THE sentiment to ‘reimagine’ is commendable. We haven’t done well in many things, and should, if possible, ‘reimagine’ and try to do things better. But reimagining doesn’t mean that the solutions we come up with will be easy or straightforward or quickly implemented for results.
‘Reimagining’ may give solutions that require hard work and lots of time to implement. ‘Simple’ and ‘easy’, in policy space, are often not the best or most-needed solutions.
Is there any country where education up to high school is not a ‘right’ for all children? Is there any country where education up to high school is not financed by the state? Is there any country where education up to high school is not mostly provided for by the state? Are there many such countries? Is Pakistan very different? If most states finance education up to high school and provide that education too, there must be a reason for it. Should we not think about this?
If other countries provide decent education through the public sector, why can’t Pakistan? It is not just the developed countries that have been able to do this; many developing states, too, are making creditable efforts in this direction. In fact, the latter category has, over the last couple of decades, improved the quality of education for all children, largely through the public sector, quite significantly. Vietnam and Brazil immediately come to mind, but there are many others as well.
However, even where developing countries have been struggling to get all children to school and to learn what they need to learn in school, they have not ‘reimagined’ education to imply mass privatisation. No country is talking about dismantling the public education sector. Most are talking of further reforms and strengthening public education systems. Why is Pakistan thinking differently?
Pakistan has one of the most divided, fragmented and inequitable education systems in the world. Where private provision has educated millions, it has also contributed to further entrenchment and exacerbation of existing economic and social inequalities.
Access to quality education depends on parental or family incomes. The public education system is supposed to level the field and lay the ground for equal opportunities.
It is not that all state schools are bad and all private schools good; but, other than model schools, Daanish schools, cadet colleges, and a small number of others, most government schools impart a poor quality of education. In the private, for-profit sector, quality is linked to tuition fee.
High-fee private schools do provide a decent quality of education, but the bulk of the private school sector comprises low-fee, for-profit schools where the quality of education is also poor.
Low-free private schools cost less per child as compared to public schools, but research shows that the main reason for the cost differential is the low salary paid to private school teachers. Private school teachers, other than those in high-cost schools, do not even get minimum-wage levels of salary.
Is this what we want for the teachers? As it is, we have trouble getting good candidates to join the teaching profession; do we want to deepen the problem by paying teachers less than the minimum wage? Quality of learning is strongly linked to teacher quality and effort, among other factors. How do we improve teacher quality if salaries remain below the minimum wage?
The quality of education differential between the public and private sectors is also believed to be higher than it really is. When we control for selection effects (children from richer backgrounds choosing to go to private schools etc), the differences in learning outcomes become smaller. The gap has also narrowed slightly over the last decades.
There is even evidence of students moving to government schools when they reach high school. The private school pyramid (the number of schools available as we move up the grade level) is also very narrow at the top. If we leave aside moderate- and high-fee schools — they comprise a small number but figure prominently in the public imagination — the quality of education for most low-fee private schools is not much better than in public schools. Why then would we want to think of privatising education on a large scale rather than improving public schools?
Every child has a right to have a decent education. Giving scholarships to a few thousand children from poorer sections of society to access high-quality education is not a solution. If we want such scholarship schemes (though this plays into the idea of the ‘tyranny of merit’), that is fine.
They help the individuals in question. But they do not address the larger issues regarding the rights of every child. And, until the rights of every child are addressed, the promise of education will not be realised for individuals, families or society and the state as a whole.
Vouchers make sense in some places and for some populations. But they are not a universal solution and some research shows that their impact is limited. When the private sector does not have many high schools and does not operate in areas that do not have large enough markets (where there aren’t enough children), and when the provision of affordable, secure and safe transport is nonexistent, vouchers alone aren’t a solution even if it was practically possible to move to them on a large scale.
Yes, we need to reimagine what we need to do in education and to internalise that education is every child’s right and that it is in our individual and collective interest to provide opportunities.
But there is no escaping the fact that education up to high school level is the state’s responsibility and will remain so. We have to reimagine ways of making the public sector work. And this is not an impossibility, as many countries have shown and continue to show. If we can work out ways in that space, that would be real reimagining.
The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums.
Credit/Acknowledgement: Published in Daily Dawn, April 14th, 2023