As progressives, we always believed that it is the state’s responsibility to provide quality education to the people, especially to the underprivileged. However, since the 1990s, the state has stepped back from performing its duty on many fronts, and the private sector pitched in to even provide social services.
In this regard, it is worth referring to two publications on private education: a book titled ‘Pakistan at Seventy’, published in 2019, and a journal on ‘comparative education review’, published in 2008. Economist Shahid Kardar has written a chapter in the book, and Andrabi et al have a detailed paper in the journal.
The state of education is dismal. About five million children of school-going age are not enrolled in primary education, and 60 percent of children who should have been in secondary schools are not enrolled either. This makes 22.6 million children of ages between five and 16 years out of school, in Pakistan. Only 25 percent of the population of age 15 and above receives secondary education in Pakistan. According to recent estimates, the South Asian average for secondary education is around 60 percent and low-middle income countries’ average is 54.5 percent. So, Pakistan is clearly lagging behind.
Pakistan on average spends two percent of its GDP on education; the South Asian average is 2.35 percent of the GDP, low-income countries’ average is 3.4 percent, and the recommended average is four percent of the GDP. This means that Pakistan needs to double its education budget to provide this vital service to its population.
The entry of the private sector in education has been quite big. The common perception about private education is that it caters to the elite. However, as Andrabi and co-authors show, the private sector caters to all kinds of clientele including the poor. Currently, it is providing education in rural areas to the rich and the poor alike. Low-cost private schools charge low fees, less than the per-day wage of even a poor person. That makes private schools highly affordable. These schools are able to do so since they hire local women teachers on meagre salaries, and this is how they keep the costs of provision of education low and affordable for even the poor. Undoubtedly, these teachers are being exploited due to their limited job opportunities and mobility issues.
Shahid Kardar is of the view that private schools are located in more lucrative areas as they need to earn profits. Their presence is mainly spread out in 10 more-developed districts of Pakistan including main cities such as Karachi, Peshawar, Quetta, Sukkur, and Hyderabad and affluent areas of Punjab. Andrabi et al also state that private schools have not made inroads in the rural areas of Sindh and Balochistan.
Punjab has close to 60,000 private schools, more than government schools. In the period between 1999 and 2000, there were 36,000 private educational institutions (95 percent of them providing co-education), and the share of private education was 0.66 of the GDP with enrolment of slightly over six million children. The share of private sector enrolment went up to 34-35 percent by the period 2007-2008. This increased further to 42 percent by 2015-2016 while the private sector accounted for 39 percent of enrolment at the primary level and between 35-37 percent of enrolment in the secondary and higher secondary levels. This concentration is highest in Punjab — the province which has 69 percent of total private schools that collectively account for 62 percent of enrolment.
Andrabi et al are of the view that despite the fact that teachers in low-fee private schools are less educated, less trained and less experienced than their counterparts in government schools, test scores of students in these private schools are better than those in public schools. Since these private schools are somewhat accountable to parents and communities, teachers attend schools more regularly than those in government schools and put in more ‘effort’ by responding to local labour conditions. Therefore, those students who attend private schools perform better on various tests. There are also complementarities between the availability of public education and the growth of private education. Primary-level private schools have largely been established in villages that have had girls’ secondary public schools in the last two decades or so. These secondary schools provide low-cost teachers to private schools; otherwise, the cost of hiring an external teacher would be high for low-income private schools in rural areas.
According to Andrabi et al, “In the case of Punjab, increasing the percentage of educated older females in the village by 1 standard deviation increases the number of private schools in a village by half (0.51) a standard deviation. The likelihood of a village having a private school nearly triples when a village has a public secondary school for girls (compared to a village that does not).”
This for-profit education has also had a disproportionately positive impact on narrowing the gender gap in education. In villages where there are private schools, the overall enrolment goes up with a significant increase in girls’ enrolment. This is most likely due to mobility issues. Girls are not allowed to travel far to attend school. When there is a local private school available in their locality, it is going to increase their chances of attending the school, and hence their enrolment increases more than their enrolment in government schools (which are far away).
It shows that when the state cedes its role and responsibility to provide education to its citizens, the private sector fills the gap with some positive outcomes due to its flexibility and its ability to respond to local labour conditions. However, as per the constitution, the government must aim to provide free education to all children, increase the education budget and revamp its educational machinery. It is good that provinces are playing a greater part now in the provision of education, post the 18th Amendment. We have to keep the hope alive.
The writer is an Islamabad-based social scientist.
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