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.