By Zubeida Mustafa
THE commodification of education is going full steam ahead. Not only is education being recognised as a good to be sold, its sales strategies are also being discussed. Any good sells better if it has a brand name that has a popular appeal, we are told. Forget what Naomi Klein writes in No Logo There.
Faisal Bari’s article in these pages ‘Expanding school systems’ (April 27, 2012) came as an eye-opener. In the article, the writer appears to have written off the public school system altogether. Undoubtedly it has reached the lowest ebb and can sink no further. But does that justify an approach that apparently consigns the common man to the bottom of the heap and absolves the government of all responsibility in the matter of educating Pakistani children, Article 25-A of the constitution notwithstanding?
As long as the for-profit educationists can make money, the article turns a blind eye to the government’s blatant neglect of education. This failure provides more space to the private schools by increasing the public demand for them in the absence of an alternative. Where are the children of the lower middle-class families and the poor to go when government schools are dysfunctional and private high-fee schools are unaffordable for them?
The writer identifies the major constraint faced by “private providers, even in this middle-fee range” on their ability to expand — their “lack of access to finance”. Hence the franchised schools are presented as a model to cater to what he bills as the “fastest-growing markets in the country, the lower middle- to middle-fee market”. The fees for this category range from Rs1,000 to Rs2,500 per month and according to him they will open new avenues for the education of the lower middle class.
Bari specifically recommends the Beaconhouse School System’s franchised schools called the Educators as a model for the expansion of education in the country. He confirms that in this niche in the school market the franchise operator uses the advantage offered by the economies of scale to keep advertising issues, curriculum development and teacher training under centralised control.
This approach has offered many positive gains to new entrants who are handicapped by their lack of experience and the absence of a reputation that is a crowd-puller. They receive a neat package with an established brand name. This allows them to rapidly enhance enrolment. By distributing financial investment among different investors the franchise operator can expand the school network quite fast.
On paper this sounds great. We need to look into what is actually happening on the ground. The network has expanded phenomenally since the first school was set up in 2002. Today there are 306 Educators all over the country imparting education to 104,000 children. However, their proclaimed aim of “providing quality, affordable English-medium education for all” may meet with scepticism.
For one, I would not buy the claim that education imparted through the English medium is necessarily ‘quality’ education. It can also be asked if the criterion of affordability is really being met. Schools that I visited mostly told me that the majority of their children came from families with incomes of Rs20-25,000. There is an ongoing argument over fees between the school managements and parents.
The fees are fixed by the franchise operator and they vary from area to area. For instance, the Clifton area charges about Rs2,500. Korangi is allowed Rs2,100 per child in the secondary school. This is tightly regulated and schools enjoy little autonomy though the franchise operators admit that they find it difficult to exercise controls on the academic operation. Yet they ensure that no liberties are taken in financial operations.
The initial franchise fee which was Rs1.5m has now jumped to Rs1.8m. The agreement is for 10 years. The Educators from the early years are required to pay Rs200 per child admitted per annum as admission fee to the franchise operator. Under the revised rates, the school pays Rs1,000 per child admitted which is said to include the charges for the Student Indemnity Plan.
(This is described as ensuring “the continuity of a student’s education in case of the demise of a working parent”).
However, the school which told me about this said its claim on behalf of one of its students was turned down on technical grounds. Apart from the admission fee, the operator recovers 7.5 per cent royalty per annum on the gross income (pre-tax) of the school. According to a former teacher with the Educators, the training provided to the teachers has to be paid for and mostly it is recovered from the teachers’ salaries.
After this there is not much to be said about who is gaining what, and who is losing what. A big question mark looms over the affordability of the schools for the low-income classes.
One can also ask, where will the children of the vast majority go? They are the children of the lesser gods who live under the poverty line — that is who earn two dollars or less per head per day (an average family income of Rs35,000 per month). The Education Emergency declared by the government in 2011 stated that 25 million children in Pakistan remain out of school.
What is to become of them?
The only feasible solution is that those who have already earned hefty amounts from their existing franchises should now start thinking about how to share their profits with the less privileged.