ALTHOUGH the 18th Constitutional Amendment devolved the department of education to the provinces, the centre has an education ministry to monitor and look after educational institutions under the federal government. Besides the ministry, there is also the Private Educational Institutions Regulatory Authority (Peira) to regulate private educational institutions in the Islamabad Capital Territory. With its interest and resources, one would have thought that the education department under the federal government would soon provide a model system of education for the provinces to emulate. But this has not happened and does not seem likely in the future either, because all we are doing is moving in circles.
The first thing that needs to be regulated is the fee that private institutions charge their students. Since education is a fundamental right of citizens, the government would be justified in regulating the fees. What sort of profit private educational institutions should make must be decided by the government. In fact, the same model should be applied to private hospitals, although in the latter case one can argue that charges can vary depending on the illness being treated. But the expenditure on a child’s education is straightforward.
Furthermore, these private educational institutions have been allowed to monopolise everything from books to uniforms. Parents are forced to buy all school gear from the school itself and at prices that are usually much higher than in the market. The result of this neglect on the government’s part is that some schools charge as much as Rs30,000 to Rs40,000 for kindergarten students, while paying peanuts to the teachers.
Other issues that must be addressed include sexual harassment and drug abuse. A well-known private school in Lahore was recently reported to have covered up cases of sexual harassment within its precincts. Drugs are a norm in most elite private schools but as long as the school keeps the students happy, parents keep the flow of money going, and that is all these schools care about.
Private schools have been allowed to monopolise everything.
If such are the ethics of elite schools, what education are they imparting to the children? As if we are not already plagued enough by the corruption endemic within our ranks, we are now ready to raise future generations on the same staple, teaching them that money is the only parameter of success and that one is free to get it by hook or by crook.
There is a very simple solution to this mess, and the federal government, through the education ministry and Peira, can come with a pilot project. Education should be designated as an essential service so that institutions cannot blackmail the government by going on strike or getting a stay order from the court against any action. Then the government should regulate the fee and classify institutions on the basis of the facilities they provide and the salaries they pay their staff. There is no rocket science to it; it is just simple mathematics.
But we cannot expect this government or any other to do all this because there is a conflict of interest. Like, for example, a relation of the owner of one of the biggest private school chains in the country is in the PTI. He was previously a part of the PML and Gen Musharraf’s cabinet.
There are cases where the owners of many such private institutions can buy political influence by giving hefty donations to political parties. They are then in a position to recover the costs many times over by fleecing the parents. Political parties are always in need of sponsors to fund their so-called political struggle, and in Pakistan they find them in the form of the sugar mafia, the education mafia, the land mafia and others. No one has the capacity to fight them. In fact, our political government as well as the judicial system has always been inclined to give them relief and protection. It seems that money — no matter how you obtain it — paves the way to hiring the best politicians and lawyers to fight cases in the courts as well as in parliament. The general public, on the other hand, is too occupied in its struggle to make ends meet. Not every father has the ‘business’ acumen to ensure an education for his kids in America.
Lastly, I have lost all hope in this political system to redeem itself because politics has essentially become a business in this country. An apt comment on the government which caters to its precious mafias only and pays no heed to the general public would be by Nasir Kazmi: “Aap zulf-i-janan ke khum sawanriye sahib/ Zindagi ke zulfon ko aap kya sanwarein gai” (Untangle the locks of your darling/ you have neither the capacity nor will to straighten out this entangled life). Such leaders are the lot of the general public.
The writer is a former civil servant.
Published in Dawn, September 10th, 2020