One education for all?

November 16, 2014

The realpolitik of education reforms need to be further debated and clarified for ensuring education justice

One education for all?

Last week, my friend Arshed Bhatti wrote an excellent and thought provoking article titled "One Education for All" (OEFA). It made me think! Eventually, I decided to put down my thoughts on the proposal of OEFA in today’s column. What follows should not be read an argument for or against the idea of OEFA. Rather, it should be read as an attempt to understand and explicate the proposal and to raise some questions about it.

As he puts it, OEFA "is must if we want a society of equals. The current divergent and at times conflicting streams of education are producing citizens who even do not want to bear the other’s existence, let alone their peaceful coexistence and affable interactions." Once we have OEFA in place, we will have all children going to "similar schools with same socio-physical infrastructure, interact with similar learning tools and contents, and are imparted similar ethical values."

Who can disagree with such a normative ideal? Of course, education must work as a social equaliser. This is what education justice must be all about. Education justice for all children implies OEFA. So let us agree on OEFA as a normative ideal. Having said that, I will play the devil’s advocate and argue that this normative ideal is very difficult to achieve. This is so not as much because of the technical and administrative difficulties as they can always be addressed. It is a hard to achieve normative ideal largely because of formidable political economic challenges. I will give you two reasons to think about.

The first of my reasons has to do with the fact that societies never agree on the purposes of education. Put differently, education systems are simultaneously made to serve different and, at times, competing goals. Education services have recipients with varied socio-economic statuses and competing vested interests. Those interests are reflected in the purposes assigned to education systems.

In order to clarify this point, let us take a look at what purposes are served by education systems in advanced liberal democracies, since most of them have already achieved near universal education. In the case of such societies, schools simultaneously strive for democratic equality, social efficiency, and individual social mobility.

The empirical evidence suggests that the elite only warms up to education if it does not change the status quo for them.

Now social efficiency and individual mobility must be achieved in a hierarchical and essentially unequal society without altering its nature. Unsurprisingly, many observers of education allege that schools in liberal democracies work to reproduce the inequalities within the society. Clearly, they can only reproduce the societal inequalities by providing different kinds of education to different groups of recipients and not OEFA. Thus it is that you find inner city schools in even the richest liberal democracy of the world, the United States, to be much less well resourced than the schools in the rich suburban districts.

This is not to say that a formal school education does nothing to reduce the inequality in the society. One of the purposes it serves in liberal democracies is indeed to foster democratic equality. It is served by making a decent education accessible to everyone. Yet it always stays short of being uniform to preserve the society in its current form. The bottom line is that if you like the society to be both democratic and liberal at the same time, you will seek to achieve universal education but not necessarily OEFA.

My second, and related, reason has to do with the political economy of education. The findings of some recent research suggest that when the governments undersupply public education they do so because the policy elites do not want other people’s children to become educated.

This makes sense. Consider a society, which has scarce resources, a relatively small segment of well-educated elite, and a very large inadequately educated semi-literate or illiterate population. Suppose also that the former have the power to determine the size of public spending on education. Further assume that providing equal educational opportunity to everyone in the society will increase life chances of everyone in the society. This will then mean that education will create conditions for a redistribution of wealth, which may leave the already privileged worse off. If the size of the economy in this society is also small then it is perfectly rational for the elite to block the redistribution of resources in such a way as will leave them worse off. Thus, the elite have reasons to either block or redirect public spending on education.

The empirical evidence suggests that the elite only warms up to education if it does not change the status quo for them. Therefore, it would be unlikely for the notion of OEFA to find its champions within the policy elite.

You just have to look at the recent favour that policymakers and policy entrepreneurs have been giving to privatisation of education to understand this point. Education cannot be both equal and also private. The private marketplace of education is a perfect anathema to the idea of such education. You cannot have both OEFA and private schools.

But set aside the idea of uniform education aside for a while and see what is happening to article 25 A. This article, which promised free and compulsory education, has been tossed out of the window in practice. In an earlier column on public private debates in education, I observed that governments and many even in the civil society had quietly, and sometimes inadvertently, abandoned 25 A. This was not surprising to me given the empirical evidence from the rest of the world about the actual attitude of elites toward public spending on education.

When policy elites find it hard to make a genuine commitment to provide a half way decent, but free and compulsory, education to all children, OEFA sounds like a stretch.

If you take a good look at how the elites manage the education of their own children, you will not fail to notice the divisional and district public schools, army public schools, cadet colleges, and other such institutions that are subsidised through public funds. These institutions are well-managed and also well-resourced.

Friends suggest that if Pakistani ruling elite’s collective resolve could result in achieving its nuclear targets then why can’t the similar resolve serve to improve education. I suggest that they are using their collective and individual resolve very well to serve their own children and will redirect it towards education of other people’s children only if they also see some self-interest in expanding educational opportunity.

Come what may, ultimately the policy decisions to increase public spending must be made by a very small policy elite. International experience suggests that they only decide to expand educational opportunity under certain conditions. Those conditions are either deepening of genuine democracy or expansion of economy. We should not expect the elite to put its collective resolve behind a decent education for all children if none of these conditions are met. I am not an expert in either politics or economics, but my hunch is that both of these conditions remain unmet in Pakistan.

Absence of genuine political interest in education explains massive expansion in a segmented education marketplace.

Two questions can be raised on the basis of above discussion. First is, can we truly have OEFA in a liberal democratic society? Can we aspire for both a liberal democracy and OEFA? This is a question, which begs a principled answer. I do not claim to have that answer. However, evidently the existing liberal democracies do not seem to have strived for OEFA. Rather, they have allowed their education systems to respond to multiple, and at times competing, goals. They have permitted the existence of rhetoric of a common education in a common school but in practice have tended to adapt this ideal to the realities of their highly unequal societies.

Nevertheless, we should also recognize that to the extent that liberal democracies have resisted massive privatisation of education, they have also responded to ideal of education as a social equalizer. Public services, including education, have been used to provide a floor to the brutal excesses of capitalism without destroying it.

Second, can we realistically expect our elite to expand spending on education without first addressing the politico-economic challenges in the way of a genuine democratic dispensation? As long as political office holders feel that they are not genuinely dependent on the vote of public to acquire and hold their political offices they are unlikely to use their collective resolve to expand public spending on education.

In principle, 0ne education for all can lead to equal opportunity for all.  However, this ideal and its implications will need to be clarified, expanded, and understood more clearly.  To do this the debates will need to focus on the realpolitik of education reforms.

A slightly modified version of this article was printed in The News on Sunday, November 16, 2014 

One education for all?