The writer is a lawyer based in Islamabad.
How within a five-year period did we get from “the state shall provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age of five to sixteen years in such manner as may be determined by law” (Article 25A introduced by the 18th Amendment), to the state forcing private individuals and entities to curtail profits and provide subsidised education to fellow citizens?
The impassioned debate around private school fees raises two fundamental questions: What is the priority of the state and its power elites when it comes to education? And what is the PML-N’s vision for regulating economic activity?
Is there reason to celebrate that there is finally a public debate about education in Pakistan? In 2009, the government set up the Pakistan Education Task Force that threw harrowing state-of-education statistics in our faces. We were told that approximately 25 million children who should be in school get no education. Despite declaring 2011 as the ‘Year of Education’, school enrolment barely moved up by one to two percent. Pakistan has failed the Millennium Development Goal of providing universal primary education by 2015.
Organizations such as Alif Ailaan led by the dynamic Mosharaf Zaidi have campaigned vociferously to make education our foremost policy issue. Annual Status of Education Reports (ACERs) have told us about severe learning disabilities of those kids who are fortunate enough to be in school. According to an estimate, one-third of our grade 5 students in rural areas possess grade 2 reading skills. Faisal Bari and others have wondered about future prospects of schooled but unskilled and ill-educated youth.
So finally when a fierce debate around education erupts across Pakistan, with the PM and CMs taking note, what is it about? It is about ‘evil’ elite private schools (that cater to three percent of children enrolled across Pakistan) charging our empowered and vocal upper-middle class excessive fees. This class isn’t asking the state to fix public sector education to ensure that private schools aren’t the default choice. It wants to continue to send its kids to elite private schools. It just wants to pay less for it.
Isn’t it incredible that in our public consciousness the onus and responsibility of providing quality education at desirable economic value to our society’s influential upper strata has shifted from the state to private schools? That one should be required to pay less for everything is everyone’s desire. No one likes to pay taxes, for healthcare, or education, or other essential goods and services. But whose responsibility is it to provide for the basic needs of the citizenry and how is that responsibility to be discharged?
In the 1970s the state nationalised educational institutions and destroyed their quality under state management. In the 1980s, with public education in decline a vacuum emerged that was filled by private schools. Members of the upper middle and upper strata of the generation now in its 40s and 50s were educated in the public sector. But their kids go to private schools because school facilities and standards in public schools are so dismal that even the thought of sending children there is revolting.
So if the public education sector has collapsed, what is the next best realistic thing for the elites? Force the state to use its levers of power to play reverse Robin Hood: force elite private schools to provide subsidised and affordable education to social, bureaucratic and professional elites of society who have power and ambition but not as much money as the upper class. This is not a conversation about redistribution of wealth through progressive taxation or about providing affordable education to all citizens.
This is an intra-class fight within a morally bankrupt privileged class that is now hurting due to rising cost of private education. Almost 50 percent of Pakistani kids enrol in private schools. Fee options range from a few hundred rupees per month to a few hundred dollars. Competition within this sector is intense and options innumerable. The state demarcates no spaces for schools in cities that sprout haphazardly for want of urban planning. And the state offers no subsidy or facilitation to private sector education.
So why is private sector education proliferating? Growing population and education demand and complete absence of decent public sector education. If we have 25 million children presently out of school in a country whose average age is 23 and expected population within thirty years is 300 million, who is going to educate all those children? What kind of investment will be required in the education sector to cater to the impending population bulge and ensure that schooled children don’t graduate as illiterates?
And what is the PML-N’s vision to encourage private investment in education? Not to fix the sprawling demand-supply gap in the education sector or the necessary public sector component within the supply chain, but to pander to its urban voter base and use coercive force to arbitrarily fix prices and profit margins? This debate is not about the right of private schools to make unreasonable profits but about our power elite’s vision of the state, the economy and preferred mode of state intervention to regulate socio-economic matters?
Is the obligation to provide basic goods and services to citizens that of the state or private entities dealing in such goods and services? The primary obligation of the state is to guarantee the life and security of citizens. Post the APS attack, in an admission of failure to provide security to schools, the state issued edicts requiring them to raise walls, install cameras and place private guards for protection of premises and further instructed them to absorb the cost of security themselves and not pass it on.
In 2015, the PML-N government slapped a 17 percent tax on security services – making the cost of acquiring private security protection prohibitive. The obligation to provide free education is a state obligation, just like the obligation to provide affordable health services and access to justice. Now that the PML-N government wishes to get into the business of arbitrarily fixing fees and prices, will it also fix fees charged by private hospitals and doctors for provision of health services and those charged by lawyers for legal representation?
What about prices of other essential goods and commodities? Why shouldn’t the principle of fixing profits be applied consistently across businesses? Why shouldn’t profit margins of sugar mills, and steel mills, and poultry businesses, and cement factories and banks be fixed with state determining what margins are legitimate? And if we are going socialist all the way, why doesn’t the prime minister lead by example and announce single digit upper-end margins for businesses his family is engaged in to inspire others by example?
Article 18 of the constitution provides for both, a nationalised economy or a free-market economy. We experimented with nationalisation and that blew up in our faces. Thus we then reverted to free-market economy. Four decades hence we are still struggling with efforts to get the state out of the business of managing businesses and balancing their books.
In the free-market mode, Article 18 envisages a licensing system and regulation of trade, commerce and industry, but “in the interest of free competition” and not price fixation. Indulging in price fixation in a free-market under the garb of state regulation, instead of fixing demand-supply imbalances is a recipe for disaster. Being business moguls nobody can understand this better than the Sharif brothers themselves.
We have a gigantic education crisis in Pakistan that will quadruple over the next few decades. We need visionary state intervention to grapple with it to fix all components of the supply chain to provide meaningful and affordable education to all citizens and invite more private investment in this sector. What we don’t need is populist moves such as one-time fee rebates forced upon elite private schools to placate our chattering classes.