Will private education really be the panacea that is being talked about?
Majid, in his late 40s, has two kids in school going age. He works as an administrative coordinator in an office. Over the last 15 years that I have known him he has had two overriding concerns in his life. One, he wanted to make a small house for his family so that he could move out of a rental place. Second, he wants the very best education for his kids.
Borrowing against his gratuity, taking all sorts of loans at this place of work and from friends and relatives, some years ago he was finally able to get a five marla plot and build a 3-4 room structure on it. He is still paying off some of the loans.
For education of his children, he wanted English medium education and from private schools as he knew government schools, even in the city, were not good enough, did not have a good reputation and certainly did not give the English medium of instruction to allow his children the head-start that he felt he never had. He had been educated in government schools and most of his education had been in Urdu: he was very aware that his English language skills, especially written English, left a lot to be desired and he felt it was one of the key reasons his chances of promotion, at his office, were severely limited and there was a ceiling up to where he would be allowed to go. He is right.
His children now go to English medium private schools that cost Rs 4,000 a month per child only as tuition. He had to borrow money to pay for the admission fee, security deposit (he gives his children in the custody of the school administration and he is the one who has to pay a security deposit) and a non-voluntary donation. He also had to buy books and uniforms from school designated shops. For all of this fixed expenditure he had to borrow money from colleagues. Now, with the tuition of Rs 4,000 per month per child and transport and other expenses, he barely makes ends meet every month. In fact, every month he has to postpone other important expenditures to ensure that the family’s basic requirements and educational expenses are covered.
He, his wife or his children have not seen a dentist for many years, for the younger child probably never. Their food is the simplest one can imagine, and his children hardly get any nutritional supplements that they might need occasionally. He has had back problems for the last 10 years but apart from getting emergency treatment whenever things threaten to get out of hand he has never had the opportunity to have any sustained treatment. His wife has had some medical issues too, but they have preferred to go to a homeopath and/or a hakim, due to cost reasons, rather than regular doctors.
This is in regular times. The smallest of emergencies puts the household in a bind. Even a marriage in the family, or bereavement, where Majid needs to contribute something or have other expenses like getting new clothes for the family, makes the monthly budget go awry. He has to look for short term loans from colleagues. And though reciprocity relationships are strong with colleagues as well as family members, since most people face similar circumstances, the ability to help each other in emergencies remains limited.
There are some 40 percent odd school going children who now attend private schools in Pakistan. And private schooling is expanding rapidly, on the back of generally poor quality schooling being given by the public sector across the country. And many an education expert and economist have celebrated the expansion of private education as a solution to the education problem of the country. But is it? Will Majid’s children be able to move up in the world, get the opportunities that are needed for social and economic mobility and live their and their parent’s dreams?
This seems hard. Majid has to finance their education for 10 years just to get up to matriculation. But returns to education do not come after matriculation now. So, this has to go on. Private colleges are even more expensive now. And the good ones are quite expensive. Will Majid be able to afford these colleges? If not, will his children have to go to government colleges and will they still have the opportunities for social/economic mobility that Majid is seeking? Though there is no systematic work on social/economic mobility in Pakistan but trends of increasing inequality are not giving any encouraging news on possibilities for mobility.
This is not just the case of Majid. Most people in the middle and lower middle income group are in the same position. Will their hopes and investments in education, acquired through private providers, pay off? Though we do have some research that shows children in private schools do better in examinations than children in public schools, the same research also shows that the quality of education being imparted by most private sector schools, except the elite schools, is quite poor. Though a lot of schools call themselves English medium schools, they hardly qualify for that. Most private schools do not have trained or experienced teachers, and a lot of them do not even have some of the basic facilities, like playgrounds, that one would expect schools to have. Will getting educated from such schools give the returns to education that Majid and a lot of other people are hoping for? Will their sacrifices of today create the better tomorrow they are investing for?
There are going to be a lot of very disappointed people with a lot of shattered dreams over the next decade or two. Will private education really be the panacea that is being talked about? It definitely does not appear to be the case from examples that I have come across. One way forward would be to reform public education so that the investment in education does not have to come from households that are living in very constrained circumstances but comes from the general taxation pool instead. Though the Constitution has promised this through 25A, it still remains to be seen if this will become a priority for any political party in the upcoming election.
The writer is an Associate Professor of Economics at LUMS (currently on leave) and a Senior Advisor at Open Society Foundation (OSF). He can be reached at email@example.com