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The cost of a decent education in Pakistan was long overdue as a topic of national importance. It finally landed on the front pages of newspapers and as a top of the hour topic on our television talk shows only in the summer of 2015. Since then, a series of feuds between parents, school owners, regulators and the courts have dotted the national discourse intermittently. The Supreme Court’s instruction last month to 22 private school chains to reduce fees by at least 20 per cent is the latest in this continuum of debates that challenge elite private schools.

Pakistani parents have been running from pillar to post for their children’s education for over three decades now. Until the 1970s, a decent education was not necessarily expensive — mostly because all education was the domain of government schools. But as petrodollar-fuelled urban consumption began to soar and the effects of denationalisation emerged, private school chains began to dot the landscape of the three main cities of Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad-Rawalpindi.

By the turn of the century, private schools came to be the assumed destination of young children belonging to parents with any kind of ambition at all, especially if they had the means to pursue it. If you ask private schools, they will tell you that their growth was the natural consequence of their superior services. Ask someone that believes in functioning states, and a level playing field for all children, and they will tell you elite private schools have grown because the state has abandoned the children of the poor and vulnerable in this country — parents do not really have a choice in the matter.

Plenty of evidence exists to validate both viewpoints. Elite private schools now manufacture the entirety of Pakistan’s upper end of human capital. But in the same country that manufactures some of the finest Wall Street bean counters and Silicon Valley coders, there are, by official Government of Pakistan estimates, at least 22.6 million children between the ages of five and 16 that do not attend any kind of school at all. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.

Albert O Hirschman, a German economist, published a book, Exit, Voice and Loyalty, in 1970. In it, he describes what happens when the quality of a product or service deteriorates. The quality of government school education in Pakistan took a nosedive as the effects of nationalisation and the en masse recruitment of teachers as an act of political patronage began to destroy the Pakistani classroom. In keeping with Hirschman’s framework, those who could afford to, left the ‘peela schools’ (yellow-coloured government schools) in droves. As the economy grew throughout the decades, more and more Pakistani parents voted with their feet. They felt no loyalty towards low-quality government schools, they knew that no amount of raising their voice would work and they simply exited the system. Private schools – initially just the really good elite ones but eventually even low-quality ones with low fees – stepped in to fill the vacuum.

Today, government estimates suggest that the nationwide distribution of government to private schools is roughly 70:30. For every 3.5 children in a government school, a corresponding 1.5 attend a private school. The vast majority of these children attend what donors refer to (and love) as ‘low-cost private schools’. But approximately half a million children, among a total population of nearly sixty million kids of schoolgoing age, attend what can accurately be described as high-quality, high-cost private schools — or elite private schools. The vast majority of the parents of these children are hard-working, upper middle-class folks who struggle to pay for a good life each month. The elite private school is the primary key that unlocks the door to a secure future for their children.

In the summer of 2015, many of these parents found the fee invoices from these elite private schools to be higher than usual. A perfect storm had come together. First, the security measures necessitated by a deadly terrorist attack inside a school in Peshawar had imposed a substantial cost on private schools around the country, and the summer fee revision in 2015 was the first time it was manifest on invoices. Second, an additional withholding tax was slapped on parents whose children were charged more than 10,000 rupees. Third, Imran Khan’s sit-in protest of 2014 had demonstrated to discontent, educated urbanites just how powerful the combination of social media, catchy slogans and a reasonably just cause could be. Parents in major cities began to mobilise through Facebook forums and WhatsApp groups, and within a few weeks of the first protest, both the executive and the judiciary had taken note of the ruckus.

Since then, newly empowered parents have taken on elite school owners with an unprecedented relentlessness. But neither the judicial interventions nor the executive actions that follow or complement them have solved the core problem. Pakistani parents are still not getting a decent education at the average Pakistani school. The few schools that do offer a marginally better quality of education have had their freedom to charge fees clipped by judicial and executive actions like the recent 20 per cent reduction ordered by the chief justice. Ultimately, the owners of these schools will do what any business does in response to regulation: they will adjust the product or service they provide to match the price they are allowed to charge.

Whilst lower fees at elite private schools will offer a temporary respite for parents who feel aggrieved by the constant escalation in the cost of raising capable, strong, confident children — it does not actually tackle the menace of a failed education system. Government schools are still largely black holes into which bright futures are sucked in, never to see daylight again. Private schools cannot, just by the metric of scale and scope, ever address the entirety of the country’s need for education. And the divide between the haves and the have-nots will continue to grow.

Like all complex problems that have taken decades to emerge, the challenge of providing a high-quality education to Pakistani children can only be solved through coherent, consistent and relentless attention from political decision makers such as the prime minister and chief ministers. Elite private schools should certainly not be able to gouge parents, but in the effort to restrain such negative instincts, Pakistan may risk destroying the one source of excellence – marginal as it may be – within the education sector.

One thing should be clear to all stakeholders: populist sloganeering does not solve complex public policy problems. And ultimately, though the parents of children at elite private schools may think they have exited the realm of public policy, they are still very much part of the wider ecosystem of failure. The only enduring solution lies in better learning outcomes for all Pakistani children, not just theirs.

This article was published in the Herald's January 2019 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.