Suo motu on education
Education is internationally recognised as a basic fundamental right, and to ensure its provision to citizens is a paramount duty of the state. The state of Pakistan has fared just as well in this duty as it has in the provision of the other fundamental rights to the people.
The education department is one of the most lucrative departments in the government as it has the highest number of employees – ie teachers. Lofty budgets are spent each year on the construction of schools staffed with ghost teachers, and upon the salaries of such ghost teachers. Hiring, transfers and postings at voluminous levels bring windfalls for those at the helm of this department.
Yet what has been delivered to Pakistan in the 68 years since its independence from the shackles of colonialism is deeply engrained and institutionalised educational apartheid.
Pakistan has a three-tier educational pyramid. The largest segment of the educational system is schools where the medium of instruction is the vernacular. Sindhi medium schools are most prevalent within the province, at least on paper. The stratum above is occupied by Urdu medium schools, located primarily in urban centres. The pyramid is topped by the elite English medium schools. Each of these strata addresses the subjects of its curriculum in its own medium of instruction and the same medium is also employed in its testing mechanism.
The state sanctions this form of educational apartheid, which creates three distinct classes of citizens. It is a fact that a graduate of the English medium schools has a distinct advantage over graduates of the other two systems, and that a graduate of the vernacular medium of education is at a distinct disadvantage when compared to the other two.
The deliberate apathy of the state towards education has not gone unnoticed by the private sector, which has capitalised upon it. The pinnacles of education in Pakistan are primarily private schools, to which access is a privilege. Even if such access is bestowed, the costs of such schools are prohibitive for the common man.
The private schools on average require six figure admission fees and charge five figure monthly fees by the quarter in advance. These fees are subject to increase by the management at will and without notice to the student body. Recently these unilateral fee hikes were the subject of a public outcry; loud enough to have had the prime minister decry such fee increments.
The government of Punjab went one step further and passed an ordinance barring the fee hike this year and requiring that such increments in the future be subject to approval of the regulatory body. The Sindh government, true to its policy of reconciliation, went in the opposite direction and sanctified the fee hike.
The immediate intervention of the Punjab government is commendable; however it may not be enough to resuscitate the dismal state of the educational system in Pakistan. Private schools, like all other segments of the free market economy, must be regulated but it has to be done fairly. Yet regulating fees of private schools will not change the state of schooling in Pakistan, where education is a privilege and not a right.
The apartheid in the educational system must end; and there has to be a unified educational system for the entire country. The meagre amount that the state allocates to education each year cannot be spent on institutionalised misappropriation. The basic standard of education at public schools has to be hauled out from the abyss where it presently rests.
This crisis in the educational system exists across our eastern border as well. The courts in India have highlighted the malaise in their educational system time and again and also recognised the failure of the state in providing an efficient solution. In August this year the Allahabad High Court took the bull by the horns and stepped in to forestall what it defined as the competition to bring down the standards of public education.
The court observed that the dismal state of public education was contributed to by five major factors. First, that there was no real involvement of the public administration with the public schools. Second, that anybody who has the means sends their own kids to elitist private sector institutions. Third, that the top functionaries of the state send their children to elitist private schools. Fourth, that the public administration therefore has no motivation to see the functioning and requirements of these schools, which are merely a mode of earning political mileage. And, finally, public schools are victims of highest level of misappropriation, maladministration and widespread corruption.
The court was conscious that unless the functionaries manning the different organs of the state are equally vested in the renaissance of the education system the desired results may be unachievable. In a landmark judgement the high court directed that “the children/wards of government servants, semi-government servants, local bodies, representatives of people, judiciary and all such persons who receive any perk, benefit or salary etc from the state exchequer or public fund, send their child/children/wards who are in age of receiving primary education, to primary schools run by [the] board.
“He shall also ensure to make penal provisions for those who violate this condition; for example, if a child is sent to a primary school not maintained by board, the amount of fee etc paid in such privately managed primary school, an equal amount shall be deposited in the government funds, every month, so long as such education in other kind of primary school is continued. This amount collected can be utilised for betterment of schools of [the] board.”
This judgement is truly revolutionary and has the capacity to bring a comatose education system back to life. The judgement also tackled the issue of educational apartheid in observing that the implementation of its directives shall provide an opportunity to the children of common men to interact and integrate with the progeny of the so-called high society. And that it would give them a different kind of atmosphere, confidence and other opportunities and that this would give a boost and bring a revolution in changing society from the grassroots level.
Our judiciary is the persevering guardian of fundamental rights and has risen to the occasion to remedy executive or legislative paralysis, several times to safeguard the public interest. It is high time our superior judiciary played its role in the reformation of education of Pakistan.
The writer is a barrister-at-law.
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