Bad choices

Bad choices

No one disputes the perception that our public sector schools have failed to provide a decent education to children. But the way the society has responded to this failure is even more disturbing. We could have reacted to this situation without losing our focus on the essential vision of public education of good quality provided free of cost at the point of service. That is the way states with successful universal education systems have reacted to the early challenges in their way.

It was always a long and arduous but ultimately successful struggle to get individual taxpayers, philanthropies, and businesses to pay for a publicly provisioned common school for all children. Take a look at the nations with a successful system of free and compulsory education and you will find none where the state is not the main financier and provider of education. 

No state in the modern history has placed the education of its young citizens entirely at the mercy of market forces. How it is then that we have responded to the difficulties of public sector by abandoning it altogether?

No state in the modern history has placed the education of its young citizens entirely at the mercy of market forces. How it is then that we have responded to the difficulties of public sector by abandoning it altogether? This abandoning of the public sector is already underway in practice, if still not in rhetoric.

There is nothing new about attracting the private entrepreneurs to education except that the recent thrust is fully backed by the multilateral and bilateral donor agencies. A cursory look at nearly all education policies, with the exception of the 1972, would show a tendency to avoid an increase in public spending on education through appeals to private sector.

For example, in the six-year development plan published by the government in 1951, Fazal-ur-Rehman, the then Minister for Education of Pakistan, stridently declared education as compulsory, yet rendered it unachievable without contribution from private sector. Likewise, the report of Sharif Commission on education in 1958 minced no words in advocating less public spending on education. The commission asked people to pay for education from their own resources and not to “expect the benefactions of government to provide them with the environment and institutions they desire for themselves, their children, and their community.” It asked them to accept that since it was they and their children who benefitted most from education, the sacrifices required were to be borne primarily by them.

These recommendations may be faulted for many other reasons but not for their crude honesty. So there is nothing new about Pakistani state first identifying expansion in education as a precondition for progress, even using the ideal of compulsory education, but then stopping short of taking practical steps to provide the resources needed to expand educational opportunity to all citizens.

Those who were at the forefront of ‘Education For All’ (EFA) movement in the heady days of early 1990s may have thought that Pakistan was finally becoming serious in its attempts to universalise education. After all, careful estimates showed that if a country committed more than 2.5 per cent of GDP to basic education, allocated more than 15 per cent of its national budget to education, and operated schools at costs per child of less than 15 per cent of GDP per capita, it could afford universal access to education.

But the governments remained unable to reach these levels of public spending on education partly due to lack of political will and partly due to the double game played by the international financial institutions. The developing countries like Pakistan were asked to commit to providing Education for All on one hand and squeezed to curtail public expenditure on the other through the so-called structural adjustment programmes that entailed public spending cuts. So the state attempted to make a decent education accessible to all children but failed. This failure created a fertile ground for unfettered growth of private educational institutions.

Meanwhile, Pakistan’s constitution was amended in 2010 to render education free and compulsory for all children up to age 16. This development, some of us thought, was yet another solid affirmation of the commitment of the state toward universalising education. Many hoped that this would spawn a flurry of rigorous policy analysis and civil and political deliberation to determine what it would take to equal the challenge posed by this gigantic task. But this did not happen and instead an even more robust movement was kicked off to provide more support to private entrepreneurs. This movement, which is currently underway, draws its support from multilateral and bilateral donors, policy scientists and entrepreneurs, and even some civil society organisations.

A state with a political economy ill disposed to raising expenditures on public services, in fact constantly under pressure to reduce them by the international monitory agencies, would find the low cost alternatives irresistible. This position has been lent further support from the comparative studies of the public and private schools conducted by some policy analysts.

These studies find that private schools produce more learning outcomes for less per student costs relative to the public schools. This convergence of policy advocacy in support of a low cost private alternative and the results of comparative studies, though largely inconclusive, are gradually gaining a foothold and pushing the talk of constitutional promise for free and compulsory education away from the centre stage of deliberations on education policy.

What was apparently unacceptable under the constitutional promise has come to be resignedly accepted by all and sundry. The social consequences of a fragmented and unregulated marketplace of education are already unfolding in the society while we chose to look the other way.

What is to be done to stop an unregulated and segmented education marketplace from exacerbating the social fragmentation to which Pakistani society has already fallen a prey?

The signs of this social fragmentation and its link with the types of schools were illustrated vividly even in one of the updates on the social media. An activist friend on the Facebook recently captioned pictures of a large gathering in Rawalpindi with following words, “So scary. So much anger & such power”. I looked at the picture and asked, “Who were these people and where did they come from?” The TV footage of the same events showed that many of them were adolescents, some were even younger. These children were so full of zeal, and hatred for the ‘other’, that they had the effect of scaring those who probably have been to a different kind of school.

Evidently, some private schools, those at the high end of the fees spectrum, had produced those who had more stakes here, in this world – the so-called moderates. But there were others, which have produced individuals with more stakes in the hereafter. None, neither the high fees private schools nor the low or no fees private schools have sought to develop a balance of spiritual and material in their students.

Many of the participants in the ‘scary’ gathering were likely the children of poor parents who must have exercised their ‘choice’, to use the language of advocates of private schools, to send their children to private schools that charged no fees, i.e. the religious seminaries. What else are the religious seminaries if not a type of private school?

The so-called liberals are products of one kind of private schools while their ‘scary others’ are products of another kind of private schools. They have no shared common values, no basis for communication with each other. This is the sort of social fragmentation the state has already brought about by pushing its educational responsibilities out of the public and into the private sphere?

Before you get me wrong, I am not against the parental right to enrol their children in a private school if they had a real choice. But it is never a real choice for poor households. It reminds of a billboard advertisement put up by the KFC in Karachi before the Independence Day. It said something like, “We are a free nation, free to choose…” and under these words were given two deals for the fried chicken meals to choose from.

What is this choice if it is to be between a failing public school and only a marginally better private school. While the advocacy for the low-cost private schools relies on the attractive rhetoric of choice and inconclusive evidence about superiority of private schools, it is entirely rooted in the free market ideology. This ideology has already played havoc in the West and is fiercely resisted on the political front by the concerned stakeholders. The reason it is easily sold in Pakistan is because the idea of public sphere and its manifestation in a robust public sector to protect public interest never got a foothold in this country.

We need to refocus on the idea of public interest and not let the ideologues of low-cost private schooling mislead us. We need to ask questions about how such schools will protect the public interest. The state and society must recognize the collective public stake in education and stay focused on the inalienable right of every child to receive a good quality basic education free of cost at the point of service.

We may debate about all possible alternatives including the low-cost private schools, but we must formulate some principled conditions that must be fulfilled by all schools, and also ensure that these schools are aligned with the constitutional provisions under 25-A.

Bad choices