The persistent and inter-generational nature of poverty and inequality in Pakistan is a serious concern. A recent study, jointly conducted by LUMS and Oxfam in Pakistan, has pointed out that 40 per cent of sons born to low-income families will remain stuck in this income bracket. Besides other structural reasons for poverty, such as unfair asset ownership, the lack of access to skill-imparting and good quality education are enduring hurdles which trap people in an inequality trap over multiple generations.
While the problem of lacklustre public education is widely recognised, there are differences of opinion concerning what to do about it. Some people blame private schooling itself for encouraging intergenerational inequality. Within a broader dual system of education, elite private schools are criticised in particular for offering not only English medium education, but allowing children from affluent families the chance to acquire internationally recognised credentials, and to gain access to insular socio-economic networks. Given the ability of affluent households to send their offspring to elite private schools, societal pressure to improve government schooling is said to have been diluted.
Major donor agencies, like the World Bank, have also been advocating the need for curbing public expenditure, and instead allowing the private sector to provide vital services, including education. Given this endorsement by a major international financier, it is not surprising to see private schools, including those catering to lower income groups, having mushroomed over the past few decades.
While the quality of education offered by private schools catering to low income households is debatable, the private sector has, in fact, become a significant player in the education sector. A recent study on “Private school participation in Pakistan” conducted by the World Bank found roughly one-third of school-going children to be currently enrolled in private schools.
The increasing reliance on profit-motivated private entities offering educational services to those who can afford to pay fees has led to evident distortions in the availability of educational facilities across the country. Private schooling is highly concentrated in Pakistan, with over 50 per cent of private school students residing in 10 wealthy urban districts, most of them being situated in northern Punjab. Private school students also predictably belong to urban, wealthier and more educated households than do government school students, and especially out-of-school children.
Despite these above findings, the World Bank’s research report does not recognise the limitation of trying to achieve goals like universal education through the private sector. Instead, the study blames government regulations for weakening the growth and the more even spread of private schools across the country. Several provincial government attempts to regulate private schooling are blamed for circumscribing a number of critical school management decisions. Such regulatory attempts include interference in academic matters, determining length of school days, regulating tuition fees, or making other record-keeping and reporting demands on private schools. The World Bank’s report calls for a recasting of legislation, which protects the consumers and staff of private schools while preserving fair and effective competition for private schooling.
While the government attempts to micro-manage private schools, it may indeed be counterproductive, this does not mean that the government can absolve itself completely of its duty to provide education to its citizenry, even if pressured by entities like the World Bank to do so. Even if the private sector is allowed to offer education to those who can afford it, the need for the public sector to provide meaningful education to those whose families cannot afford to pay school fees remains one of the most effective ways of bridging the glaring inequalities within our society.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 5th, 2015.