Blame game

Parents of students in private schools have taken to the streets, viewing recent fee hikes as excessive. Some private schools beg to differ. Bilal Anwar reports on the dispute

Blame game
As schools reopened all over Pakistan this September, the country saw what seemed to be an unprecedented development, as middle class parents took to the streets to protest what they saw as an unjustified increase in tuition fees. The protestors claimed that a fee hike in the middle of a price slump and declining inflation was completely unjustified and bordered on ‘extortion’. Their argument was further substantiated by the fact that over the past three years, multiple private school chains have increased tuition fees across all grades by 35-to-40 per cent. Parents argued that the private school owners were able to operate with complete impunity due to the lack of a functioning regulatory body. Needless to say, the protests attracted attention on a national scale and soon large protests were being organised by the newly formed Private Schools Parents Association in various cities across Pakistan. The recurring protests in Lahore captured the authorities’ attention somewhat rapidly: within a week, Punjab Education Minister Rana Mashood took notice, and on the 12th of September, a meeting took place with a group of parents and representatives of different private schools.
"The majority of private schools were willingly cooperating with the government"

In the aftermath of the protests and the meetings, the government passed amendments to The Punjab Private Educational Institutions (Promotion and Regulation) Ordinance 1984 on the 19th of September. These amendments introduced a mechanism to regulate fee increases and proposed the formation of regulatory bodies at the district level. Furthermore, it froze the fee increase for this academic year and ordered private schools to return the excess amount back to parents. This move led to the All Pakistan Private Schools’ Association protesting against the move and challenging the decision in the Lahore High Court. During the hearing on October 6, the Lahore High Court barred the District Administration from taking disciplinary action against private schools regarding fee increases. The petitioners argued that the amendments to the ordinance violated Article 25 of the Constitution.

Security was beefed up at schools across the country following the attack on APS in Peshawar on December 16 last year
Security was beefed up at schools across the country following the attack on APS in Peshawar on December 16 last year

An official at the Punjab Education Department stated that the intent behind the amendments was not to damage or restrict the emergence of the private sector, but to provide a framework for regulation, which was lacking in the initial ordinance. The private sector, according to the official, acts largely in a supporting role to the public education sector with around 11 million students being enrolled in public schools and up to 8 million students registered in private educational facilities. When asked why it took the government decades to come up with a regulatory framework, the official stated that the intent of the original ordinance was not regulation but registration. This was due to the fact that in the post nationalisation period, the official state policy was to promote denationalisation by encouraging the emergence of the private sector even at the expense of regulation. The pressures exerted by the massive population growth also played a role in the state’s promotion of the private sector as it expanded rapidly to meet the shortfall in the public sector. Furthermore, insufficient public support on the issue also allowed the government to adopt a more lax attitude towards the drafting and implementation of regulatory laws. The official further clarified that the Punjab Education Department was working on the issue prior to the emergence of the current crisis and the passing of the amendments. There was a law being proposed in the Punjab Assembly, but it was on the agenda while this situation developed, so the government took the crux of the changes and inculcated them into these amendments as an interim measure.

Expanding further on the matter, the official conceded that while the private sector mushroomed rapidly in the last two decades, public schools have also experienced increased enrolment. He claimed that infrastructural development and teacher recruitment-and-training programmes have seen phenomenal improvement resulting in an increase of one million more enrolled students in the public sector. The official once again reiterated the government’s support of the private sector by revisiting the fact that successive administrations have formed effective public-private partnerships to provide quality education to students, with this model enjoying increasing state patronage, especially after 2011. To substantiate this claim, the official stated that more than 1.9 million students were enrolled in over 6000 low-cost educational institutions managed by the private sector, where the state bears the tuition fees and other expenses. The effectiveness and the success of these projects has prompted the Punjab government to scale up this model with the target of having more than 3 million students enrolled under this model in a couple of years, especially at the primary level.

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With regards to the amendments to The Punjab Private Educational Institutions (Promotion and Regulation) Ordinance 1984, the official stated that district level committees would be formed, which will be responsible for the regulation of private schools within their demarcated regions. These committees will consist of state officials, including the DCO, EDO and DMO as well as representatives from private schools and parents. Their responsibilities will include inspection of private schools and their facilities. The committees will also be responsible for imposing fines on private schools, which violate regulations. However, the official stressed that this was only an interim measure until legislation could be passed allowing the creation of an autonomous private education commission. Finally, in response to a question regarding the cooperation of private schools, the official responded that the majority of private schools, which ranged from low- to mid-cost, were willingly cooperating with the government, allowing the government to gradually introduce regulations on the sector. However, stiff resistance came from high-cost, elite private schools. This, the official asserted, was due to the various business interests coming into play, hence proving that there is a need for regulations to reduce the element of exploitation within the private sector.

Kasim Kasuri, presenting a perspective from the private sector on the issue, stated that there was nothing unusual about the increase in fees this year, as it was in-line with the usual increases for the last three years, the increase in the case of Beaconhouse being 13 per cent. When asked about the reason behind this annual increase, Kasuri stated that most people don’t realise that private schools are very expensive to operate because the single biggest expense is staff. Hiring competent teachers requires a lot of money, especially since the competition amongst the private sector for good teachers is immense; this causes private schools to spend a huge chunk of their income on salaries. Not just the salaries of teachers but the entire staff from teachers to principals to activity coordinators. Beaconhouse spends 50 per cent of the total fee collected from students on paying the salaries of the staff. Furthermore, these teachers are entitled to annual salary increments ranging from 10-to-22 per cent based on their annual performance records. Kasuri also talked about how a lack of understanding of the mechanisms of the system is causing miscommunication. People don’t take into consideration that the fee of one grade will be higher than the fee of the previous grade, and that the fee increases 13 per cent with each batch, not with each successive grade.

Another big expense according to Kasuri is rent, since very few campuses are built on land owned by private schools themselves. The vast majority of private schools operate out of rented buildings. The typical lease agreements on these buildings range from three-to-six years, with an annual increase in rent of 10 per cent every year. According to Kasuri, when the lease is renewed, the landlord typically increases the rent by some 30-to-50 per cent, or at times even by 100 per cent. If the annual increase and the renegotiated increases are averaged, it comes to about 20 per cent annual increase in rent.
Kasuri alleged that there is a political motive behind the swift action taken by the government

The third biggest expense faced by private schools is security, Kasuri asserts. Various schools have hired expensive professionals with ex-military records due to the increasing insecurity in the country following the APS attack. Furthermore, upgrades were made to security apparatus and infrastructure such as raising boundary walls, razor wires, metal detectors and scanners. However, the total cost of upgrading these security features was not passed onto parents, Kasuri alleges. After the Peshawar school tragedy, the responsibility for security was placed solely and unfairly on private schools through a ruling of the Lahore High Court ordering that the cost of the increased security cannot be passed onto parents.

Furthermore, Kasuri claims that there is a capital cost to building and running such massive campuses. Beaconhouse, for instance, has built huge campuses across the country, acquired land at commercial rates and that this cost has to be in one way or another reflected in the fees, he believes.

When asked about the amendments to the ordinance, Kasuri alleged that there is a political motive behind the swift action taken by the government over the matter. According to him, while certain schools were alleged to have made fee increases far above the norm, the government realised the political potential in this. The NA-122 by-elections were coming up and 80-to-90 per cent of children living in the area attend private schools. This move by the government was a potential political coup that intended to appease the parents by rushing through problematic amendments, which resulted in the government’s victory by a very narrow margin. Furthermore, Kasuri asserts that the media exaggerated the issue by reporting fee increase percentages ranging from 40-to-90 per cent, and that no enterprise can survive with such dramatic fee increases overnight.

Finally when asked about the provision that allows the District Committee to review and approve legitimate fee expenses, Kasuri replied that the committee can approve fee increases up to 5 per cent and that this figure was largely a political gimmick that pretended to be based on the Consumer Price Index (which is 4 per cent), but is intended for household items. He claims that schools do not operate on the same premise. School expenses such as staff salaries, rent, security, etc. are not related to the CPI. Moreover, the amendments meant private schools will have to severely restrict all their increases in expenses and since they have little control over factors other than salaries, this means that the maximum increments in salaries for top teachers will be 7 per cent: a sharp decline from the usual 20 per cent.

It could well be that teachers and staff end up paying a significant price in this on-going clash.

Bilal Anwar is student of sociology based

in Lahore