Time to act is now
Are we satisfied with our education system? Is expansion improving quality or taking it down? Are regulatory mechanism whether for schools sector or higher education playing the role expected of them? Should parents be protesting about fee hike? What do the owners-operators of private institutions both on the schools side as well as higher education say in the current situation? These are some of the questions that require a national debate. In what follows I shall try to provide my own responses to the above very pertinent questions.
Across the entire spectrum of our educational landscape, we don’t need much evidence to come to the conclusion that there is a widespread disenchantment with our current education system. Instead of striving to improve the situation, there is a high degree of complacency among the politicians, policy makers, academic leaders and academicians. On the higher education side, a recent news item had corroborated the viewpoint that the quality of our higher education is on a downward trend. It was recently reported in one of our national dailies that all our top universities had shown regression instead of progress almost by 100 points. Worryingly, the most reputed top universities had shown this trend.
How do we explain this sorry state? Primarily two key factors emerge as the main culprits. First, a complete failure of the regulatory mechanism to subject our higher education institutions to rigorous performance audit. These institutions shy away from any demand for such an audit. It is rather sad to mention that the Higher Education Commission at the federal and provincial levels had failed to suggest a system through which this audit could be carried out.
One was simply surprised to read the declared policy of federal HEC in which it had decided to create universities at every district level. Instead of adopting an expansionary policy supposedly for providing access to higher education, HEC should have gone the whole hog for launching a vigorous campaign for improving the quality of education. If our policy makers including HEC failed to focus on this dimension of our education, we would be producing a cadre of unemployable graduates. Not only this. Our human capital being churned out of our higher education factories will not give us any competitive advantage in the global knowledge economy.
Additionally, the governance system in our higher education had failed to provide the quality and transformational leadership that would change the current sordid state. Without casting any aspersions, the leadership of our higher education institutions is keen to hold on to your job rather than act as reformists. The only way we can correct this situation is to develop a crash programme for leadership development for top slots in our higher education institutions. These leaders in their training programmes must be given heavy doses of how to transform the present decaying education system.
Reverting to the school side, while some serious efforts are afoot in Punjab to bring about fundamental reforms in the public sector schools, in the rest of the provinces no serious efforts are being made to improve the situation. Surely, the public schooling system suffers from many complex challenges. These challenges are common knowledge and there is no need to belabour the obvious. However, one key element that prevents deep reforms in the system is the retrogressive union of teachers and their resistance to any meaningful reforms. The quality of teaching and the teachers teaching in these schools should be a major concern of our policy makers.
It must be realised that softer approaches will not work if our policy makers are serious to reform our public schooling system. The policy makers and the politicians have to rise above political compulsions and need to take the bull by the horn. Without this approach public sector schools will remain in their present dire state thus creating the space for the private schools to exploit the situation. Why has the current protest across the entire country been triggered? Evidently it seems by the fee hike. But there might be some deeper causes for this as well.
I honestly feel that the protest by the parents is justified. Why do I say so? I had been privy to some of the discussions in the province of Punjab in which all the major stakeholders spent many hours discussing the new regulatory system in Punjab. Various drafts were exchanged between the government and the private schools’ operators of all kinds whether low cost or high cost. A consensual draft was developed which now had been promulgated as an ordinance. I wish it had not been delayed. Now even a draft law based on consensus is being questioned. The unnecessary delay caused by some lobbyists was the main reason for this.
The quality education across the entire spectrum of private schools leaves much to be desired. Even the Aitchison is no exception to this. Teachers are exploited, underpaid and hardly get quality training for professional development. The high cost schools are actually fleecing the parents without an iota of exaggeration. They put every cost they incur into the fee cards of the students. These have become purely profit maximising entities and they have no qualms to say that their schools are similar to conventional business ventures, pure and simple. Where is the social side of the education in these ventures?
I feel the time has come to implement the ordinance in letter and spirit so as to avoid it becoming toothless. When I say this I am in no way denying the service the private schools are rendering. But they must also be cognizant of the economic reality of the parents of the students studying in these schools. It is time that these school operators realised their social responsibility while earning rational economic profits. The cost escalating as claimed by these school operators is not justified by the current price hike, especially when the inflationary trends in our economy are showing downward trends.
Where do we go from here? If a state cannot focus on its education sector, it will not achieve its goal of socio-economic development. Doubtless, access and equity are important to educate our children. But while access is important as far as the realisation of universal primary education was concerned, quality whether at the schools or at the higher education level ought to get primary attention at the policy making level. Quality improvement while requiring external periodic reviews would also demand fundamental changes in the present governance structures of education. It is a task which ought not be delayed. Any neglect of this will be perilous for our institutions and unfortunately for the state as well. Time to act is now.