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Education and mobility

When I was in college, our undergraduate classes were allocated on the basis of student roll numbers. We were thus forced to interact with students who did not belong to sub-groups, like pupils from one’s own school. Thankfully, comfort zones were often breached.

That is how I found out that the student with the roll number just before mine was from a small central Punjab city where his father was a peon in a government department. The student whose roll number was just after mine was a scion of a leading land-holding Punjab family. Meanwhile, being a son of a government officer I represented the middle class of the late 1980s.

On the one hand, there was a student who did not even own a house in the small city he came from. His large household lived on cramped, rented premises. On the other, there was a student who owned the village he hailed from, some other villages in the vicinity, and had houses in Lahore and Islamabad. My father had a government-provided townhouse.

Our clothes, modes of transport, schooling, friends and peer groups clearly reflected the differences amongst us; yet, when we attended classes, we sat on the same benches, in the same class and had access to the same educational facilities.

This was possible because admission to this public-sector college had been on the basis of performance in high school examinations (matriculation/intermediate or equivalent) and the tuition fee, at least at the time, was only Rs200-300 per quarter. Tuition fee was not a barrier to access.

We graduated and entered different professions on the basis of the education that we received. Whatever the quality of education provided there, it did give us a chance to pursue our respective dreams and explore our potential. Is that not what, in part, the basic rights of citizens are all about? Are educational opportunities not a good way of creating social mobility based on, again in part, academic merit and performance?

In the 1990s and 2000s, following the popular and mainstream advice regarding growth and the role of government and/or markets, government spending priorities saw significant changes. The field of education has also gone through many changes.

Two changes that stand out are: the private sector has been encouraged to become a major player in the provision of education services; and a lot of public-sector institutions, especially at the higher education level, have been given autonomy. They have been allowed to raise revenues for themselves and make their own decisions on issues like tuition fees.

Many of the new private-sector higher education providers were granted university or degree-granting status by the provincial/federal authorities. They are providing educational services and seeking to make profits while there are some not-for-profit providers too.

Irrespective of whether profit is the motive or not, these institutions have to bear the market costs and have to recover the sum largely from student fees which is, consequently, high. They are higher than what most lower- and lower middle-income families can afford.

Concurrently, most provincial governments have chosen to give autonomy to a significant number of public-sector colleges and turned them into degree-granting institutions/universities. The autonomy came with the responsibility to raise additional revenue that, again, can only be done through higher student fees. My alma mater now charges approximately Rs120,000 a year in tuition fee.

Similar increases have been made by all the famous colleges/institutions of Lahore that were given autonomy. These institutions have argued that the raise in fees was important for improving the quality of education, though there seems to be little evidence of significant improvement so far.

It is not difficult to predict who would now not be able to attend these institutions: children from low-income families would find the new level of fees to be an insurmountable barrier to accessing education.

We used to hear many stories of children going from government schools to some of these colleges and then making their name in various professions, civil services or even the army. This route is no longer an option. Though there has not been any comprehensive study of how changes in the educational market/ environment have affected social mobility and equality issues, it would be worth exploring the issue.

A priori it would seem that the increasing income and wealth inequality in Pakistan is tied to changes that have happened in important social sectors of the country, and education would be among the most important.

One could argue that market-based fees are tied to quality and as such the lower-income groups should have access to educational providers who cater to their income level. There are definitely some providers whose fees are not as high as some of the top providers. But concerns remain.

Should education be market-driven to the point that we allow a quality continuum or is there a minimum level of quality that should be set or overseen by the state? The poor might not be able to afford even this minimum acceptable level of quality.

Don’t basic rights of livelihood, security and education have implications for the provision of quality education for those who cannot pay market prices for it? And, does a society have goals for social mobility, equality and community building? If even minimal commitment in the area is acknowledged, it will imply the need for significant investments in trying to open up access for lower-income groups.

Many providers argue that they do offer some financial assistance in their institutions. And some provinces have scholarship programmes. But clearly these are not enough as they do not cover even a small percentage of the poor student population of the country.

Where there is much debate on changes that are needed in Pakistan, through elections or revolutions, it might also be a good time to think about some of the socio-economic issues facing us: how do we see the community that we want to build and how do we ensure that our social policies create the right set of opportunities for all people across the country?

The writer is senior adviser, Pakistan, at Open Society Foundations, associate professor of economics, LUMS, and a visiting fellow at IDEAS, Lahore.

Faisal Bari, "Education and mobility," Dawn. 2013-02-01.