The recently escalating tussle between the Punjab Government and private schools fighting the new restrictions on fee structure has only one losing party; the students and the parents that pay exorbitant amounts for their education. The Punjab Education Authority Bill is one that has divided the province into two groups; the private schools and those that state that these provide an intrinsic service that the government cannot, and the government and its supporters claiming that the schools should not be able to arbitrarily dictate what to charge from students, especially if many are not as quality-conscious as they claim. The truth though, lies somewhere in the middle.

It is true that the private schools provide a service that is fundamental for the development of the country, but as private firms they are not only in this for the greater good. The primary reason they do this is for profit, and the satisfaction of having improved the lives of its customers comes secondary. The cost of providing quality education is not cheap. There is a vacuum that exists in the education sector, which is slowly being filled by private institutions and this should be treated as a positive. Large networks of schools provide decent education in far-flung areas across the country, in areas like Hafizabad, Mandi Bahuddin, Swat, Okara, Gujrat and more. These ‘chains’ of schools are sometimes the only option for parents in small towns, because one thing that is established across the board is that public schools do not even come close to providing the standard private schools do. Given the decrepit condition of public schools across the country, it is not surprising that parents that can ensure that their children end up at one of the more prestigious and significantly more expensive private schools. They have been given a better option and who can blame them for choosing the best for their children? While the term ghost schools is used to describe schools that only exist on paper, what does one call schools that have no teachers or students?

These ‘schools for ghosts’ is what the government needs to pay attention to, instead of unilaterally announcing a restriction to not increase fees over 5% in a given year.

This is not to say that private schools should be allowed to twist the logic of free market to their advantage at every possible opportunity.

Restrictions are needed, but they need to be of the right sort, to ensure quality control. Private educational institutions rely on the fact that the parent will not remove their child unless absolutely necessary. This is used as a means to have complete freedom over pricing policies, with schools often neglecting to provide an explanation to parents over why fees are increasing constantly. The government is allowed to step in where the schools cannot adequately justify an increase in fee, but a blanket policy does not address the issue properly. If schools need a radical improvement in quality, it will not come cheap. More money has to be invested, and that cost has to be passed on. If a uniform policy is implemented, improving on quality will no longer be a prerogative.

Instead of focusing on revenue, the government should focus on the quality of education meted out to students at various schools. Teacher training is a virtually alien concept in this country. A very small number of schools train teachers to be more effective educators, and the ones that do, have not entirely perfected the system. The lack of a certification system for teachers is also an added problem, because as of yet, no standard exists to assess whether teachers are adequately qualified. While not infallible, a certification system would ensure that teachers at least meet a minimum benchmark of the skillset they are looking to impart to their students. A lack of quality teachers and the schools promoting a culture that educates less and makes students learn things by heart more often are two basic issues. Students are expected to attend classes at tuition centres set up by prolific teachers to get the coveted ‘A grade’ in each subject. The increasing competition to get better grades has spelt the end of holistic education, and leant more credence to learning how to take tests instead of focusing on what is learnt in classes. The cost of education to the parents is increasing exponentially, and parents are struggling to keep up in the race to ensure that their child gets the best.

It is also acceptable for the government to expect private schools to open their doors to a certain quota of deserving students even if they do not afford the fees. But as any other government in any other country would have to do, the state then must subsidise these schools in order to give them incentive for this. Education is the fundamental right of every child. But it is the government’s responsibility to ensure the provision of this right, instead of relying on the private sector. If the government is failing in this process, it cannot hold the private sector accountable. If anything, the private sector is the only saving grace for this country’s standard of education, for if left solely to public schools, the already serious problem of the lack of literacy would have been a catastrophe by now. If the government is seriously looking to address the problem of education, then a good start would be to bring government schools up to a level that is even moderately competitive with private schools. The only real way to allay the concerns of parents is to provide them with the option of not having to rely on the private sector if they do not see enough benefits.