daughter in a public school is a welcome one in a country where the state has over the years more or less completely abdicated its responsibility to provide affordable, even basic, education. Few (if any) amongst the better-off sections of society still think of the public education system as an option, let alone a viable one. And as they do so, the private education system not only booms, but is also left to its own devices to continue to hold its customers hostage.

The issue entered the news headlines a couple of years ago when a group of people in Islamabad mounted a protest against a certain private school for fee hikes. Since then, the governments of Punjab and Sindh put across directives attempting to curb the practice, and installed measures to contain the worst instincts of institutions. Be that as it may, what became clear was that educational institutions could follow the letter of the law while still having their own way, for fees capped under the basic head could always be — and is — compensated for through other billing heads such as extracurricular activities, teaching materials, and so on.

There is no doubt at all that the business of private schooling in the country is not just a burgeoning sector that holds millions of people hostage, but also provides education that is, in many cases, unregulated by direct state oversight.

The only viable way forward is for the public education system to be overhauled, which is where gestures such as that of the Sindh education minister take on significance. Were it possible to imagine a land where public servants and politicians were bound to put their progeny in public-sector educational institutions, there might actually be some hope of the reforms that are so urgently required.

The hard fact is that while there may be some quality standards to the private-sector schools and colleges that the better-off sections of society have access to — mostly dictated by the imperative for students to get enrolment in universities and colleges — the private-sector educational system is no more than a business in a general sense. And therefore, whether it is fee hikes or unregulated teaching stan­dards, the average citizen is left to the mercy of mercenaries.

In saying this, it should by no means be understood that the business of private schooling/ education is either illicit or unethical. As with any other sector, it is a business that must make its profits. The blame must be placed on the state, that has so blatantly abdicated its responsibilities vis-à-vis education, that it has left a gaping hole in the sector. And where there is need, the private sector will of course step in.

A fair number of Pakistan’s public-sector educational institutions have an exemplary history of quality education that have produced academics and erudite people of the highest order. To be able to go back to that requires that the most privileged in society be bound to use those institutions, so that impetus builds to plug gaps in standards and to improve quality. Without that, it is difficult to see how the vast majority of young people in the country — one that has a fairly abysmal rate of school enrolment in any case — might grow up fit to meet their potential.

The writer is a member of staff.

hajrahmumtaz@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, October 22nd, 2018