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Mirage of education

May 20, 2012


THE manner in which the goal of universal primary education has been pursued in Pakistan over the past few decades is a matter of national shame.

It epitomises the callous indifference, if not deliberate negligence, of the state and society in discharging its obligations towards the poor. Pakistan’s performance in the primary education sector has been dismal. Whether judged through indicators such as enrolment rates, adult literacy, the quality of education or gender parity, we have hovered around the bottom of the world’s 10 worst performers.

Notwithstanding countless policy documents and pronouncements made here and at international conferences, education for all remains a mirage.

Part of the reason for this public apathy is the lack of focus on the transformative role of primary education. It is not merely a matter of bad governance, mismanagement, favouritism or even the lack of resources.

Access to primary education, which should last to a minimum of the age of 16, empowers the individual and his or her family to seek their rights and benefit from the opportunities available in society. It is the single most powerful instrument for changing the status quo in our economic and social structure. Education also plays a vital role in forging national cohesion. The increasing fragmentation of our society can arguably be attributed to our broken educational system.

Equally important is the need for treating education as a public good. It is well known that the production of a public good — whose social benefits typically exceed private benefits — requires considerable subsidies that have to be financed through the taxation of the rich. In the absence of such cross-class subsidisation, education becomes restricted to the children of affluent households who can afford to pay the market price.

The state needs to provide additional incentives to the poor, such as conditional cash transfers to induce children’s enrolment in school. In a fiscally delinquent Pakistan, this is a very challenging demand. Resultantly, the government shifts its responsibility to for-profit or non-profit institutions. The latter, however, by their very nature are hardly committed to universal goals, although some do make concessions to those unable to pay the full fees.

The incursion of private and quasi-private (including NGO) institutions into the field of education began in 1979 in the wake of the Ziaul Haq government’s reversal of Z.A. Bhutto’s nationalisation of private educational institutions. On the face of it, it intended to stem the tide of commercialism and exploitation of both teachers and parents by private entrepreneurs — with the exception of a few who were benignly motivated — the move was met with tough resistance from vested interest parties and was undone soon after the military takeover.

Ziaul Haq allowed the private sector back into education and encouraged investment in the sector as a means of conserving resources for defence and security expenditures, which received higher priority than public services such as health and education.The commercialisation of education that prompted Z.A. Bhutto to nationalise private educational institutions in 1974 holds barely a flickering candle to the daylight robbery of today’s educational barons — some of whom are well-ensconced in political parties. The rapid expansion of chains of elitist private schools that charge fees well beyond the known earning capacity of many of the pupils’ parents, is clear evidence of the elitist bias in our educational system that diverts resources and policy attention from achieving primary education guaranteed under Article 25-A of the constitution.

Many factors have led to the rapid growth of private schools, currently estimated at 56,000 or more (accounting for about 40 per cent of all schools in the country) and make them one of the fastest-growing markets in the country. Some of the more successful private school chains are reportedly charging not only high tuition fees but ‘franchise’ money of up to Rs1.5m. The main reason is the elite’s quest for a higher quality of education and its urge for exclusivity.

The growth of private schools has gone hand in hand with the decline of public schools. Indeed, there seems to be a symbiotic relationship between the two. The growth of private schools adversely impacts the quality of education in government schools, which are reduced to educational ghettos/orphanages that have experienced the steady exodus of children of relatively prosperous parents and good teachers to private schools or tuition centres. The harrowing tales of neglect, misuse and the depredation of public schools that are related in the media are enough to scare even low-income parents into sending their children to private schools.

The supporters of private schools, however, argue that private education is no longer an elitist or urban phenomenon; that private schools are more efficient and sustainable (even affordable). Some of them would like to dismantle the publicly funded school system altogether and hand it over to the fast-growing private school and philanthropic foundations sectors. However, as argued earlier, the goal of universal primary education can be served only by the public education system and the latter can at best play a secondary role.

But it is unlikely that the trend can be reversed as the vested interests in private education are much more strongly entrenched and even in cahoots with the government. As renowned columnist Zubeida Mustafa recently commented “… on the quiet, the government is using them [public-private partnership programmes] as a pretext to disengage itself from the education sector”.

Perhaps those directly affected by this exclusionary process — the poor — will have to take matters into their own hands.

The writer is a former professor of economics at the Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.