With the new government assuming power, as Pakistan chants slogans of tabdeeli, the reforms in education are repeated with a new twist. For some time now, at the start of a new academic year, there is renewed debate over tuition fees charged by private schools. This time, there is another issue — should private schools be nationalised?
This month, the Sindh High Court (SHC) restrained private schools from increasing fees by more than 5 per cent, terming it as ‘constitutionally impermissible’. The direction came as a result of a petition filed by more than a hundred parents, pertaining to a hike in certain private schools’ fees by 13 per cent.
A bitter row between some parent associations and private sector schools has been going on for more than a year across the country whether these schools should be allowed to raise tuition fees annually and how much.
The Sindh government, on the directions of the court, formed a 12-member committee which was tasked to draft rules for fee regulation. The committee, comprising both parents and schools, had agreed to take into account inflation mechanism. When the previous government relinquished power, the recommendations lay suspended.
While deliberations in Sindh still continue, negotiations between school associations and the Punjab government last year had resulted in an agreement “if there is a reasonable justification for increasing existing fees at more than 5 per cent, the school in-charge, at least three months before the commencement of the next academic year, would have to apply to the registering authority incorporating a justification.”
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), however, became a battleground for private schools and the state where Private Schools Regulatory Authority (PSRA) Act 2017 had previously allowed 10 per cent yearly raise in fee. But in November last year, Peshawar High Court directed the province’s PSRA to not allow increase in tuition fees by more than 3 per cent per annum. When a vast majority of private schools in KPK observed a two-day strike in response at the end of April this year, PSRA requested the State Bank to seal accounts of 22 non-compliant schools. Around 40 ‘non-conforming’ private schools had already been sealed earlier.
Earlier, in the months of April and May, even hotter debates took place in courts over a related issue — whether private schools should be allowed to charge tuition fees during summer breaks. The Supreme Court suspended the Islamabad High Court’s (IHC) order restraining private schools from collecting school fees during summer vacations, ruling that the high court does not have the jurisdiction to issue orders like these.
While the tussle over increase in tuition fees by private schools continues, a new perspective emerged as a possible solution, although experts view it more as a worrying situation. In the new government, privatisation of most state corporations is on the cards, but the very opposite — a nationalisation move — looms over the education sector.
A couple of months before the election, Chief Justice of Pakistan, Mian Saqib Nisar during the hearing of a case against tuition fee hike by private schools had remarked: “Why should we not direct the government to take over all schools as there is no bar on nationalisation?” More recently, he regretted that the state was not fulfilling its responsibility for providing education to the children of the country, warning that the apex court would not allow making education a business.
This is not the first time a nationalisation move for educational institutions is being considered. The country has witnessed it once before. On March 29, 1972, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the then president of Pakistan, commander-in-chief and the first civilian chief Martial Law administrator issued a new Martial Law regulation through which all private educational institutions along with their assets were taken over by the federal and provincial governments. The rule was implemented immediately. The government specified Rs1,180 crore for this nationalisation policy so that the children of the poor and underprivileged class could get free education.
The condition of various educational institutions is said to have become worse after nationalisation.
In 2010, when Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) was in power prime minister Yousaf Raza Gillani declared that the party had made a blunder in 1972 by nationalising tens of thousands of schools and colleges in the country. “It was a wrong move. We cannot move forward without admitting our mistake,” the then prime minister had said.
Experts have lamented the fact that as the years went by the standard of education deteriorated, and many milestones suffered. Pakistan Education Statistics 2015-16 reported that in the same year there were more than 150,000 primary, middle and high schools across the country in the public sector, out of which more than 6,000 schools were non functional and more than a 1,000 closed.
These are the schools available to nearly 50 million children of school-going age (4-16) in the country. But the number of children attending schools is disappointing. “Pakistan has one of the highest rate of children not going to school in the world,’ informs Naheed Durrani, Managing Director, Sindh Education Foundation (SEF). “In Pakistan only 50 per cent of children are going to school.”
Sindh allocated 27 per cent to education in fiscal year 2017-18 budget for the development, transformation and improvement in performance of public educational institutions — even then the province underperformed. Enrolment in primary school did not show improvement, according to a recent report prepared by an educational performance watchdog. Over 12,600 schools remain shut while 23,355 of the 123,356 teachers have not been reporting for duty, the report reveals.
Alif Ailaan, a non-government organisation for education, reports that although Punjab and KP in particular have made great strides in improving infrastructural facilities in state schools, KP still lags behind in providing quality education, while Punjab despite ‘being the best performing province’ still has a learning crisis.
With this present status of state-run schools, demanding either more budget or attention, is it possible that private schools be taken under state control?
“There is no mechanism to nationalise educational institutions simply because it involves billions of rupees,” says Professor Haroon Rasheed, former Director Colleges Karachi. “This type of sentimental decision uses an illogical, cosmetic and unrealistic approach. Industries are nationalised. Education is a system and a system cannot be nationalised.”
Asim Yaqoob, Regional Director South of Beaconhouse School System, couldn’t agree more. “If schools are nationalised there will be a massive reaction and protests from most school administrations and staff. You are talking about hundreds of thousands of teaching staff, mostly females, who would be required to be accommodated as government employees,” Yaqoob explains.
The private school system in Pakistan, which is at the centre of the nationalisation debate, has shown a consistent growth. This was propelled by either the absence or dismal performance of government schools. A Private School Census conducted in 2016-17 in Punjab by the Academy of Educational Planning and Management, a body of Ministry of Education showed that private schools have increased dramatically in numbers. Out of the 14,115 schools surveyed at primary level in the Punjab, functional public schools were about 1.6 times less than private schools.
Various reasons for parents preferring to send their children to private schools include better locations, presence of teachers and a modern curriculum.
There are private schools charging tuition fees from Rs500 to more than Rs100,000 throughout the country. Although this spectrum does allow the private schools to penetrate into all kinds of income households in the society, the higher brackets of tuition fees are largely criticised as ‘unfair’ and unnecessarily inflated. They are also blamed for the same reason for promoting a class divide.
“Schools catering to certain income groups further lead to class divide,” says Professor Rasheed.
“Private schools from the very beginning were in favour of English as medium of instruction,” says Yaqoob, explaining this is simply a result of market forces and higher tuition fees are necessitated by inflationary costs and expenditure on research and infrastructure. “There was a demand in the market for better quality education. When private schools aimed to provide quality, they were exposed to an equivalent cost structure.”
These experts believe the best way forward would be to improve the conditions of state-run schools, bring them at par with better facilitated private schools to an extent that they give them a run for money. “Standard of public schools need drastic improvement. Hiring of trained teachers only, provision of facilities, removal of leakages and check on corruption apart from spending the budget within a fiscal year are some suggestions,” says Professor Rasheed.
Collaborations between the public and private sector has also been recommended. “This requires a complex master plan, a committee comprising both public and private sector to come together with a solution. Maybe, the private sector can be subsidised but public sector schools definitely need improvement,” suggests Yaqoob.
While at least some level of uniformity in education, as desired by the chief justice of Pakistan, can prove beneficial to the society, what is actually required is a reasonable and functional regulatory framework for the private sector.