Education Foundations off to a poor start

By Zubeida Mustafa

IT WAS in his budget speech in May 1991 that the Federal Finance Minister first broached the idea of setting up education foundations to “expand the opportunity for private investment in education”. At that time the proposal had proved to be highly controversial, mainly in conceptual terms. Many found it unacceptable that public funds be channelled into private hands for educating children, presumably for a fee.74-12-06-1993

Two years later, when the veritable thrust in the government’s policy towards the privatisation of the national economy and the social sectors has been unequivocally established, it is plain that the education foundation scheme is here to stay. It still has a number of detractors, though. But this time the criticism is not so much on ideological grounds, with the exception of the voices raised from some diehards on the Left. It is the government’s handling of its own brainchild that is the cause of serious concern.

It was initially planned that a National Education Foundation would be set up to provide matching grants to the provincial education foundations which in turn would provide matching grants to NGOs or individuals interested in setting up educational institutions. How has this scheme fared in its implementation?

So far, Punjab is the only province which has managed to get its Foundation on its feet. It was set up the same year as it was announced. Sindh’s Education Foundation was set up in October 1992 but it has still to become operational, the appointment of a managing director notwithstanding. It has no office staff and no funds for running expenses or the salary of the MD. NWFP’s Foundation has just been launched and the first meeting of the managing committee has been scheduled for June 12. Balochistan has still not been able to get its Foundation off the ground.

The sluggishness with which the education foundations are being instituted confirms the apathy and indifference of the government towards education. Having failed to raise the literacy level and expand the education base in the country in the past’ several decades, the Establishment is now trying to abdicate its fundamental responsibility of human resource development. The private sector is being asked to do this job. The rationale being given is that private entrepreneurs will bring efficiency and motivation to this sector rather than the “lifeless” government institutions (this term was used by the Federal Finance Minister, Sartaj Aziz). Hence the move to provide financial incentives to the private educationists.

Apathy

What is alarming, however, is the government’s failure to allocate sufficient resources for the education foundations. Then there is also the danger of quite a bit of whatever little that has been provided being lost through leakage.

The amount given to the various education foundations is a sorry reflection on the government’s commitment to education. Punjab, which was the first to pick up the gauntlet, has so far allocated Rs 950 million to its foundation. NWFP has provided Rs 150 million, with Rs 50 million coming from USAID. The Sindh Education Foundation’s share is a paltry Rs 2.5 million which has still to be made available for spending. How much can education benefit from such niggardly amounts?

That is, of course, assuming that the money which the Foundations dole out are actually put to good and honest use. Given the many claimants who will be clamouring for grants ostensibly to set up educational institutions, the working of these bodies will depend on the composition of their managing boards and the integrity of the managing directors. As can be expected, efforts are on to use the appointments which will be made by the provincial governments as a means of political reward for loyalists. The temptation will be enormous for the government to extract maximum leverage from those who are made members of the Board. They in turn will find this a new avenue for illegal gratification.

Since the Punjab Foundation is the only one that has been functioning for two years and has given out loans, its working should shed much light on how this scheme can be abused. The managing committee comprises 30 or so members who include MNAs, MPAs and Deputy Commissioners. Given the composition of this body and the inclusion in it of non-professionals, it is understandable that considerations other than the proclaimed criteria and the education needs of the people have come to determine the Foundation’s loan and grant policies.

In the Punjab, according to a World Bank report, 115 new and existing schools had been provided Rs 97.7 million in the first six months of the Education Foundation’s existence. Only 32 of these were female education projects, notwithstanding the fact that women’s education was identified specifically as the priority area. Similarly, the proclaimed guideline of preference being given to the rural areas was ignored and more than two-thirds of the institutions which received assistance were found to be located in the towns and cities.

Given the widespread prevalence of corruption and the tendency to misappropriate funds, the possibility of the so-called prestigious institutions catering to the higher income groups becoming the beneficiaries of the Foundation cannot be ruled out. Indeed, the World Bank found that a “posh school” in Lahore had received Rs three million as grant and loan for the construction of its building and purchase of equipment.

So far the achievements or nonachievements of the education foundations are not too inspiring. It is also difficult to feel optimistic about the success of the scheme. If the education foundations have their priorities correct — one would not quarrel with the Sindh Education Foundation for targeting female education, teacher training projects, rural areas and community schools — they can create a dent where -the government has failed. But the hazard is that the foundations will become another government agency for handing out official funds to friends and supporters and not genuine educationists.

Source: Dawn 12 June 1993