Is capping private school fees a sensible policy?

Published: October 8, 2015
The writer is author of the book Development, Poverty and Power in Pakistan, available from Routledge

The writer is author of the book Development, Poverty and Power in Pakistan, available from Routledge

The government’s attempt to prevent private schools from increasing school fees has brewed up a storm of contention over these past few weeks. In apparent response to the outcry of parents of private school-going children against fee hikes, the government has decided to take upon itself the responsibility of regulating fee structures of private-sector schools.

The Punjab government promulgated an ordinance earlier this month advising private schools not to increase school fees, to refund fees they have already charged for the current academic year, and prevent them from requiring parents to purchase textbooks, uniforms or other materials from a particular shop or provider. With the prime minister having endorsed this decision, the other provinces are also looking into the matter of regulating private school fee structures.

In another twist of events, the private sector has brought the legal system into the fray and the Lahore High Court this past week has barred the district administration in Punjab from taking disciplinary action against private schools in the increased fees matter until a judicial decision concerning the legality of this measure can be reached.

The question, however, remains as to whether the government’s attempt to step in and directly try to cap private school fees is justified. Private schools exist around the world, even in countries which have much more functional public schooling systems. Private schooling is a market-driven enterprise, which aims to deliver quality education at a price. Private schools have mushroomed across the country over the past three decades, spurred by international donor agencies like the World Bank, which continue to argue that private-sector education provides a much more effective option when it comes to delivering quality education, at a fraction of the price of the public provision of education. Resultantly, multitudes of private schools have opened across rural and urban areas of the country. These range from elite schools charging high fees to provide international standard education, to those which can offer middle class and even low-income families an alternative to the increasingly dilapidated public school system, at varying costs and offering a varied standard of education.

Private schools have pointed to the their crippling input costs, such as rent increases, utility bills and increments in teacher salaries, as well as the exponentially increased expenditure on the provision of security, which is not a cost of doing business but instead a fundamental responsibility of the state which also has to be borne by them. It is also being rightly pointed out that the government’s direct intervention to prevent private schools from raising fees will cause a decline in value-added services provided by these schools, especially those which do not have numerous branches and the advantage of economies of scale to ride through the current impasse.

In a recent op-ed, a LUMS-based professor presented another suggestion to the government’s attempt to regulate fees being charged by private schools. He pointed out how the Competition Commission of Pakistan (CCP) can be used to address grievances concerning unreasonable profiteering by private schools. With its mandate to prevent anti-competition behaviour, the CCP is the relevant authority to advise private schools not to increase fees during an academic year, to announce fee hikes well in advance, and to prevent bundling activities, such as schools telling parents that their students must purchase supplies or uniforms from them.

Our education policymakers, however, have had a very confused stance concerning the private sector’s role in education. If the state is serious about the ‘provision of educational for all’, why has it come to increasingly rely on the market-driven private sector to provide education to those who can afford to pay for it? Moreover, why does it try to channel scarce public funds towards private schools? Rather than allocating millions of rupees to entities like the Punjab or Sindh Education Foundation, which essentially use government resources to improve the quality of low-income private schools, the government would be better advised to use this money to improve the lot of public education. After all, the right to quality education is not reserved for the middle or upper middle classes alone. Thus, rather than trying to only placate upper-middle and middle class parents, the government would be better advised to focus on improving the quality of education in its own government schools, where the real bulk of the country’s schoolchildren are enrolled.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 9th, 2015.

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Reader Comments (5)

  • Jehangir
    Oct 9, 2015 - 11:53AM

    Sir, i cannot pursue education because its beyond my wallet; getting a scholarship is my last best chance. Sir, in lahore, Karachi and Islamabad private schools built on 1000 square yard plots charge more fees than Aitchison college Lahore where riding swimming and sports are compulsory. Add the boarding house expenses; Aitchision is still cheaper. My question to you is; what is Aitchison not offering which others are. Secondly, Sir, you said that public sector education is not worth it. Sir how many private schools that flaunt more than three branches are not owned by elites who were in power and were duty bound to fix our education system; but they only added branches of their business and opened universities. Sir just take Lahore as a sample… how many private schools are not owned by elites and “princlings”?Recommend

  • Ahmed
    Oct 9, 2015 - 5:18PM

    For once I appreciate a clear Government stance on the issue to comprehend and bring private schools into their elements. Government should move further and cap the fees through a regulation, which should based upon a research based analysis. Private schools have turned into mafias and had never been confronted and they have considered themselves above everything. Apart of exponentially high tuition fees, these schools also charge for electricity, different uniforms in different branches of the same school brand, compulsory buying of text books and uniforms from its own shop, donations to siffon off money from parents through different pretexts, non refundable registration fee and security fee etc.
    I do agree with the writer that the Government which is receiving billions (not millions) from different donor organizations on education to channel these funds and also from its own sources into upgrading its own schools across the country enabling them to compete and break this mafia, who also doesnt pay any tax on its income! However, I would not like to critisize the Government on taking this first step of intervention, which directly reflects sentiments of Public/Parents at large.Recommend

  • cautious
    Oct 9, 2015 - 9:27PM

    Govt should have no say over how much private school charges .. that’s why it’s called a private school. Further – Gov can’t provide security, collect taxes, provide clean drinking water, toilets, good education, or any of the basics that a govt should do … but it has time to try and manage private schools, run airlines/steel mills and a host of the things it has no qualifications to do. Go figure.Recommend

  • Lolz
    Oct 10, 2015 - 12:52AM

    @cautious: Absolutely right. I don’t understand why can’t Government channelize all these energies to fix education in government schools? Why can’t these parents protest to improve the education in government schools? Why can’t parliamentarians walk out of assembly sessions and boycott the hearings in favor of education quality in government schools? People who criticize private schools here should know that in western developed countries, schools charge fee according to the facilities they offer which range from few hundred dollars to billion dollars per anum ! Recommend

  • observer
    Oct 11, 2015 - 10:56AM

    In third world countries such as Pakistan and India with large proportion of poor people, all schools should be made public schools. The elite should thus be forced to send their children to these public schools. These student bodies of all these schools should be a good mix of poor students along with the elites. This will automatically help increase the quality of education for all students, especially the poor ones. If this is not done there would be no incentive for the politicians and the elites to help provide quality education to the poor children.Recommend

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