The Punjab government has decided to continue the policy of handing over public schools to the Punjab Education Foundation (PEF), the Danish school authority and various NGOs. It wants to get rid of public schools.
The planned handover of 5,000 schools in the province last year was met with fierce resistance from teachers. The provincial government has claimed that this policy will improve the standard of education. However, teachers and independent education experts have strongly disagreed with this proposition.
According to the constitution, it is the basic responsibility of the state to provide free and compulsory education to all citizens. The privatisation of schools and other educational institutions is a clear violation of the constitution. But who cares? The ruling elite are interested in implementing only those provisions of the constitution that relate to their powers and interests. They do not care about the constitutional provisions that deal with the needs of the people and their rights.
The respective governments in the country have neglected the public education sector. It has never been the priority of successive governments – whether they civilian or military – to provide free and compulsory education to the people. The health and education sectors are never allocated the resources that they need to improve services and standards. Several years of neglect have resulted in the collapse of public education institutions. The gap between public schools and private schools has widened to unprecedented levels.
The quality of the public education sector started to decline in the 1980s and this downward spiral continues even today. Various governments have recruited teachers purely on the basis of political grounds. Many of these teachers have never taken an interest in teaching and seldom attend school. Attention has not been paid towards building infrastructure and providing basic facilities at public schools. Thousands of schools still lack clean drinking water, toilets, boundary walls, classrooms, furniture and labs. It would be wrong to put the blame for the deplorable condition of public schools on teachers alone. Although teachers have played a role in this regard, the real culprits have been the respective governments and education authorities.
This has encouraged the growth of private schools in the country. Thousands of private schools have been built over the last two decades. A chain of elite schools have emerged and even the middle class have started to send their children to these institutions. The lower middle class and various sections of the better paid working class have also opted to send their children to private schools.
A great deal has changed over the last two decades as far as education is concerned. The education expenses have risen to around 30 percent of the average income of a middle class or lower middle class family. The school and tuition fees have become a huge burden on the incomes of the ordinary families. The reason is simple: the public schools failed to satisfy the needs and expectations of the middle class and lower middle class.
It is an open secret that education and health are the top profit-making businesses at the moment and guarantee the highest return on the investment. There are elite schools and hospitals that are making millions in profit through millions of poor and working class people.
The quality of education and health has gone out of reach for more than 75 percent of the population. Between 1947 and the early 1990s, it was possible for students belonging to working class families to study in the top public sector institutions of the country. Their parents were able to dream that their children will become doctors, engineers, civil servants, army officers and managers in the private sector.
But now, things have changed. Their children can no longer afford to go to these institutions. Education used to be the only hope for poor families to improve their circumstances. This is no longer the case. The policy of deregulation and restructuring brought about this change. The sudden jump in the fees and other expenditures snatched this opportunity from many students belonging to poor and working class families.
The fact is that an overwhelming majority of the people can no longer afford to get quality education. Education was considered to be a basic necessity and a fundamental right. But now, it has been turned into a commodity to make profits. Education is not a commodity but a basic need. The further privatisation of schools will make it more difficult for the poor to educate their children.
The government should invest more in the education sector and improve the standard of the education. It must make radical changes in the curriculum and the methods of teaching. Schools, colleges and other education institutions should be run by the joint management committees of students, parents and teachers. Revolutionary changes need to be made in the education policy to withstand privatisation.
If the government is serious about serving the poor and increasing the standard of education, it should change its attitude and policies towards public sector education and transform the public schools and colleges in backward areas into model teaching institutions. It must also introduce vocational education at school levels. The government should also chalk out short and long-term policies to provide quality education to every child free of charge.
Deregulation, restructuring and disguised privatisation is not going to serve the purpose. Resources are necessary to improve the quality of education. But the will to do so is even more important.