Public and private education in Pakistan

June 2008: Recently a spate of publications on primary level education sector in Pakistan have highlighted the facts that a) percentage of children going to private schools in Pakistan has risen rapidly to about 1/3rd of total by now, b) private schools are not just in urban areas but in rural as well, and c) private schools are not just for the rich and even the poor can afford fees of Rs 50-100 per month. These publications have also argued that a) quality of education, on average, is better in private schools than public (gauged through testing) even when one controls for income and such factors, and b) cost of provision of this education, per child, is lower than in the public sector.

Given the above, some of the researchers have concluded that since private sector can reach (some of) the poor, can do a better job of providing quality education, and at cheaper rates (more efficiently), the case for rethinking the role of public sector in primary and secondary education becomes stronger.

At the same time, none of these publications go far enough to make the case for private provision of education only. They acknowledge that though quality of private education is better than public, it is not good on any absolute scale. They also acknowledge that a) private education, being mostly provided on for-profit basis, charges fees that though low still act as a barrier to access for the poor, and b) private schools tend to locate in richer and more densely populated areas. So, a number of these researchers have suggested that a) private education should be encouraged and in places where we have a number of private schools government should facilitate access by the poor through instruments like vouchers, b) public education should be seen as a compliment to private education, and c) public schools should try to serve locations and people who cannot or do not have access to private education.

But there are problems with this view of education and educational provision. Education, at primary and secondary level, according to our constitution (and this holds for a number of other constitutions as well) is considered to be a "right" of people. That is, we, the government and the society, owe an obligation to the children of Pakistan: they have a right to demand access to reasonable quality educational facilities for themselves, irrespective of their income, geographical location and other caveats. It is true that the constitution does not recognise the right to education as a fundamental right, and so far the courts have not taken the right to education as justiciable (though Indian courts did it a while back and then the government moved a constitutional amendment to recognise the right to education as a basic right) but it is recognised as a right nonetheless. In fact, given the evidence on the importance of education for functional reasons (i.e. given the connections between education and poverty reduction as well as national growth) it is hard how one can see the right to Life, accepted as a basic right in all constitutions, without a right to basic education. But leaving this debate aside, given that education is a right, the responsibility of the government cannot be seen as just a compliment to the private sector. It is the government that is primarily responsible for ensuring that all children get access to reasonable educational facilities.

The story gets a lot more complicated when we allow for the fact that a) millions of children are out of schools currently, b) millions more drop out before they get any education, c) millions are going to poor quality educational institutions, d) poverty and access are linked negatively, e) poverty and dropouts are linked positively, f) development of an area and access are also linked negatively. And we know that Pakistan does not have any credible social protection nets, safety nets, ways of identifying the poor, ways of monitoring the poor or targeting subsidies to the poor. So how can we ensure that the private sector, suitably complimented by the public, can be made to provide quality education to all children across the country?

We have to grant that most of the public sector education system, and across the country, is currently dysfunctional and of very poor quality: it is underfunded, mismanaged, has poor standards, does not have proper monitoring and evaluation systems, does not have proper human resource systems, the teachers working the system have low morale, provision of infrastructure is patchy and on average poor, provision of software (books, furniture and so on) is also poor and there is a general lack of direction and motivation in the education departments at all levels. It is no wonder that any comparison with the private schools shows that private schools are better, and that, given the choice and resources, people choose to send their children to private schools. But, given the responsibility of the state with regard to education, and the scale of the issue we are talking about, are the conclusions about the role of private-public given above the only ones or the right ones to draw?

Here is one alternative. Given that private for-profit as well as non-governmental sector (NGOs) can deliver quality education, given that the public sector is able to deliver reasonable quality education across the world (from Canada and US to Sri Lanka and China), why can the Pakistani government not fix the public education system? Clearly there are no impossibility issues at play here. Why should we not draw the conclusion, from the research quoted, that the imperative to improve the quality of public education has become even more urgent and pressing now, given the evidence that it can be done, and at lower cost, and in some of the same areas where public sector is failing. The scale at which we need to provide education, the importance of regulating its content as well as quality, the importance of ensuring that each child has a "fair" and "equitable" chance of getting education, all of the above imply that we cannot let the matter be managed by the private sector, while the public sector complements services. It has to be the other way around. The public sector education system has to set the minimum standards, it has to monitor and enforce these standards, and it has to ensure that every child has a certainty of receiving education of that minimum standard at least. If private sector wants to complement the services provided and can offer alternatives by raising the bar for the public sector that is wonderful. Those who can afford to and/or are willing to pay for it can choose the private over the public then.

In the 1980s and 1990s people used to argue that the poor performance of the public sector, in certain areas, was justification enough for privatisation. But the experience of the last couple of decades has shown us that this is a poor way of selecting which areas to privatise. Areas where there are large public good elements and/or significant non-competitive forces, privatisation with and/or without regulation and restraint, can be quite disastrous. Education is a very special area: due to its functional as well as rights-based importance. If commercial areas were a problem, blind and unthinking support of private education, at the cost of making the public system better, can and will be even more disastrous.

Private education is surely here to stay, and it should be allowed to flourish and expand. But private education should not be seen as a panacea for the education sector problems that we face. Private education is not the solution for our national education problems and the fact that private education is "better" than the current public sector education should not be taken as a reason for jettisoning public sector, rather it should be seen as a challenge for the public sector: we have to get the public sector in order. Rather than lessen the pressure on government, the way I read it, the quoted research gives us even more reason to increase the pressure on government to improve the quality and extent of provision of public education. If we are to address the problems of the education system in Pakistan, there seems to be a need for advocacy for creating a movement for demanding quality from the public sector education system.

E-mail: (The Nation)

Your Comments

"hi mr.faisal hru. i read your artical.but i want to know that how much importance this issue have in our country.if any student want to do research work on it so what would be the benifit of this issue.and can u suggest me any good topic 4 research that much have importance and applicable after the work.thank u"
Name: hijab
City, Country: Lhr, Pakistan

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Name: irum
City, Country: rawalpindi, Pakistan

"hi mr.faisal. i read your artical.but i want to read some article on the topic of my thesis opinion of youth regarding private and public education.if any student want to do research work on it so what would be the benifit of this issue.and can u suggest me any good alternate of my topic and plz send me related articles.i will be very thankful to you"
Name: iram
City, Country: lahore,pakistan

"Dr. Faisal your article touches upon very fundmental questions indeed. Would be so kind to provide some data as to what proportion of public as compare to private goes to professional Schools like NED, Jamia Karachi..etc. In my personal view, we would like to see some graphs and stats. Govt and its afiliates should be presenting the latest data or else they are simply not doing their job."
Name: Nasir
City, Country:Karachi, Pakistan

"aslamoalaikum mr.faisal i read your article and it gives me alot of information because i am the student of msc.psychology and make a research on LEVEL OF DEPRESSION AMOUNG THE PEOPLE WORKING IN PUBLIC AND PRIVATE SECTOR IN PAKISTAN if you please tell me the total number of people doing jobs in above sector so my research come easy to me, thank you"
Name: rafia
City, Country:islamabad pakistan

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Name: Muhammad Nawaz Tunio
City, Country: tandojam, pakistan

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Name: kashif Ahmad Khan
City, Country: Hazara University Mansehra KPK Pakistan

"I need more info about this topic."
Name: Javeria
City, Country: karachi, Pakistan



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