Education row in KPK

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Parents deplore exorbitant fees and schools protest regulatory actions, meanwhile the students wait and suffer. A series of chain reactions in this pattern has been engulfing the country since the past two years, with the latest row emerging in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

With nearly half of the 50 million children of school going age in Pakistan not attending school, the state of education in the country is far from satisfactory. Education, being a constitutional right of a Pakistani citizen, is ordained to be provided compulsorily by the state. What the state run schools offer, keeping in mind recent efforts to reform infrastructure and instructors, is dilapidated buildings, poor or non existent class room facilities, a high number of students struggling to absorb knowledge imparted by a single teacher, or worse no teacher at all! Parents, in both rural and urban areas, thus increasingly turn to private schools for relatively better facilities like closer locations, improved infrastructure and curriculum and in many cases though not all, trained teachers. A bone of contention remains, however, which is the tuition fees.

A vast majority of private schools in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) observed a two-day strike late last month against the implementation of a judgment of the Peshawar High Court by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Private Schools Regulatory Authority (PSRA). The court had, in November last year, issued directives to the PSRA for regulating the affairs of private educational institutions under the KPPSRA Act 2017, accepting writ petitions against the private educational institutions, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government and the regulatory authority on multiple grounds.

A vast majority of private schools in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) observed a two-day strike late last month against the implementation of a judgment of the Peshawar High Court by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Private Schools Regulatory Authority (PSRA)

In the light of the court’s judgment, the PSRA regulations provide that increase in tuition fee shall not be more than 3pc per annum, the institutions shall not charge more than half of the tuition fee from second and third children of the same parent, schools shall charge only maximum of 50 percent of the tuition fee during vacations of more than 30 days. Furthermore, there shall be complete ban on charging students for transport charges during vacations.

A hornet’s nest in that of the private schools was stirred. PSRA’s laws beyond comprehension, damaging the education sector in the name of reforms not unacceptable, were the responses of private schools. They deplored amendments in the province’s Private Schools Regularity Authority Act 2017 that previously allowed 10 percent yearly raise in fee and 20 percent discount to siblings. They questioned Independent Monitoring Unit (IMU) visits to private schools, saying that IMU had failed to improve the conditions in state-run schools.

Undeterred, the government remains adamant to regulate the private sector in schools. The newly formed Private Schools Regulatory Authority is now conducting surprise visits and inspections of private schools to implement the government’s regulations and judgement of the court, which has further ordered for taking over administrative control of the non compliant schools and sealing of their accounts. Meanwhile parents in Peshawar staged their own protest in exasperation and took to the roads against schools not following court orders.

In this rather uneducated manner – using force, insinuation, hue and cry, closure of institutions – the province aims to improve the state of education. The parents insist that private schools are skinning them alive with hefty fees, the schools insist that increase in fees is inevitable in order to provide quality education and also to remain viable, the government insists that the schools should follow their instructions. There seems to be no mutual understanding, no middle path and no common goal in the process.

With the issue of increase in tuition fees at the centre, another important issue remains unaddressed – the need to increase the scope and improve quality of state provided education. A crucial fact is also conveniently tossed aside – the regulations are aimed at institutions which belong to the free market enterprise, hence the private sector.

Recently, the Sindh High Court quashed a government rule which restricted increase in tuition fees by private schools to five percent, terming it as ‘constitutionally impermissible.’ It stated that in the private enterprise, any institution, including a school, is allowed to operate for the purpose of gaining profit. The court did, however, direct the Sindh government to frame relevant rules to regulate fee determination, if it wished. The government is in the process of finalising its recommendations.

With the 18th amendment, each province fights its own case in pursuit of quality education. What the students witness in the process is schools being shut down, angry protests and court proceedings.

Seven decades since independence and Pakistan still struggles to allocate a reasonable budget towards education – currently at 2.3 percent, lowest in the region. It’s been seventy years of mixed reforms in the sector, with complete state control over schools to subsequent denationalisation, to public private partnership in schools and after a steady growth of unchecked private schools, an attempt to regulate them. And yet, a lasting reform is far from sight.

A bone of contention which can be removed with consensus, cannot be taken away by force. For the private schools, some gains after expenditures seem justified, but an unchecked and unregulated system is not the answer. Most parents can simply not afford to pay a series of schooling expenses, especially in the case of two or more children, but if they choose to send them to private institutions, the cost entailed is inevitable. And they choose private institutions because public institutions are either not accessible or they do not provide a satisfactory standard. This is where the problem lies: lack of state run quality institutions force parents to turn to private enterprises, but they have second thoughts when these institutions demand a price for the service they give.

A recent survey conducted by the elementary and secondary education department in KPK showed that 1.8 million children are out of school. 31 percent do not attend school due to lack of interest, 17 percent due to unavailability of schools and 28 percent because of poverty. The reason behind the lack of interest is that people in the province do not see long-term benefits of education or do not hold confidence in the ability of schools to provide quality education.

While the elementary and secondary education department has closed down around 1,000 government primary schools across the province owing to low enrolment, private school owners fear that the government action would compel them to shift resources to other provinces. The outcome of a prolonged row between private schools, parents and the government may thus emerge in a further lack of interest towards education.

And if administrative control of ‘non compliant’ schools is taken over by the provincial government, as warned, it implies that the teachers and entire staff of those schools would then become employees of the state while the rent and other expenses of the buildings would also be borne by the state. As the government struggles to increase enrolment and utilise budgetary allocations claimed to be higher than other provinces towards improvements in the sector, can it guarantee the running of additional schools under its umbrella?

Can Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the country as a whole, afford such major shakeups in an already shakily performing sector? With deplorably low budget spendings, can any provincial government in the country promise better education for its entire population? Is Pakistan ready and willing for yet another nationalisation move, after the first one failed miserably and is thought to be the reason behind the country’s decadent education standard?

Neither the private sector nor the public on its own can carry the burden of educating coming generations in a way that they could propel the country in the league of developing nations. Only improved and responsible state run schools, together with a fair regulatory system which balances the interests of both the private sector and the parental body, can help achieve the goal of providing quality education across the country.