Will privatising the existing education system work?
PML-N's call to privatise colleges has been met with resistance. Shouldn't the govt improve what is already in place?
Recently, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) has been calling on a new wave of educational reforms in an effort to privatise colleges in Punjab.
The government of Punjab has decided to replace the existing system with a board of governors having power over 26 colleges in Punjab. While the privatisation of colleges is not a new concept in Pakistan, it has certainly aroused a lot of passion from a range of groups lately.
Student groups and teachers’ rights associations are fervently against such a move because they argue that along with the inevitable hikes in tuition fee, professors’ rights will be severely hampered.
Wave of condemnations
The Joint Action Committee (JAC) which is comprised of students from various colleges in Punjab along with the Punjab Professors and Lecturers Association (PPLA) took to the streets several days ago to protest this action by the provincial government. The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q) have firmly condemned this move as well. Federal Law Minister Babar Awan (PPP) stated that “his party would strongly resist the privatisation of educational institutions by the Punjab government.”
Supporters have legitimate concerns
The supporters of this legislation argue that Pakistani degrees are not receiving the kind of recognition in western universities that they deserve. This is of course a very legitimate concern, but the solution PML-N is offering is merely going to make cosmetic changes. The reason Pakistani degrees do not receive recognition is because of the difference in the quality of education in Pakistani universities as compared to western universities. In order to correct that, we must get at the core of the problem. Making bureaucratic changes is not going to help.
Universal education versus budget cuts
Pakistani legislators are just now beginning to recognise the direct relationship between the level of education provided to a country’s population and the level of economic progress in that country. This means education for all, irrespective of class, gender, ethnicity, or religion. Yet even though most Pakistani legislators do accept the necessity of universal education, budget cuts for education are too often in the news. In a country where an overwhelming percentage of the GDP is allocated for defense activities on the false pretense of war, resources for critical public services such as education are at an all time low. But even with a strict a limit of resources, there are numerous options that can—and should—be implemented in order to utilise our existing resources to their potential.
An education revolution?
In their article in Dawn, Rudina Xhafferi and Khalid Iqbal of the Promotion of Education in Pakistan (PEP) Foundation, call for an education revolution. They list several options that can benefit the general public while working within the existing economic constraints: perpetual endowment funds to ensure financial security and tapping into the existing human resource—undergraduate and graduate students—for assistance in the education of primary and secondary class students. There is no lack of wealthy individuals and organisations in Pakistan.
Instead of relying solely on government allocated funds, more Pakistani academic institutions need to follow the example of academic institutions around the world and set up endowment funds. The other suggestion is to mandate current undergraduate and graduate students in Pakistan to devote at least one to two semesters to teaching younger students as part of their requirements for graduation. By doing this, we can make a significant addition to teachers without having to worry about the cost. These are both simple suggestions that can be implemented with ease; however, there is currently a lack of initiative.
Let’s not start from scratch
Coming back to the reforms suggested by the government of Punjab, it is historically evident that it is easier and more effective to improve the existing system rather than to scratch it entirely and begin anew. And with the low rate of public approval of all parties and politicians in Pakistan, it is hard for the public to swallow that these changes will actually benefit them.
The Higher Education Commission of Pakistan has already been facing criticism for being heavily comprised of the elite and lacking accountability. In a 2009 report titled “Pakistan’s Higher Education Reform Experiment,” the HEC is accused of (unintentionally) centralising power which has in effect “undermined university leadership and academic freedom…”
To its credit, the HEC has accomplished some significant progress in higher education reforms since 2002. But while nobody expects the HEC to be perfect and make all the right decisions, the point I keep trying to make is that we need to work on improving the existing system rather than chucking it all together. The board of governors idea is going to do exactly what the HEC has been criticised of doing—centralising power. The government of Punjab should instead focus on ways it can improve the existing system and particularly focus on pressuring the federal government to allocate more funds for education. The academic community is an excellent resource for achievable reform ideas that has so far not been utilised. Instead of making executive decisions without consultation, like the HEC did, the provincial governments must consult those people with the proper knowledge of this situation. The fact that so many students and academics are up in arms about this legislation shows that this is clearly not the way to go.
The ugly statistics
The abysmal state of education in Pakistan is not a new phenomenon and this state is not surprising given the current and past governments’ neglect of educational development. According to the 2010 United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Human Development Report, Pakistan invests a meager 2.9% of its GDP on education. To put that in perspective, developing African countries like Kenya and Ghana invest between 5 and 7 percent. Although educational reforms have been touted by politicians and bureaucrats in all parties, instead of benefitting the general public, these reforms have only managed to redirect funds amongst the country’s elite from time to time.