INSTEAD of experimenting, the government should take effective steps to address the poor state of education in the country. Merely declaring education a fundamental right in the 18th Amendment is not enough.
The Education Voucher Scheme is being introduced by the Punjab and Sindh governments for poor students living in slum-urban and rural areas with technical and financial assistance from the World Bank. So far, 167 schools in Punjab and 300 schools in Sindh have been established and the process of adding 700 more schools is under way in Sindh.
Under the project the Punjab and Sindh Education Foundations, semi-autonomous bodies, dole out specified subsidy amounts to a private entrepreneur for running private schools to provide free education to students. It is envisaged that the project could increase the choice of poor parents dissatisfied with public schools or facing a scarcity of schools in their area. It is hoped that by creating an environment of competition public schools will be forced to improve, though this is unlikely.
The impression after studying material on the project and talking to various people is that this is not a well-thought-out initiative. No proper need or demand assessment appears to have been carried out. The selection criteria do not ensure that the entrepreneur has some background in the field of education. Profit-making values in education involve risks and diminish its intrinsic worth.
Another lacuna is that there is no clear plan as to how this project would continue once project funding ceases. Project sustainability is a crucial element of planning, though it is another fact that hardly any project survives as soon as financial support stops. This situation raises some important questions about the fate of students enrolled in such schools once the project completes its lifecycle. Is it expected of parents to start paying fees if they find the school performance satisfactory? Or will the government continue to support these schools under a separate funding mechanism? Will funds of ill-performing public schools be diverted to these public-private partnership schools?
It is pertinent to refer here to a Lahore-based NGO’s Annual Status of Education Report Pakistan 2010. The report indicates a higher rate (25.3) of tuition for students of private schools as compared to those in government schools (9.7 per cent). Private schools tend to fleece parents under one pretext or another. At the time of the final decision regarding the future of those schools one hopes all these factors are taken into consideration and parents are not left to the mercy of the entrepreneurs.
With regard to the latter option, the parallel education system is already perpetuating chronic social, economic, cultural and political inequalities.
Therefore it is not a wise decision to add a new type of school to the list. This can aggravate the situation in the long run. As it has been observed, particularly in Sindh, many public-private partnership schools have been established in areas where public schools are available. Isn’t it a waste of resources?
Another concern is that the government has control over the funding of these schools. So what difference will it make in the end? There are apprehensions that the same issues, currently being faced by public schools, will creep into this system as well.
Since this scheme has been implemented in the US and elsewhere it will be good to heed the viewpoints of others on this score. Prof Michael W.
Apple argues in the book Educating the ‘Right’ Way: Markets, Standards, God and Inequality that “vouchers and similar marketising policies change our very definition of democracy from ‘thick’ to ‘thin’ so that rather than it being a collective act it is simply replaced by consumption practices. Choice on a market becomes the ultimate sign of democracy rather than a fully participatory collective act in which one builds and rebuilds institutions. This has crucial implications for the future of public institutions in the long run and constitutes a fundamental attack on the public sphere”.
Democracy is in its nascent phase in Pakistan and it is highly important that all new donor-driven schemes should be carefully examined in terms of their impact. Amidst the cry that market forces are more efficient and committed to their cause than are governments, one should allow institutions to be taken over by those forces whose prime agenda is to promote the ethos of privatisation and profit-making.
It is worth it to analyse how the situation has turned in favour of private schools in urban cities where education is a commonly advertised product. Over time people have lost trust and confidence in the public sector and strangely those parents who could afford the fee exercised their choice and left the rest to suffer.
Unfortunately, time and again, various research studies conducted in the country have shown that education standards are approaching their lowest ebb in public-sector schools. State schools cater to a large proportion of the population that fall in the medium- or low-income category. So if education is free there is still the opportunity cost of time, especially for children engaged in income-generation activities. Thus, it is a loss of time and money for them.
Meanwhile, elite private schools in the country can be seen as clear discrimination against the majority of poor parents whose children are enrolled in government schools. The government cannot shy away from its constitutional responsibility and launch short-term remedies for a small number of poor people. It must work on drastically revamping the education sector as a whole.
The writer works for an international education organisation in Pakistan.
(Originally published in Daily Dawn.)
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