Education on sale

Education on sale

"For heaven’s sake why?" an educator friend retorted on my suggestion that the growth in private schools, low cost or not, was not a sign of the strength but a symptom of a societal disease. Why did I, he wondered, who was also educated in private schools, felt this way about the growth of private schools in Pakistan, especially when they were doing so much better compared to the public schools?

I am not against private education per se but have some serious concerns about the unfettered growth of a segmented marketplace in the field of education. I also think that growth is not necessarily and always a sign of strength. My concern is that such unfettered growth may not be as good for the body politic of Pakistan as we have been led to believe. It is quite possible for the unchecked growth of private schools to ultimately exacerbate the state of an already fragmented society and tear it apart from within. And I feel that this concern must be brought on record, regardless of whether it is addressed by the policy community.

It is important to note that the talk of harnessing the potential of private sector schools to aid in universalisation of education is taking place in an environment that is favourably receptive to it. The reason is not just that the public school system has been a persistent failure. It is also that social entrepreneurialism has already largely replaced social activism in our society. What may have started as organised movements to support improvements in public education have evolved into corporate entities selling policy ideas and services to the state and other development sector donors.

I am not judging these developments as good or bad but merely saying that corporate entities are likely to be more accepting of the idea of state failure and private sector’s success. The public, as some of my friends argue, has been dislodged and replaced by the private at all levels. According to them this has happened for good, and for good reasons.

As such then, the question of what is public interest and how it must be protected seldom surfaces in debates surrounding the growth of private schools. I had highlighted this problem earlier in several articles and will look at this issue again from the perspective of a perennial tension between the public and the private in some other societies. As you will see in the remaining discussion, a healthy struggle between the public and the private and a strong commitment to the protection of public interests is needed to keep both the public and private under check. We do not have any such debate, which is the primary reason for the concern that unchecked and unregulated growth in private schools may turn out to be a disaster.

The pro-private lobbies have had policy successes as reflected in limited acceptance of choice in the form of voucher programmes, charter schools in the United States and Academies in the United Kingdom.

In the West, the so-called liberal democracy emerged as an uneasy compromise between the competing discourses of liberalism and democracy. Hence there has always been a tug of war between the liberal (and now neo-liberal) and the social justice oriented discourses. The liberal philosophies prioritised the ideas of private, individual, liberty, and market. These were checked by social justice oriented discourses of democracy that prioritised public, collective, liberty, and state.

As the political theorist Chantal Mouffe argues, these competing ideas flowed into each other, checking and balancing one another and thus forming the complex of liberalism and democracy, the so-called modern liberal democracy. What were the implications of this tug of war for education?

The logic of the liberal and neo-liberal discourses required education to be similar to other businesses. The assumption was that free competition in the education marketplace would help everyone by providing better and efficient education services through innovation and competition. This logic required the states’ policies to be market-friendly. The logic of the social justice acknowledged the stake of state to ensure the production of politically competent and economically productive citizenry and defended its role in ensuring the delivery of education to all as a public good.

The conflict between these two competing logics has been intense and over three hundred years old. Gurus of big government have advocated passionately for an authoritarian state [or big government] to deliver justice and protect rights, while the detractors of the role of state in the lives of individuals have provided an equally compelling case for the limited government to protect individual liberties. This tension has kept surfacing in debates about provision of education.

Irfan Muzaffar2

Understandably, the arguments for privatisation of education have sought legitimacy in the principle of individual freedom to choose and the ability of the free market to respond to this choice.

In the education marketplace, the collective good is supposed to emerge as an aggregate outcome of individuals pursuing their own self-interests. The moral priorities, which are central to social justice oriented arguments, are not allowed in the marketplace. Markets are not supposed to produce equality. They are supposed to, as the proponents argue, produce, a ‘natural’ economic order in which the poorest, the losers in the market, would benefit from the progress of society as a whole. Hence, the concept of the so-called ‘trickle down’ effect according to which the competition would drive the prices down and ultimately make affordable to the poor that which was earlier afforded by only the rich.

Notwithstanding the long and hard fought battles between the ideals of market and the state, in most Western countries the arguments for the states to finance and administer mass education have carried the day. The state has been able to assert its stake in education by taking over its financing and management. Thus it is that we see vast public school systems in the United States, Britain, and in many other countries with universal education.

The purposes of education have also been shaped by the tug of war between the public and private. The compromise between the two has entailed that education should be provided to all children as both a public as well as a private good. Education, in liberal democracies, has come to be defined as an arena that must simultaneously adapt to social inequalities characteristic of a liberal economy as well as promote democratic equality.

The tensions between markets and state have not always been antagonistic. Some thinkers, such as the Nobel Prize winner economist Amartya Sen and philanthropist George Soros have argued that provision and financing of education by the state is essential for the health of a market economy. As Sen puts it: "The creditable performance of the so-called capitalist system, when things moved forward, drew on a combination of institutions -- publicly funded education, medical care, and mass transportation are just a few of many -- that went much beyond relying only on a profit-maximizing market economy …".

In view of the above, it is easy to see that efforts to privatise education in the Western countries would be met with fierce resistance in the public sphere. The champions of public provision of education from within the politicians, professional educators and academics vigorously defend public school in the face of efforts to privatise education provision. The pro-private lobbies have also had policy successes as reflected in limited acceptance of choice in the form of voucher programmes, charter schools in the United States and Academies in the United Kingdom.

But wherever the impulse to privatise has succeeded it has not been able to, so far, reverse the principle of provision of free education at the point of service. Consider, for example, the idea of vouchers coined by another Nobel Prize winner economist Milton Friedman. The idea of vouchers emerged from a recognition of political impossibility of completely doing away with public schools in the United States. Milton Friedman, who was free market icon, was forced to put forward vouchers as a strategy to make public schools work more like private schools without changing their essential character.

In an article in the New York Times titled "Selling School like Groceries: The Voucher Idea", Milton Friedman spoke of vouchers as a political compromise. While a fully privatised school system was ideal, it was "outside the range of political feasibility…" He spoke of the vouchers as "a more modest reform -- one that would retain compulsory schooling, government financing and government operation, while preparing the way for the gradual replacement of public schools by private schools." Milton’s arguments are a compelling example of the ways in which the impulse to privatise education was challenged in the face of a robust defence of public education.

Readers will agree that the growth of private school system in Pakistan is not regulated or shaped by a concern with the nature of education as a public good. It remains unfettered. There is no debate on how to check and regulate this growth in order to protect public interest. There is no definition of public interest in the realm of education. Its growth is beginning to look much like a wild growth of weeds in an untended garden. We may not be able to stop the growth of private sector. But we are not even attempting to play the role of the gardeners.

Education on sale