Stranded midway in pursuit of education

  • Registration of private schools cancelled in Sindh

Fears of nationalisation of private schools, tussle over tuition fees amid declining standard of state owned institutions have driven parents in Pakistan to worry considerably over their children’s education. But if this wasn’t scary enough, then it isn’t as nightmarish as what happened recently.

In education, some institutions prove to be iconic. They may be a proud symbol of a city or even a country, but when institutions continue to impart education for generations, they become part of a heritage. It is a matter of pride for students of such schools, colleges and universities, to complete education there, and grow up to come across members of their alumni in all kinds of walks of life, while a whole new generation starts its learning process in the same place. It would be more than just shock, if such an institution ceases to exist suddenly.

In reality, it was more like a bolt of lightning, when news emerged this week that Beaconhouse School System (BSS) and The City School (TCS) – undoubtedly the largest chains of private schools in Pakistan operating for nearly half a century — had their registrations suspended in Sindh. The core issue remains the same, hike in tuition fees. But such treatment would be meted out to institutions of calibre and repute was not expected in the wildest of dreams.

The registrations of all campuses of TCS, BSS and Generation school were suspended by Sindh Directorate of Inspection/Registration of Private Institutions in the guise of their alleged failure to abide by the Supreme Court (SC) and the Sindh High Court’s (SHC) orders that barred from increasing the tuition fees by more than five percent.

The cancellation came as a follow-up of an SHC order issued on September 3, in which the SHC had ruled that it would be illegal to annually increase the fees by more than five per cent and had also directed the school owners to refund or adjust the excess amount taken to the parents within three months. This deadline is expiring in early December.

The registrations of all campuses of TCS, BSS and Generation school were suspended by Sindh Directorate of Inspection/Registration of Private Institutions in the guise of their alleged failure to abide by the Supreme Court (SC) and the Sindh High Court’s (SHC) orders that barred from increasing the tuition fees by more than five percent

In response, some schools filed an appeal in the Supreme Court. The apex Court in its order of October 1 directed that until the final judgement on the case, schools may not increase the fee by over five percent and the excess fee that has been collected should be deposited with the Supreme Court within the next three months. This meant that the schools now had until 31 December 2018, that gives all private schools time of one and a half months to comply with the order.

The Directorate of Inspection Director General (DG) Dr Mansoob Hussain Siddiqui has claimed in media reports that the schools were neither complying nor responding to notices after which the decision to cancel the schools’ registration was “suspended till further orders”.

“The fee challans issued in October-November by schools had already been revised at five percent increase,” said Asim Yaqoob, Regional Director South, BSS in response when I queried him on the issue. “In addition, on-going fee difference is also in the process of submission to the Supreme Court. The private schools regulatory authority had issued show cause notices earlier, to which written replies have been sent from the schools”.

Although the authorities have given a week-long time to the schools to implement the courts’ orders and let their registrations be restored, school representatives are baffled since hearings on the case are still underway and they have more than a month’s time until the deadlines of previous orders issued expire. “The actions now taken are misguided and illegal,” states Asim Yaqoob.

In a joint press release, both Beaconhouse and City School have concluded that the order “was intended to malign their names and promote a negative sentiment amongst their parent bodies”. Beaconhouse was also targeted only recently by a smear campaign in the social media, where the institution was alleged to promote anti-Islam and anti-state sentiments over a misprint in a textbook and a question printed in the past paper of Cambridge University website, in which the school had no role.

While the schools and regulatory authorities squabble over the issue, the students continue to bear the brunt. With nearly 50 campuses of only Beaconhouse in the Sindh province in the cities of Karachi, Hyderabad and Sukkur, there are more than 25 thousand students who are sitting today at home in the wake of an unexpected and indefinite holiday. This is in addition to schools having to close down due to various strikes, riots and processions by activists and zealots alike.

There are tens of thousands of school staff also sitting back with an uncertain future, where they fear for the loss of increments and supplementary trainings provided by their schools, or worse, altogether their jobs.

There are thousands of parents, who are in awe and torment of the happenings, a handful parent continue to push and coerce the authorities to continue the strict disciplinary action taken against private schools. Paying ‘exorbitant’ fees for their children’s education is by no means desirable. But what choice do people have? Public schools have failed dismally. Neither in terms of number, nor quality or physical reach are they able to provide the constitutional right of education to masses. Therefore, those who can afford, reach out to the private sector.

The private schools operate just like any enterprise in the private sector. They charge a fee for the service given. And the better the quality, the higher the price. The ill performance of certain private schools, extortion of additional charges from parents by some and the overall mushroom growth of such schools has been a result of lack of interest by the state.

But instead of raising the standard of public sector schools and then expecting a comparable standard from the private sector, a hue and cry has been made over the tuition fees issue to divert attention away from the state that has the primary responsibility under the constitution to provide quality education to all. In some TV shows, the parents have also demanded, nationalisation and a point has come when schools are being forcibly closed down.

The impact is on the large percentage of the new generation, stranded midway in the path of education. An institution with nearly 50 years of experience in the country and abroad and generations of students now successful professionals, is roughed up like a new entrant over a legal matter already subjudice. If this is the future of education in Pakistan, much cannot be hoped for our children, except that a sane resolution to the issue be immediately implemented.