Education crisis continues

  • Tussle over tuition fees still unresolved

Sitting in my cosy room with the comforts of life and latest technological equipment, as I write this column, I wonder, whether our children – yours and mine, would be able to complete their learning process as reasonable as most of us. Whether they would be able to express their thoughts and make their arguments as lucid as we can attempt to. For it is the future of their learning process which worries me.

With the end of the monsoons, the start of the academic year in Pakistan’s schools is in progress. But it’s a shaky start. For the country in general and Sindh in particular, the issue or rather dispute over tuition fees charged by private schools remains unresolved despite being under discussion for nearly a year. Recent court decisions and comments by politicians and other top office bearers do show their concern at the state’s incapacity to deliver its role in the development of the country’s education sector as well as parents’ resultant reliance on private sector schools. Some parents remain adamant to get the raise in tuition fees as lower as possible, while private schools come with their justifications for the raise in fees. Sadly, the debate, it seems, is being tackled more from an emotional instead of an objective rationale. The outcome naturally, is confusing.

In March this year, a division bench of the Sindh High Court (SHC) quashed a government rule which restricted increase in tuition fees by private schools to five percent, terming the rule as ‘constitutionally impermissible.’ The court did, however, direct the Sindh government to frame relevant rules within three months to regulate fee determination.

A 12-member committee — comprising both parents and schools, agreed on an inflationary mechanism. But with the previous government relinquishing power, the recommendation lay suspended seeking approval.

Meanwhile last month the SHC, overruling the March order, restrained private schools from increasing fees by more than 5 per cent and ordered them to accept dues as per the old fee structure. The direction came as a result of a petition filed by more than a hundred parents, pertaining to a hike in school fees of 13 percent by certain private schools.

And this month, the court declared as illegal more than five percent increase in the tuition fees by private schools and institutions and ordered their management to refund the excess fee within three months.

For a parent like myself, this decision should be highly comforting. With prices of all commodities reaching sky high, relaxation in at least one sector which also happens to be my child’s birth right can be a big incentive. However, to begin with, me as well as other middle class parents were forced to send our children to ‘costly’ private schools because the state has failed to provide this basic right. In fact, I shudder at the possibility of nationalising schools discussed in other emotional outbursts, since by seeing the conditions of the state run schools well known to all, I wish our next generation a better experience which it deserves.

This situation becomes worrying for me when I come across reactions by the private school enterprises. They claim that they cannot survive with three or five percent fee increases when their input costs are impacted 12 to 15 percent inflation per annum. Still, if they are slapped with the ceiling, what would be their next move?

In May this year, when a battle ground was raging in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) between private schools and the state over a similar issue, the Private Schools Regulatory Authority (PSRA) of the province allowed a tuition fees raise between three to five percent. At that time too, I expressed my concerns over the sector’s future in a column. Following that, I received a mail from a small scale private owner. He disclosed to me that in the new scenario, he calculated that he would have to manage losses of over two million rupees. As a result, he was faced with the option of either closing down his school or downsising the number of teachers, reducing the salary of the remaining staff and apply a sharp cut on other expenditures like generators, celebration of important days, staff trainings, ultimately at the cost of over all quality.

In the Education Price Index – a set of components that have a direct impact on the basic input costs in the education sector, submitted to Sindh’s Education Department in compliance to SHC’s ruling in March, a break of cost averages showed an annual increase of over 50 percent in the increase of staff salaries, roughly 18 percent increase in rents of commercial buildings, a raise of 12 percent in construction and /or repair and maintenance and also in security costs. These do not include the cost of taxation in the form of corporate income tax, general sales tax, federal excise duty and many other such similar levies. All these expenses are paid from school earnings. Naturally, if this annual increase in cost is not met sufficiently and at least a certain amount of profit is not earned necessary for the sustenance of schools belonging to the private sector, the situation faced by a single school owner quoted above would apply to others as well.

Can we as parents afford to compromise any more on the quality of education our children receive? The nation has already witnessed several blows, most significantly, of the nationalisation move in the Bhutto era. How much more of experiments, tussles and uncertainty will we have to face before we have a reliable educational system in our country?

I would like a fair system of fees regulation which ensures a reasonable increase in tuition fees, but not at the cost of the quality of education being provided to my children, worst, at the fear of the school itself being shut down.

Fee regulation and monitoring of schools are features which should have been applied long ago. There’s still time now, but not in an arbitrary way. The mutual consent of the state, private school owners and parents need to be consolidated in order to pave way for a progressive system. Standardised education goals should be applied to all schools, whether public or private, to bring uniformity in the country. Most importantly, the quality of education and facilities provided at state run schools must be worked on and raised on an urgent basis.

A new education policy is to be launched soon, as said by Minister for Federal Education Shafqat Mehmood. One hopes that it adequately addresses the state’s responsibility of the provision of this basic constitutional right, and manages to bring a harmonious working relation among all stake holders through dialogue. This entails the future of our nation. It cannot be compromised.