Confusions galore

November 29, 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.
The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums.

WHAT is the role of the private sector in the provision of school education? More than 40 per cent of school-going children in Pakistan attend private schools, rising to above 80pc in the larger cities. But it is still not clear what society, the federal and provincial governments, or any of the political parties see as the private sector’s proper role in education.

Currently, the only dialogue in this regard is about capping fees for private schools that are charging above certain thresholds. Often, we hear of either parents complaining about the Supreme Court judgement on private school fees not being implemented in letter and/or spirit, or of education departments saying that they will implement the judgement, or the Supreme Court hearing whether or not the judgment has been implemented.

But where is the discussion on the bigger questions? How does private provision of education fit in with Article 25-A of the Constitution, which guarantees “free and compulsory education for all 5-16 year olds” in Pakistan? Is provision of school education a business? If it is, why has the apex court intervened with price regulation when it does not do so in most other ‘businesses’? If private education is not a business, why have we not regulated the expansion of private education provision? Why has society allowed the private sector to become so big?

Government statements are confusing in this regard. On the one hand, government functionaries keep stating that the private sector is a very important partner and is providing much help to the public sector, and on the other, court and government actions keep discouraging potential and existing investors. Most of the owners of high-fee schools are quite nervous nowadays.

Governments have been unable to deliver a coherent policy to prioritise education under austerity.

The situation is not very different on the public-private partnership (PPP) front either. Most provincial governments are running fairly significant PPP programmes. These are not just programmes where private money/resources are channelled to public schools, but large-scale programmes where public money is given to the private sector to support public and even private schools. Some governments had even announced that they will not build new public schools, and that if there was any expansion to be done in the public-sector education system, it would be using the PPP model.

At the same time, PPPs are not dealt with within the mainstream of school education departments, their budgets are not properly safeguarded, and some of the more recent PPP programmes have been left to limp along without any active government ownership. Ask any government about PPPs and they will claim that PPPs are an excellent idea. But when it comes to action, officials running PPP programmes are as uncertain about the future of their programmes as some of the private school providers are, if not more so.

Does the government want to provide education for all five- to 16-year-olds, or not? Every official who speaks on the issue keeps reiterating that this is one of their top priorities, if not the top priority. We know the government does not have the resources to provide all five- to 16-year-olds with education. Some 20 million five- to 16-year-olds are, by government estimates, currently out of school. So, how is the provision of education to be done if both PPPs and the private sector are not encouraged? Will the government make thousands more schools, and will it be able to hire tens of thousands of new teachers? Even if austerity was not as biting as it has been, would current governments have been able or willing to do that?

Austerity is a recent phenomenon. We have seen many periods of fiscal ease too. Even when a lot more resources have been available, governments have been unwilling and/or unable to expand state provision of education to accommodate all out-of-school children. With austerity programmes in place and the economy slowing down, how is expansion to happen if not through PPPs and/or through the private sector? If PPPs are not nurtured, funded and managed, and the private sector too is discouraged, how is expansion in education provision going to occur?

A big source of this confusion and ambiguity is the government’s objectives about ‘uniform’ education. Private sector provision, by definition, goes against uniformity. Private for-profit provision of education will serve different segments of the market differently, based on the ability to pay. This will increase inequality and work against the ideal of uniformity.

Expansion of provision and creation of uniformity by relying on the private sector and PPPs cannot be achieved. How can the government possibly balance the two? Most likely, it will not pronounce in favour of either and will try to show support for both. It will continue to say that expanding educational provision is a top priority while also saying that creating equality of opportunity is also a top priority — without providing any leadership to achieve any of these objectives. This would be especially true in times of austerity. Confusion will naturally reign under these conditions.

The future of education policy and the future of education in Pakistan seem quite uncertain. Here, the discussion has been about schools, yet some of these same dynamics apply to the state of higher education as well. Change is needed, but the real fear is that things will stay as they are: in a state of confusion. This confusion is being driven, at least in part, by objectives that are not compatible with each other, and a singular lack of prioritisation amongst them — expansion of coverage, quality or uniformity. In times of very binding budgetary constraints, the confusion becomes even harder to resolve.

Since the financial situation is not going to change any time soon, these confusions and lack of clarity will continue. As students march for their rights, we hope debates are sparked that can eventually address these confusions.

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

Published in Dawn, November 29th, 2019