The education dilemma

Published January 7, 2022
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.

JAMEELA’S husband, Hassan, died six months ago. They have four children: one son 14 years, two daughters aged 10 and nine years, and another son who is only a year old. Hassan, when he was well, used to run a small grocery store.

When Hassan fell ill — he had tuberculosis and kidney failure — he had to shut down the shop. All of the savings the family had were used over the three months Hassan was ill. For the last six months, Jameela has been getting financial assistance from her brother. But her brother has a family of his own and only earns Rs22,000 per month. He has used all of his savings too and has said that he will not be able to help Jameela with much, on a monthly basis, in the future.

Jameela has moved her three elder children from low-/medium-fee private schools to tuition-free government schools. She had no option. But she is not happy with the decision as she has significant concerns about the quality of education at the government school. The children were also initially not too happy at the loss of their friends and with the state of infrastructure at the government school, but in three months or so they have made new friends and have reconciled to the change.

Jameela is a bit concerned about her older son. He has, over the last six months, since Hassan’s death, become quieter, more reclusive and even secretive. The change of school has not helped either and her son has chosen not to or has not been able to make good friends at the new school. She is not sure how to handle the situation and hopes it will not lead to an adverse outcome.

Is ‘free’ education only about doing away with tuition fees and providing textbooks?

Though some people have suggested that Jameela should seek help from Ehsaas/BISP and other government programmes, she has not been able to venture out and look at possibilities yet. Some better-off people have stepped forward to help with resources for ‘rations’ and other necessities. But this help has been limited and is also a bit unpredictable. In addition, it comes at the cost of dignity. Jameela does not have options yet, but she is looking for them. All of these options have significant intended and unintended consequences.

Some relatives are putting pressure on Jameela to get her son out of school and get him a job or go for vocational training. They ask, what will be the point of him staying in school till Matriculation? They feel her son will not pass Matriculation and if even he does, it would be meaningless since they will not be able to afford college education. Instead, if he opts for a vocation, he can get training and start earning right away too. A local automobile workshop owner as well as the local barber shop owner, both of whom knew Hassan and whose shops were close to his grocery store, have agreed to employ Jameela’s son and teach him the relevant skills. They have even agreed to pay him Rs3,000 while he learns and raise his salary to Rs10,000 after the first six months. They have promised to provide for his lunch too. Rs10,000 is tempting. Jameela is in a fix. She really wanted her son to be educated and to have the opportunity to be a doctor or engineer.

Jameela is starting to think about finding a job herself as well. She passed her Intermediate examinations before she was married but could not study beyond that. She does not have any job experience but feels she could work as a receptionist or in a garment factory (she is a proficient tailor and has been making shalwar kameez suits for her son and her daughters). Though she has asked around, she has not found work yet. The other problem with work is the care of her one-year-old. She will have to make her 10-year-old daughter stay at home to look after her little brother while she is away at work. Again the same dilemma: she really wanted her daughters to study and graduate so that they could become financially independent if needed.

In a welfare state, Jameela would have a) support for her necessary expenses, b) support for the education of her children, and c) child support for her one-year-old. But here none of these are available. Ehsaas is not enough and Jameela has to depend on the generosity of individuals. She finds it hard to ask for help but, currently, has few options other than to ask whomsoever she can.

Article 25A of the Constitution promises free and compulsory education to all five- to 16-year-olds. Is ‘free’ education only about doing away with tuition fees and providing textbooks? Jameela’s son could be contributing a significant portion to the household budget if he were to switch to a job. Jameela could also take a job if she removed her elder daughter from school. But in both cases the cost, in terms of future possibilities for both the children and the household, would be significant. Should the promise of ‘free and compulsory’ education not be dealing with such issues? Should it also not include a promise for access to quality education? If Jameela’s son passes his Matriculation examination but the quality of education he gets is so poor that he is not even able to read or write properly, will that be the true fulfilment of Article 25A?

Jameela’s case might be a particularly difficult one. But with poverty levels where they are in Pakistan, a significant percentage of the population faces similar challenges between the need to raise current income and to invest in securing access to quality education (future possibilities). The majority of households in Pakistan are not getting access to quality education for their children and this not only restricts prospects for the coming generation, it also makes it unlikely that Pakistan could go on to a path of sustainable high growth.

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, January 7th, 2022

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