FOR some time now, the judiciary has been expressing its concern over the fee charged by private schools. On Thursday, the Supreme Court ordered the slashing of school fee by 20pc, and directed the private educational institutions to refund 50pc of the fee charged for the summer vacations. The court was hearing a suo motu case, and directed the FBR chairman to scrutinise the tax records and accounts of private schools. During the proceedings, some audit reports had been presented before the bench, showing that surprisingly large monthly salaries were being paid to directors of certain schools, arguably at the expense of hapless parents. A judge on the bench observed that “Our intention is […] to ensure that private schools impart quality education for an affordable fee.”
There is more than one argument here. First, as the chief justice referred to it, is the question of the ‘business of education’. It has been observed that through many tiers of the private education system, institutions can behave like cartels; while theoretically parents can always refuse to enrol their children in one or the other establishment, in reality the difference in fee structure may not be all that much when compared to another school offering the same quality — often poor — of education. Yet, under the capitalist strain of thought, should private businesses be stopped from charging whatever they like for whatever quality of services they provide? Second, as aggrieved customers have been pointing out for a couple of years now, the law can set caps on fees, but this is often not practicable given that institutions can simply charge sums under other heads. But the most important question is, why has private schooling become such a booming business? The answer lies in the fact that the state has abdicated all responsibility when it comes to the provision of affordable and quality public-sector education to Pakistan’s children. Even as the population has grown, no commensurate increase has been witnessed in the number of public-sector educational institutions in the country. Added to this is the fact that standards in public schools have fallen so much over the years that they do little to inspire the confidence of parents who then enrol their children in private schools. If the state plans to curtail this business of education, it will need to revive its own moribund educational institutions.
Published in Dawn, December 15th, 2018