RECENTLY, a friend told me that his driver Sadiq quit his job, saying his salary wasn’t enough and he wanted to look for a better job. My friend was paying Sadiq Rs40,000 per month. Though my friend appreciates it is hard to make ends meet with a salary of Rs40,000 now, especially for a family living in an urban area, he felt he could not afford to pay more, so he let Sadiq quit.
Sadiq has three children. He is not educated and has been working as a driver for the last 15 years. He lives in a rented house, which he shares with his brother’s family. The rent payment, Rs12,000 per month, is shared equally between the brothers. Each gets one room and shares common spaces like the bathroom, kitchen, veranda and a small courtyard. One of Sadiq’s children is very young but the older two go to a nearby school. Between rent, electricity and gas bills, school fees, and food expenditure, Sadiq ends up with no money towards the end of the month. He has been accumulating a bit of debt every month for the last year or so. He needs a higher income to balance even his monthly budget.
A colleague’s daughter completed her Master’s degree in sociology from a local public-sector university and started teaching at a school recently. The school is a middle-level-fee school. When I told my colleague about Sadiq’s decision to quit, he mentioned that his daughter, a school teacher with 18 years of education, including from recognised universities, was being paid only Rs18,000 a month. After transport costs, her take-home is around Rs13,000 per month. My colleague laughed, saying that maybe his daughter could become a driver in my friend’s household!
Perhaps that’s not a bad idea. The private schooling system, which now comprises over 40 per cent of enrolled children across Pakistan, has a very large number of female teachers. In fact, there is research which argues that the reason private schools were able to grow so quickly, across urban and peri-urban Pakistan initially, and now even in many rural areas of Punjab and KP (the rural areas of Sindh and Balochistan have fewer private schools), was that while the student numbers were there, we did not have a supply of teachers in these areas. Investment in girls’ education in the 1960s and 1970s, largely through the public-sector schooling system, created a potential supply of educated girls who could be recruited as teachers. This made the expansion of primary-level schooling in the category we know as low-fee private schools possible.
Low-fee private schools pay female teachers far below the minimum wage.
But there are issues. We know Pakistan’s female labour force participation rate is one of the lowest, both regionally and globally. It has been consistently low. We have been educating girls for decades but have not facilitated their entry into the workforce. Teaching is seen as possibly the only ‘acceptable’ job for many women by a lot of families. This means that where millions of girls have reached the matriculation, intermediate, graduate and postgraduate level, they do not have many options for work. A nearby school might be the only option. This, too, might only be possible until they marry or have their first child. We find a high turnover of teachers in the initial years (in the private sector). But after three to four years of service, those who stay in teaching tend to do so for much longer, making a career out of it. However, the initial dropout rate is high and this does not seem to be because of ability-based sorting. Selection/sorting would not be an issue. It seems that other factors (marriage, children, social/societal considerations) are more important.
So, we have a strange situation. Low-fee private schools boast about providing education that is better than or equal to education in public-sector schools and at a much lower cost to them; but their cost advantage is mainly due to a fragmented and underdeveloped labour market for female participants. They pay far below the minimum wage, as women have a low reservation wage and few labour market options.
Whether seen as exploitation or the good use of market forces, the rapid, large growth in private schooling has been due to an increasing supply of educated females who do not have many other job options. It is difficult to make teaching a career though. Why would you do so if you put in six to eight hours a day for wages that are below the minimum level? Why would you invest in your own training and development? If the market does not recognise individual differences in quality and commitment much, and the turnover story suggests that, why would you strive for excellence? Is it any wonder then that learning outcomes are where they are?
How do we move forward? The market view would be to allow things to develop on their own. Other jobs and markets for women will slowly open up as private schools start moving up the pyramid towards high and higher secondary schools. If they want better and more specialised teachers, they will have to invest in teacher training, selection/sorting and retention. We can wait for the markets to work. We could also use social policy to force the change to happen faster, and open other job markets for women through legislation and policy (quota is an easy option). We can also impose a minimum wage for teachers. It will shock the system and might even force many low-fee schools to close down, if the government has the ability to enforce this. We have options. Should we exercise one? Irrespective of which option we take, if any, the current state is not one of equilibrium and there will be change. It might be evolutionary and slow, or it can be faster and more disruptive, but it will happen. And it needs to happen if teaching and teaching quality are to improve.
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, October 13th, 2023