Will privatising the existing education system work?

Published: December 21, 2010
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Making bureaucratic changes to the current system is not going to help.

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.

Maliha Khan

Maliha Khan

A graduate from Pace University in political science and minor in middle eastern studies. She currently lives in Washington DC and actively follows international politics.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Mohammad Mohsin Shams

    Very Well Written With Facts In Pakistan’s Current Almost Filthy & Corrupt Education System.Recommend

  • Ali Hassan

    Very nice post.
    Education sector should not have been nationalized in the first place, it was a big mistake, its good that current prime minister accepted this mistake, committed by previous PPP government.Recommend

  • Jameel ur Rasheed

    Well those against the steps have so many threats:
    – they wont be able to uphold their sick principles
    – the so called Muslim revolutionary group, the Jamiat, will be eliminated
    – they will have no other choice except to study in order to stay in the institute
    – they wont be able to work on political propaganda

    in short they will be doomed.

    But yes it will increase the cost of education but definitely put some quality factor in it.Recommend

  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QbkNcXgU8RY Imran A. Azeem.

    I would like to post two videos that may reflect condition of Education in Province of Punjab. But the condition is same for other parts of Pakistan where Feudal Lords have captured the already build Schools while at other places, teachers are giving education in open air.

    Video 1:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QJn78QgXpjE

    Video 2:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cYBtKd_dUK8Recommend

  • http://blogs.tribune.com.pk/story/2534/whose-country-is-this-anyway-not-the-tax-payers/ Syed Nadir El-Edroos

    At the crux of this issue, is unsurprisingly land! Most of these institutions in Punjab are located in inner city prime locations. Some have already fallen victim to encroachment and commercialization. Recommend

  • Amna

    @Jameel ur Rasheed: I cant speak for everyone who opposes this, but my main concern is none of those points above. The sole reason I am against privatisation is because the cost of education will go up for the poor. The government can not just keep saving money at the cost of the masses.

    So you are saying the government has no obligation to change their ways for the betterment of its people, and actually make an effort to improve education institutes. Instead, they can just slap on a hefty price tag for education so our millions of young people from the middle/lower middle class can sit home, do nothing(they obviously cant get jobs-education or no education) and be miserable. Yes that seems like a recipe for a very progressive society.

    Not everyone can afford to pay for a private education. I don’t know how so many ET readers can not understand that. Recommend

  • http://twitter.com/HashimAbbasi Hashim Abbasi

    Its the responsibility of the state to provide quality education to the masses. Privatization wouldn’t solve a thing as evident from the large number of private educational institutions that are offering a degree/certificate whose worth is less than the paper it is printed on.

    If the Govt. is really serious than here is a solution: Pass a law making it mandatory for every Government employee and elected ministers to have their kids enrolled in a Govt. School. Once their kids future is on the line everything will be solved, educational budgets will increase and so will the standard of education.Recommend

  • http://blogs.tribune.com.pk/author/242/nicholas-sharaf/ Nicholas Sharaf

    No.

    Fact being, its the curriculum that needs to be revised as opposed to the people running the Institute. Most changes made to the curriculum still aren’t sufficient and mostly encourage cramming.

    Changes need to be made at the idealogical level first and then implementation reforms sought out.Recommend

  • Wasim Zaidi

    Disastrous decision! The Govt cannot afford to treat education like bananas. If it goes down that route, the multinationals will take over the provision of education to its elite and upper middle class, alienating them even more from their own country. The middle classes will be left to local educational chains, and the vast majority languishing at the bottom will be denied a half-decent education, while delivering their families into poverty. The privatization of education in Pakistan is likely to have dire consequences for the national competitiveness and social development of the country twenty years from now. By relinquishing the provision of education to market forces, the government of Pakistan may be digging graves for a vast majority of its citizens. The sooner the policy makers realize this the better. Recommend