Friday September 22, 2023

Dealing with private schools

September 25, 2019

Like other developing countries, Pakistan is facing a huge regulatory dilemma of involving private schools in achieving its UN and constitutional goal of universal education but without allowing them to exploit parents.

The mushroom growth of the school business in recent years is attributed to state failure in providing quality schools and education. This is a catch-22 situation, because now we are asking the same government to regulate private schools.

The education statistics of Pakistan speak of the same that except for nursery, in pre-nursery and from 6 to 12 grade, private schools have surpassed government schools. Pakistan's education statistics report for 2015-16 shows that the overall educational institutions in Pakistan from pre-primary to the university level are 303,446 – of which 191,065 are public and 112,381 private. The total enrolment is 47.5 million – out of which 27.7 million is for public and 19.8 million is for private.

The fear is that increased private-sector involvement will lead to prioritization of profitability over learning, well-being, and education as a public good. Therefore, far stricter regulation of private-sector involvement is needed to ensure that profitability does not trump equity and quality. But how?

Unesco says that governments must be cognizant of their responsibility to create an environment in which private-sector actors prioritize equity in education. This may be easier said than done, as governments with sufficient capacity to manage private-sector actors are better placed to improve the public education system.

The Supreme Court of Pakistan recently treaded on the same lines. In its judgment on private schools' fees (September 12, 2019), the court said that the constitutional right to trade, business or association is not absolute and the regulator can fix and cap fee increase. In its verdict, which attracted appreciation from parents of private school students, the honourable court reviewed different constitutional articles related to fundamental rights to trade and business and association. All these articles have two parts – the first being the fundamental right and other provisos creating an official domain to regulate these rights. The court put weight behind the latter.

Explaining the background, the SC said: “The parents of students coming from the [sic] whole range of middle-class families approached the courts, not because they wanted to challenge the tuition fee which the students [are] charged at the time of taking admissions but what agitated them was the periodical increases made in the tuition fee which proved to be an enormous burden on their purses.”

The apex court observed that on account of lack of capable and efficient teachers as well as lack of necessary facilities, many middle and lower-middle-class families, which a few decades ago used to send their children only to government schools, have utterly lost faith in the public education system. These families, in their desire for better education for their children, have started seeking admissions in private schools where not very long ago only upper-middle and rich class families used to send their children. This has resulted in the pre-nominal growth of private schools.

The court classified private schools in three tiers that charge tuition fee ranging from Rs1,000 to Rs60,000 per month. The ruling says: "Now more than 50 percent of students, as per some statistics study in private schools where the level of education as compared to government schools is quite high. The students qualified from private schools have a qualitative edge over the students who pass out from government schools. An overwhelming number of teachers who teach in private school have themselves studied in private schools. They by far, excel in their teaching skills than most of the teachers of government schools. Today one can notice the difference between those students who have studied in private schools and those ingovernment schools.”

The honourable judges also put checks on regulators, saying that the only object of the laws in question should be to check profiteering after students are admitted in schools. “But when the fee of any particular service is regulated in a manner that has the potential of gradually eating-up legitimate margin of profit, it makes businesses compromise on their quality lest they would run into losses which in turn lead to layoffs or their eventual closure,” the court warns.

The UN Sustainable Development Goal 4 ensures inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all, and our constitution's Article 25A guarantees that the state shall provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age of five to sixteen years.

Allied to this is the National Education Policy (NEC) 2017-2025, articulating that without active, vibrant and flourishing private-sector achievement of national and international goals, targets and commitments such as free and compulsory education under Article 25(A) and sustainable development goals (SDGs) may not be possible. But the NEC admits that a private-sector education database is missing. A countrywide private education census could not be conducted for the last one decade.

The official definition of private schools is also very broad, making it difficult to quantify how many are for profit. Private schools include those educational institutions which are not run, managed and financed by the government. These include various category institutions such as low cost, high cost, non-profit, profit-based and madressahs etc. Private-sector institutions are run and managed by individuals, civil societies, trusts, non-government organizations, and Wafaqs, etc. These include both registered and non-registered institutions.

There already exist private-sector educational institutions registration and regulatory ordinances, acts, rules, laws, and by-laws in almost all the provinces and the Islamabad Capital Territory. But a perusal of these laws show that these regulatory bodies are not independent of the government but controlled by the same government that has pathetically failed to provide quality education to its citizens.

There is a need to evolve a smart and efficient regulatory mechanism which is independent of the executive and is inclusive of consumer and business associations. The decision-making should be done after consensus of all the stakeholders. Another simmering issue remains uniformity of curriculum. If the existing laws and regulations are enforced in letter and spirit, then madressahs and Cambridge O Level and A Level teaching schools should have uniform curriculum, depriving parents of the right to choose.

On the face of growing private-sector participation in education, internationally, the Abidjan principles were developed using human rights legal standards and jurisprudence. One of the principle says that parents have the liberty to choose for their children an educational institution other than a public educational institution which conforms to standards established by the state following its obligations under international human rights law.

One way out of this quagmire can be to apply existing corporate and consumer protection regulations on the for-profit schools – such as the Security and Exchange Commission, Competition Commission, and provincial consumer protection laws.

The UN guidelines on consumer protection 2015 say that businesses should deal fairly and honestly with consumers at all stages of their relationship so that it is an integral part of the business culture. Businesses should avoid practices that harm consumers, particularly with respect to vulnerable and disadvantaged consumers.

The writer is a freelance contributor.