Private Solutions to Public Problems – Can Miftah’s education vouchers work?

The jury is split on whether or not conventional public education spending can be replaced with something better

“Which country is Miftah talking about?” exclaimed Dr. Faisal Bari, an economist and Education specialist. “I can’t think of a country where primary and middle school education is not considered as part of government responsibility.” 

These remarks, measured if indignant, came in response to former finance minister Miftah Ismail’s recent suggestion that the government should provide Rs 3000 vouchers to parents who may enroll their children in low-fee private institutions, as the public education system is burning in flames. As the government is unable to sustain the public education system, it’s now devising new strategies to alleviate this burden and find shortcuts. One such shortcut is the outsourcing of education to private entities.

Presently, a PKR 100 billion is channelled into education per annum. However, given the abysmal student results, the amount doesn’t seem justified. How can one make more productive use of this money?

For Ismail, the answer is straightforward: more privatisation. “This is not a time for ideology. Pakistan can’t be a leftist, socialist state. If private education is the answer, then so be it,” he asserted. 

“What kind of a solution is this? If the judiciary is not functioning well, should we privatise that too? If the army is not functioning well, should we privatise that too?” Dr. Bari interrogated. “Our main focus should be to improve the public education system, not aggravate it further.” 

Pakistan’s abysmal education system

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“The present education system is failing our students. Only a quarter of children end up at schools. Half don’t attend schools at all, and a good proportion attends madrassas. There are around 30,000-35,000 madrassas in the country, out of which only 12,000 are registered. Then, a segment attends private schools,” highlighted Ismail in an interview with Profit.

Now, when you think of private schools, elite top-tier institutions with exorbitant fees such as Aitchison, LGS, KGS come to mind. However, the ground reality is far different. You’ll find that most private education institutions have low-cost fees, around PKR 1000-2000. The quality of education there is no doubt questionable. 

Nevertheless, Ismail elucidates that students in public schools are majorly failing. 

“In mathematics, they’ll typically score 27 and in science, 31. This means that the system is failing to educate them properly. Leave aside English, they can’t even write in basic Urdu. This is a sheer wastage of the PKR 100 billion that’s spent on education per annum,” asserted Ismail. 

“In Pakistan, the education system is deeply fragmented and iniquitous. Most private schools are the ones with low fee levels, around PKR 1000-2000,” Dr. Bari informed. “There are very few high schools under the private sector.For wider accessibility, reform is warranted in the public school system, as students will have to be brought back to government schools as their years of education progress.”

The Voucher System

Miftah Ismail proposes a unique idea. 

Just divide and disburse the government’s education budget through ‘vouchers’ to families who would have benefitted from the public education outlay. Let them decide where they want to send their kid to learn ABC the quickest! 

Simple enough. However, one must ask what Miftah Ismali and others from this school of thought hope to achieve with this? Will the voucher system eventually replace the public school system in Pakistan or complement it?

“The intention is not to replace the entire system. But provide parents a choice to either enrol their kids in public or private, except that the government will pay for the private. Pilot  programs have already been done in Punjab and Sindh, with successful results. If needed, we’ll voucher increase costs for girls, as a means of giving incentive.”, he clarified

Reforms can be made within the public education system as well; however, the system is deeply distressed according to Miftah- perhaps, damaged beyond repair. “At the end of the day, the government has a singular purpose which is to provide education. Are public schools fulfilling this effectively? Absolutely not! They’re functioning as babysitting clinics, making students sit for 6-8 hours daily. They’re not providing education.”, Ismail argued,

“The state’s responsibility is to provide education to children. It doesn’t necessarily have to do that itself. We’re giving parents a choice here. No extra money is being spent. It’s just a more productive use of the PKR 1 billion that is presently being wasted on the education system,” he concluded. 

The Plight of Teachers

Private sector schools mostly pay less than minimum wage to teachers, in fact, teacher  salaries tend to be lower than the minimum wage, which is PKR 32,000. The privatisation solution will further increase the exploitation of teachers.

“Whoever wants to build a good career in Pakistan, why would they opt for teaching as a profession? Whenever I walk into a classroom and ask students what they wish to be when they grow up, they either shout “doctor” or “engineer.” Those who will raise and nurture the coming generation of Pakistan, nobody wishes to join them,” Dr. Bari elaborated.

Government salaries are better compared to those in the private sector, and that differential should be maintained to support the public school system in Pakistan according to Dr. Bari. 

“It’s important that we think of building a good career path for our teacher, whether it’s the primary, secondary or tertiary level. They should build expertise in their niche area and have a rewarding career trajectory.”

“This is a serious matter as teaching is one of the highest filled professions in Pakistan. There are around 2-2.5 million teachers across the country. Yet, we face a consistent shortage of teachers as we don’t have mechanisms of making teaching into a lucrative profession. It’s nobody’s career choice. This must change.”

Why are the preexisting teachers not delivering well is another pivotal question. According to Dr. Bari, it’s pertinent to oversee their entry requirements so that capable teachers enter the profession. Secondly, there needs to be a shift towards teacher licensing.

How all of it may unfold 

In most cases, an FSc, Metric, BA graduate is hired immediately after graduation, without any formal requirements. “We eventually need to introduce licensing for purposes of quality check, but this isn’t a short term solution, and will work over time. Then gradually with licensing , you can grade teachers and differentiate rewards based on that. However, this isn’t possible at the moment,” explained Dr. Bari.

The private sector salaries issue is very complex. Due to poverty levels in Pakistan, most families can’t afford to pay high school fees for their children.Quality education will always cost money. The question is, who will pay for it?

“This is the biggest dilemma faced by private schools. If they’re acquiring a PKR 500-2000 fee per student, then how can they increase teacher salaries? They can barely meet the minimum wage. Therefore, If the education quality is to be ensured, the state will have to step in. Otherwise it’s simply not possible, the market alone can’t help this,” adds Dr Bari. 

It’s difficult to change the education quality if the circumstances of the teacher are not improved.

The Entrenchment of Politics

However, even Ismail is cautious and mindful of the enmeshment of politics with education. “The education ministries’ sole purpose of existence is to provide jobs to political appointees. They are driven by votes and have absolutely no regard for education,” he explains. 

This further stresses the usefulness of seeking more private solutions to the problems. However, Dr. Bari disagreed. “I believe that this has changed to some extent, based on the data from the past 15-20 years particularly in  Punjab and KPK. Nepotism and corruption in teacher hiring is not as prevalent as it used to be. The recruitment process has been made very objective now. If you have a good degree, there is very little we can do to not hire you and vice versa.”

“Yet, where the problem still persists is with the postings/transfers. Miftah’s case definitely stands here. Now, what can be the solution? Firstly, let’s remind ourselves that both education and employment are not non-politicised anywhere, but they have to be made so. The non-politicisation of education is another question altogether. However, teachers’ postings/transfers can be non-politicised through various ways. If merit-based hiring occurs in areas such as the army, why can’t it be done here. Already, recruitment has been made largely non-politicised. Why can’t we do the same with transfers? We have already experimented with an online posting transfer system, which though was not good enough to satisfy everyone, can still be improved,” Dr. Bari suggests. 

Solutions can be found through the system. Abandoning it altogether is not the answer. 

A Scalability Issue

There are 50,000 schools in Punjab, spread over its 36 districts. The biggest school system in the country, The Citizens Foundation (TCF) has merely 1500 schools, after 20 years of working. The Beaconhouse school system also barely has 400-600 schools in total. 

“Look at the scale of the private sector,” Dr. Bari stressed, “TCF schools are only comparable to schools of one district. How can one expect private education to single-handedly take over this? It’s logistically not possible.” 

However, Ismail wasn’t really bothered by this. According to him, scalability would evolve and improve over time.

Global Examples

“Education is the fundamental right of every child. The government must be involved in both its provision and financing. Even in the USA, which is the epitome of capitalism, most schools exist within the public sector. Private schools are considerably less in number and though voucher systems are present there too, most schools are public and of good quality,” explained Dr. Bari.

A rebuttal is that the USA is a developed country and therefore its example can’t be evoked in the case of Pakistan. However, Dr. Bari reminded that even developing countries such as Vietnam and Brazil have thriving public education systems. It’s inconceivable for them to shut down public schools or even allow them to deteriorate further. 

Education reform is a time taking process, It doesn’t happen overnight. 

“Since the inception of Pakistan in 1947, we have been resorting to shortcuts to meet challenges. If we had made long term plans and investments, we wouldn’t be facing such problems today. Whichever country sought to reform its education system was not always affluent. Take Japan for example. It was a poor country when it started its education reform back during the Meiji revolution in the 1870s.”

“The same case can be made for America. Its education reform  started 200 years ago. If you rewind 100 years in time, you’ll find that the schools in America were of horrible quality. America wasn’t rich back then, but it had its priorities right. I could say the same for European countries, China, Singapore and South Korea.”

It ultimately boils to priorities and not money. These countries started reform when they were poor, and their current condition is a product of timely decision making and effective implementation. Despite all ideas proposed, we should perhaps start with the simple stuff first! 

Bakht Noor
Bakht Noor
Bakht Noor is an author at Profit. She covers human development and urban issues and can be reached at [email protected]


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