Pakistan cannot afford to treat education like a business

 Oct 24 - 30, 2005

During the last decade, especially after the generous policies of the Higher Education Commission allowing setting up of degree awarding institutions in the private sector, imparting of education has emerged as a lucrative business. Due to appalling standard of state education system this business is flourishing throughout the country.

According to a survey, there has been almost a tenfold increase in colleges in Pakistan during the last two decades (from 3,500 in 1983 to 34,000 in 2003). Fifty percent of these were established after 1996, reflecting a relatively recent explosion in growth lured by high margin of profit. More and more investors are coming to this field. Charging high fees from the students and paying less to semi qualified teachers is the common norm in this mushroom growth of teaching institutions in every nook and corner of the country badly affecting the quality of education despite comparatively high cost. However, there are some exceptions, which of course charge heavily but at least, do not compromise on the quality of education. However, it is now becoming clear that education in Pakistan is fast becoming a market commodity that is bought and sold in the private sector rather than being provided and managed by the state.

However, what is becoming more worrying in recent years is the cost of private schooling in Pakistan. Any private school that provides decent education in Pakistan is charging tuition fee that is beyond the budget of an average upper middle class professional - unless, of course, one assumes every Pakistani to be corrupt and making side income. The government's lack of commitment to education, which is one of the primary responsibilities of a civilized state, has much to do with it.

A review of the private schooling system in Pakistan over the past 15 years shows some extremely worrying trends. Till the late eighties the best private schools in the country remained very much within the income of the upper middle class families. The reason was that many of the top schools at that time were run with a missionary spirit. A particular convent school in Rawalpindi till the early nineties, charged only between Rs. 250 to Rs. 300 per child.

Now, the private school chains that dominate the education sector normally charge a fee of Rs. 4000 per child. The income in the upper middle class household had not changed that dramatically to match this tremendous surge in fees. A couple that has three children easily needs a budget of Rs. 15,000 per month for the education of their children. How many Pakistani couples can have this budget out of an honest income? The government, however, is least concerned to regulate these private schools or set a limit on their profit margins.

The problem is that being keen to shrug its responsibility of ensuring quality education, General Musharraf's government has from the very beginning been keen on privatizing education. Former federal Minister for Education, Zobaida Jalal became the biggest advocate of private schooling. This had two negative consequences. One, the state education system was ignored even further. Two, since the private sector is taking on the state's responsibility, the government has refrained from regulating it. The consequence is that access to decent education for even a relatively well-off family in Pakistan is much more financially draining than it ever has been in the history of Pakistan. This unchecked commercialization of the education sector, supported by development institutions like the World Bank, is clearly problematic. One must ask which developed country has reached its current status by leaving provision of education in private hands.

The government needs to realize that it has ignored the education sector for too long. Having self-congratulating advertisements that claim to provide education to every child in Punjab won't change the reality. There is a need for making genuine efforts to realise how an average Pakistani will get access to good quality primary and secondary education. Such an analysis will highlight the need to invest in the state education system plus the importance of regulating the private education sector. Above all, such an analysis will highlight the need for investigating why the rise of these private school chains has led to the drop in the quality of education in the government schools.

Similarly degree-awarding institutions in the private sector are more a business venture than a service-oriented industry committed to national well-being. According to expert their main weaknesses are listed below, which need to be addressed if quality education is aimed at.

Apparently entry tests are held and interviews are also conducted to 'select' the fresh entrants before the commencement of each semester. But, in reality, this entire exercise is nothing more than a hoax. Behind this academic curtain, every possible manipulation is made to ensure that whosoever once enters the premises gets the admission, and one who once gets the admission gets the degree invariably.

Their financial strength does not match their operating plans. Hence, they reckon on the fees recovered from the students to finance their entire operation. Resultantly, they are inclined to charge higher fees. They also resort to various irrational activities to raise funds. For example, Rs. 1200/- to Rs. 1500/- are recovered from each student at the time of admission and at the beginning of each semester for providing text books, whereas pirated editions costing Rs. 80/- to Rs. 90/- each or photocopies of the text books are provided.

As a cost cutting device, they don't appoint permanent faculty. Adjunct or visiting faculty hired for each semester on hourly basis cannot deliver what is expected of committed full time teachers. Visiting faculty is always uncertain about its next assignment, which depends exclusively at the pleasure of the management. At the commencement of each semester, these faculty members are seen struggling to secure an allocation. Even if a person succeeds in acquiring a teaching assignment, he considers it a bonaza, not knowing whether he will get one in the next semester also. This state of uncertainty discourages commitment on the part of the teachers, the worst suffers of which obviously are the students.

Since the teachers themselves lay down the course outline, set the examination papers, and assess the scripts, they are at liberty to cover that much of the course which they can do comfortably and conveniently in a leisurely style, and to restrict the examination to those topics only which they had discussed in the class room. That part of the course, which, for one reason or the other, is excluded from the examination. What quality can be produced under these circumstances may be any body's guess. This practice is prevalent in public sector universities also with the difference that there the course is prescribed by appropriate authorities but the option to partially cover the course and to exclude the uncovered part from the examination still remains with the teacher.

Private universities have also started evening programs in the name of MBA Executive for the persons employed during the day, who wish to improve their qualifications. Being physically and mentally preoccupied for most of the time in their office problems, these students cannot do justice with their studies.

There is one more category of institutions in the private sector imparting higher education, particularly in IT and business management, for the award of MBA, BBA, and BCS degrees. These are the institutions or colleges affiliated to one or the other university. They have all the weaknesses and limitations discussed above. Besides, they have their own drawbacks. These institutions operate during the day also. Surprisingly enough, lecturers of government colleges teach at these institutions as part-time faculty. God knows how do they manage to skip from their job regularly for at least three days a week. Remuneration of such lecturers is normally quite low, and their performance is at the lowest ebb. They cover up their remuneration deficiency by teaching 3 to 4 courses. Cost wise it suites the management also.

Pakistan cannot afford to treat education like a business. If it goes down that route, very soon the multinationals will take over the provision of education to the elite and upper middle class, alienating them even more from their own country. The middle class will be left to local educational chains, and the vast majority languishing at the bottom will be denied a decent education. The privatisation of education in Pakistan is likely to have dire consequences for the national competitiveness and social development of the country 20 years from now. By relinquishing the provision of education to market forces, the Pakistan government may be digging graves for a vast majority of its citizens. The sooner this is realized the better it would be.