Schooling options

January 25, 2019

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The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums, Lahore.
The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums, Lahore.

THE PTI government has clearly stated that getting all children from five to 16 years into schools and giving them quality education is a top priority. Though estimates vary, it is thought between 20 to 23 million children in this age bracket are out of school. How is the government planning to get these children enrolled and how is it going to ensure access to quality education for them?

The economy is not in a good shape. We are looking for handouts and loans from all friends/ lenders. We are trying to increase tax collection and reduce expenditures to curb the fiscal deficit. We are contracting the economy — for a brief time, hopefully — to reduce the trade gap and to stabilise it. The government clearly does not have a lot of resources right now.

The austerity drive at the federal and provincial levels is squeezing recurrent expenditures. Development expenditures have seen deep cuts. This year, it has been reported that Punjab’s development expenditure has been cut to Rs240 billion-odd. This has been brought down from more than Rs600bn. With such cuts, it is going to be difficult for the government to start new initiatives in education when infrastructure development and energy projects usually take higher priority in development.

What can the government do for the education sector in this situation? How do we plan to put out-of-school children into schools, and how do we ensure improvement in the quality of education?

How do we put out-of-school children into schools, and how do we ensure improvement in standards?

If the economic situation improves, as the government expects it to, there will be more resources available over the next few years. This depends, crucially, on economic stabilisation and a quick move towards growth. But if history is any guide, the move towards growth has not been and is not easy or straightforward. We have not been able to turn economic stability into sustained growth for any appreciable period over the last 30 years or so. We hope this time it is different. But this caveat should be kept in mind as the government thinks about expenditures in education.

So, if additional resources from government sources are not available as of now, what options do we have? The government can and should focus on using existing resources better. Improving efficiency of expenditures and reducing any leakages that might be there are always good ideas. We do spend a substantial amount of the provincial budgets on education. If there is any way that reallocations and/ or stringent expenditures can improve efficiency, we should definitely consider them.

Salaries take up the bulk of education expenditure, and this is true for all countries. Teacher salaries are the main item in education budgets. There is little that can be done about this line item. We cannot reduce the number of teachers. In fact, we need more teachers if we are going to expand enrolments. Teacher salaries are also not very high. There would be no justification for salary cuts. So, there is little play on improving efficiency in recurrent expenditures. We can try to get more work out of the existing teaching force, but this too is going to result in only marginal gains, if any.

Getting millions of children into schools cannot happen without more teachers, schools, classrooms, books and other related materials. A lot of government primary schools are two-room structures and have less than five teachers for five to six classes. Even if we want to expand enrolments in these schools, we will need more rooms and teachers.

At the middle and high school level, not having enough schools is a big issue. Here is an example. In Rahim Yar Khan district, the government has 2,200 or so primary schools, but only 220-odd high schools. If the existing high schools cannot even cater for all children enrolled in the 2,200 primary schools, how can they be expected to accommodate more students? No wonder we have a huge dropout problem. And how can we cater for more children at the middle and higher level without increasing the number of schools? Even if we decide to upgrade some of the primary schools to take care of the middle and high school population, it will mean more rooms and more teachers.

The expansion of schooling infrastructure seems inevitable if we are going to enrol millions of children who are currently out of school. Infrastructure expansion takes time and costs a lot. This does not seem to be much of an option till the government feels it has the resources to spend.

If the PTI government is serious about increasing enrolment and improving the quality of education, and if it does not have the resources to spend, there will be a need to think about innovative solutions. Can the PTI somehow manage to convince the private sector and private resources to share the expenditure of educational expansion? The not-for-profit sector is small in Pakistan, but it can share some of the burden on a partnership basis with the government. It might also be possible for the for-profit sector to come in at reasonable rates of return and share some of the costs.

But for either or both of these to happen, the government has to have a much more positive attitude towards the private sector. It has to convince the private sector that the government wants to facilitate them and their work. It has to come out with policy statements and back them up with actions on private-public partnerships and on facilitation of the private sector, and it must address legitimate concerns of private businesses. For the moment, this is completely missing. Instead, the conversation regarding the private sector in education is about regulation, fee-capping, imposing uniformity, and so on.

To be candid, the goals of higher enrolment and improving schooling quality seem very unlikely to see any progress in the short to medium run. The government does not have the resources itself, nor the resolve to look for innovative solutions in partnership with the private sector. If there are other ideas that are being considered, it would be great to hear about them.

The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums, Lahore.

Published in Dawn, January 25th, 2019