For weeks, parents across the country have been protesting against the arbitrary hikes in the already exorbitant fees of private elite schools. The movement dubbed Sasti Taleem Sabke Liye (Cheap Education for All) has been gaining momentum in all the major cities of the country and its uniform appeal reveals that there is a genuine rot at the heart of private education. The parents claim that they are being exploited by a ‘private school mafia’ due to the desire of parents to provide their children the best possible education in a country with a floundering public sector education. The demand of the parents is for government authorities to look into the matter and put checks on the unfettered school administrators who revise the fees in an ad-hoc manner and sneak in surprise expenses on top of tuition fees. The private schools’ representatives counter-claim that running schools is an expensive endeavour and they increase their fees as a response to new taxes and increasing utility bills, in the process usoing the parents’ argument of provision of superior education against them.
The authorities have responded in different ways in different provinces but regardless of specific details, this crisis has above all revealed the dangers of turning education, a fundamental right, into a commodity beholden to the logic of the market. With a limited supply but an ever-present demand, elite schools feel free to squeeze aspirant middle class parents. Though the greed of school owners who have perverted education is manifest, the governments which have allowed this to happen are equally to blame. On a basic level, governments have repeatedly failed to provide a reasonable public alternative to private education. Millions of children across the country are without schooling as they do not have access or schools in their areas only exist on paper. Where schools do exist, there are absentee teachers, an overall lack of funds and lack of inspection. This unfortunate gap is then filled in by private enterprises, who in the government’s second level of failure, are entirely without oversight. Though, in a belated bid to calm parents, the Punjab Education Minister has ordered an audit of all private schools, the fatal flaw of our government remains that it does not take proactive action until a crisis has ballooned out of control. While this intervention is welcome and a regulation of private schools’ affairs is the need of the hour and long overdue, it has been scandalously exposed that the organisation responsible for regulating private schools has been without anyone in charge for two years. This shocking fact reveals that the provision and quality of education to Pakistan’s children, a basic necessity for its developmental future, is not even close to the government’s priority list. The regime needs to get its act together and make sure that both public and private education sectors are not shirking their responsibilities.