UN sustainable development goal 4.1 demands the provision of ‘free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education’ to all boys and girls. Education is our remedy to social ills and a golden pass to an inclusive, prosperous future. The problem is that education today is not free or equitable; it is almost without exception a corporate venture the world over, including in Pakistan. In many ways education as it is today defeats its ideological purposes.
Education in Pakistan is dominated by private schools, something that is enabled by the deterioration of the public sector. Private schools offer better teachers, more facilities, and contemporary courses — so they charge a lot more too.
Applying this simple business model to schools comes with a caveat — it is attaching a price tag to a commodity we identify as a fundamental right and a necessity for survival. At least four decades of strategic application of neo-liberal policies to schooling leaves us with two entirely different spheres of education provision: the exorbitantly priced, elite private schools, and run-down, sub-standard government schools. Neo-liberalism conflates people with capital and champions privatisation of social goods on the premise that competitive markets are more effective.
For all parents that send their kids to heftily-charging private schools all over Pakistan, the modern schooling vernacular, with these strong bearings of business language, is familiar. Schools are selling a service, the parents are customers, and learning is a product. In fact, in one discussion panel the CEO of a mainstream private schooling system told me that education was in essence like designer clothing or fine dining; you cannot buy a Sana Safinaz label or a McDonalds burger at half its brand price. The equivalence is unfortunate but in some sense true — schools are, really, brands; they have little cause to maintain standards of educational excellence as long as they promise better university admissions and better employment by virtue of their brand staple. More often than not, the branding is what rationalises the price — not the quality of education provision.
This nation-wide transferring of market value into everything in education has emboldened private school owners, by giving them license to exploit fee-paying parents. Schools are run not with the goal of providing optimum learning conditions but with the intent of profit maximisation. With the absence of a credible audit of private schools’ finances, it is easy to conceal this behind an income-expenditure equity argument. This is an argument hard to believe for parents, the so-said consumers, given that private school owning families are almost always part of the country’s small circle of the exceedingly rich. Something very intriguing is how it is rare for children from the owning family to be enrolled in their own school. That a fancier brand should appeal to them for their own children is implicative, because the fee is comparable — but is the education not so comparable? It is not very ethical to charge a roughly similar amount for a service that is — by covert admission — not as good as another. But the fabric of the educational system makes it almost conservative to contend with ethics in business.
When a Supreme Court order demanded a 20% cut in school fees in December 2018, there was vehement opposition from the for-profit private school industry. What the ensuing social media furore did, among other things, was expose the problems that this ‘free market’ model of education had created. Private schools demand autonomy from government interference, but the lack of regulation has made them increasingly inaccessible to the majority of the country’s population. Fee can hike by more than forty percent sometimes, without explanation or accountability. Private schools and anxious parents are such a cemented matrix that when there have been attempts at regulation, they have come up hollow. Most schools are so comfortably ensconced in the local backdrop that the FBR has reported that they do not respond to summons or inquiries.
In some ways private schooling has even capsized the objectives of education, having perpetuated and widened the gap between the rich and the poor. In a fascinating assertion on Twitter, some very upmarket institutions were called ‘lower middle class’ schools. Most people in Lahore would probably differ. This is a small reflection of the appalling disconnect between social classes, where people with their children enrolled in a high tier school system seem to sometimes live in an awfully blinkered reality. Concurrently, private schooling may also have extracted from the personal value that education is expected to bring, given the abundance with which lower income families are repudiated with ‘go some place you can afford.’
Suggestions to cut profits are chided, because that is not how businesses work. If they are forced to cut fee, they will slash teacher salaries, not profit, an outcome that is neither desirable nor intended. At the end, the corrosion of the public sector has meant that private schools make the rules, knowing that their target demographic has no choice but to play by them.
Private schools have also been counterproductive in another sense. Many claim that they were introduced as a viable alternative to public schools, so that there was more choice and more competition in the market. However private schooling as it exists today in Pakistan is more of an oligopoly. Most parents could itemize in a minute the handful of well-known schooling systems they would want — strive — to enroll their children in. Switching schools is not possible at every grade level. When admissions do open, the huge admission deposits that have been paid to the current school make changing schools a financially testing decision to make.
Obviously, a free market model means that the consumers too are at fault. All education is now an investment. The more prestigious the alma mater, the higher the likelihood of finding employment. For whatever reason, there is an unwillingness in parents to move their children to other schools. Ultimately then, the exploitative monopoly of the private education “industry” is preserved both by the incompetence of the government sector and a risk-averse parent community that will view new, affordable educational ventures with disinterest when pitted against veteran players in the educational landscape.
Unless there is a gradual redressing of the whole education system, education will continue to be a market product, not a right, sold to only those that can afford it. Private schools must be regulated, even if as a utility, because not doing so is not just unfair but also injurious to society, where we callously allow the potential of many young people from low-income households go untapped.
(Featured image: dreamstime)
A version of this article was previously published on timsaal.com