A settlement in Sindh’s education row

  • And setback in KPK

 Some headway seems to have been made in Sindh’s education row in the form of an agreement between parents and schools. The entire country appears to be embroiled in the issue of increasing tuition fee by private schools and while Punjab somewhat settled it last year, Sindh is also making progressive efforts. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK), however, the row just got even bitter.

With the 18th amendment, education is now a provincial subject. Each province sets its own rules, regulations and targets for the sector. And when it comes to the issue of increase in tuition fees, each province has a rather different tale to tell.

During this year, Sindh High Court ruled in favour of private schools when it quashed a government rule restricting increase in tuition fees to a maximum of five percent. The court termed the ceiling as ‘constitutionally impermissible’, stating that as a private enterprise, any institution, including a school is allowed to operate for profit. At the same time, it also directed the Sindh government to devise regulatory frameworks within 90 days.

The provincial government formed a 12-member committee which was tasked to draft rules through suitable amendments in the Sindh Private Educational Institutions Regulations Control Rules 2005. Although after a series of meetings, deliberations are still going on, the parents and schools have agreed on an inflationary mechanism.

It appears that parents have accepted that firstly, schools need to increase tuition fees. Secondly, there also seems to be an agreement that there cannot be a fixed bracket for tuition fees increase because that may not incorporate many elements. Increase in petrol prices, electricity fares, transport costs, commercial rents, etc, are subject to inflationary trends and are not in the control of the private sector. Like any other institution, a school, aiming to reach and maintain a credible standard needs to make extra investment on its staff’s training, their increments, facilities and infrastructure. Thus increase in investment demands increase in revenue.

Where regulation plays the role is the frequency of increase in tuition fees and its mechanism, standard of teaching and curriculum and checks to ensure that exploitation of employees or students does not take place in any way. And this regulatory standard can best be established through a dialogue.

While Sindh has opted for consensus of opinion to resolve a burning issue, anarchy seems to rule KPK. In my column only a week ago, I had highlighted the tussle between private school owners and the provincial government. The schools have been protesting regulations imposed by the province’s Private Schools Regulatory Authority (PSRA) following a judgement by Peshawar High Court last year. The regulations provide that increase in tuition fee shall not be more than three percent 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.

To a parent the regulations may seem to prove that justice is in reach, but for a private school owner they mean that cost of running the institution would be hardly met. And while the practicality of the regulations could be debated upon, PSRA, again on an instruction by the court, requested the State Bank to seal accounts of 22 non-compliant schools. Around 40 ‘non-conforming’ private schools have already been sealed earlier.

This is happening at a time when students are in the process of appearing in their final examinations. The row is worsening at the time when summer vacations are about to start and such a strong penal action may have definitely raised questions in the minds of teaching, administrative and helping staff of the troubled schools about the future of their jobs.

Couldn’t deliberations be considered as an alternative? Wasn’t the 2-3 month long summer break a better time to find a solution? Are private schools in KPK expected to follow regulations verbatim by the state, as if they owe their ownership to it?

This is a situation which cannot be one sided. While private schools cannot and should not operate unregulated and unchecked without addressing the concerns of parents who send their children there to seek education, the state cannot and should not operate in a purely anarchical manner to resolve issues.

Another point to note in the troubling scenario is the response by private schools. While I hear that some schools have decided to challenge Peshawar High Court’s ruling in the Supreme Court, there was largely silence when that judgment was passed in November last year. And when the PSRA acted on the recommendations, the schools’ response was a shutdown. The very purpose for which those institutions are running, was put at the back bench.

It is disappointing to observe that both the institutions which are involved in imparting knowledge and civility in the future generations and the regulatory authority governing them, have chosen to resolve an issue in a highly uneducated manner. They are, thus, setting precedence for their students that if caught in an undesirable situation, one can use force or choose to ignore, then vehemently protest.

Private school owners have a right to debate, accept or reject recommendations and regulations, but is it justified at the cost of education? At the same time, if not in essence at least on the surface we are a democratically run nation. Are the actions taken by KPK against these schools in any way democratic?

The unsettled situation of education row in KPK is extremely troubling. It, at the moment, presents a bleak picture of education’s future in the province, despite the reforms brought in the education sector by KPK. But bringing reforms does not justify running the sector with an iron fist. No province in the country can reach the target of educating each citizen through only public schools. Private schools’ participation is inevitable.

KPK should learn from Punjab, which has made enormous progress in public–private collaborations in the education sector, recognised internationally. It still has a long way to go, but the step has inspired Sindh, which seems to be bringing a permanent solution in the tuition fees issue through consensus, a correct example for other provinces to follow. It is now KPK’s turn to set a positive precedence.