Held hostage by the profiteers

Hajrah Mumtaz

WITH an election drawing near very rapidly, there is much talk about parties and candidates’ desire and ability to bring about change in terms of tangible differences on the ground, quantifiable improvements in the quality of citizens’ lives.

One of the basic blocks of the quality of life is education – not just access to it, but also the quality of it. Sadly enough, the rates regarding this index in Pakistan remain continuingly dismal. Last year saw a report being published by an arm of the Ministry of Federal Education and Professional Training that over 22 million of the country’s children are not in school. Those who get there, tend not to stay – from Class 1 to 10, only about 30 per cent remain enrolled.

It is difficult, then, for many to dredge up sympathy for the privileged few that have made it to school and managed to stay there – and there are just a few: according to the report cited earlier, of every eight children that aren’t in school across the world, one is in Pakistan.

Even so, at pretty much all economic levels of schooling, there are complaints of falling standards of teaching and the curriculum – even the inclusion of retrogressive material in books; the continuing dependence of schools (and by force, their customers, the students) on post-school-hour tutoring; and depending on the economic tier of the school involved, the lack of basic infrastructure such as drinking water, toilets, libraries, and playgrounds, etc.

Why feel bad, many would say, for those that are at least getting taught their counting and alphabets? Surely that is better – regardless of the insufficiencies – than not being able to attend school at all. And, those that are complaining always have the option of voting with their feet. No?

No. For an obvious reason: educational institutions across the country, irrespective of their economic brackets, function as virtual cartels that have students and their parents held hostage. I can choose to send my child to a school in the A, B or C economic bracket, where I will get charged fees running into four or five or even preposterously six figures. Or, depending on my financial resources, I can choose to obtain the service of X, Y or Z school in the economic category where fees are much lower.

But, unhappy with school A or school X, my choices are hamstrung because the teaching, syllabus, infrastructure, or charging practices will be similar is schools B or C, or Y and Z.  So, I can put my child (and myself) through the trauma of having to change institutions and then find that the new one is pretty much like the old one, only with a different facade. Institutions are effectively free to do as they want, because most of their competition in the same tier, if not all of it, is doing the same.

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Similarly, there is the question of unwarranted and arbitrary increases in fees that became a flashpoint issue in Islamabad a couple of years ago with specific reference to one particular, expensive, chain of schools. The parents of the students enrolled here were out on the streets in protest, up in arms about how they were utterly helpless in the face of the rising expenditures demanded of them – for who, after all, would take a chance on their children’s future?

These protests sparked off a larger conversation in urban areas in particular about customers (students and parents) being held hostage to the fickle exploitations imposed on them by their service provider (educational institutions). This led to interventions on the official level: Punjab passed a law that capped the annual increase, and Sindh did similarly as a result of a petition filed in the provincial High Court. Last September, the SHC (as a result of a different but similar petition), again restrained schools from raising annual fees by higher than 5pc until settlement.

The trouble is, the fees of institutions are, like corporate salaries, divided under several different heads. This makes an easy way out available: raise the basic fee only within the stipulated band, but compensate by charging under other heads such as extra-curricular activities, teaching aids, library expenditures, or whatever. Again, this leaves customers at most economic tiers of institutions red-faced with anger, but entirely impotent.

Why this situation is so is because over the decades, the state has utterly abdicated its responsibilities regarding basic education to the private sector. The standards of government schools have plummeted, and capitalism dictates that where there is a need, the private sector rushes in – to profiteer at will.

On paper, the answer is simple: there is an urgent need to revamp the government-sector system. If those were the institutions where the rich and the powerful sent their children – maybe were bound by law to send their children – I suspect that things would improve relatively fast. But really, it all depends on whether the powers that be have any interest in the boots on the ground sort of change – the sort that has quantifiable outcomes.

The writer is an assistance editor at major newspaper and a columnist

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