State of college education

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

There has been one positive outcome of the so-called college denationalization debate that has raged ever since the Sindh government announced its decision to “transfer” the St Joseph’s and St Patrick’s colleges to their original owners. Public attention has been focused on the state of college education in the country.

Given the unrealistic nature of some of the claims and allegations made by the parties, which are resisting the transfer of these colleges, it is important to put the issue in correct perspective. The arguments advanced by the critics of denationalization are:

* The nationalized colleges are doing very well under the present management, since their students clinch the top positions in the exams. Hence the arrangement should not be disturbed

* If these colleges are handed back to the private sector, the “poor” of Karachi will be denied access to the two best colleges in the city

* Nationalization was the best solution to the challenge of providing college education to the masses

Even a cursory look at the college education sector should be sufficient to expose the fallacy of these arguments. It is the biggest disservice to the cause of education in Pakistan if we fail to explicitly recognize the falling academic standards in the country. The teachers, by and large, admit that. But they do not see themselves as the basic cause of this problem.

The fact is that when the colleges – 175 in all – were nationalized in September 1972 under MLR 118 the move gave the teachers a security of service unheard of before.

One of the aims of the nationalization policy was said to be to provide better service conditions to the teachers. Fair enough. We know how some unscrupulous private school and college owners exploited and maltreated their teaching staff. They were underpaid, forced to sign receipts for higher payments than they actually received and in some cases are known to have been publicly abused.

In this context, the aim of improving service conditions was a legitimate objective and it was achieved by nationalization. The teachers’ salaries went up and they gained state protection against exploitation and maltreatment.

But this security of service was used by a large number of teachers for personal advantage rather than to further the cause of education. It brought in its wake the curse of absenteeism, the tuition syndrome and trade unionism of the worst kind to put pressure on the government. To earn extra money, some teachers opened private tuition centres for the same students they were supposed to be teaching in colleges.

All this affected standards as the rate of expansion of the college network slowed down and overcrowding became the norm. The government, no doubt, reduced the fees to make college education affordable for all, but in the process failed to open as many new colleges as were needed because it didn’t have the resources for it.

Some of the statistics taken from government sources are very significant. College education in Pakistan took a downward turn after the colleges were nationalized. In the 10 years before nationalization (1963-1972), 144 new colleges were set up in the country. In the decade after nationalization (1972-1981) only 99 new colleges came up.

In the eighties and nineties, when permission was granted to set up private colleges, 186 and 228 new colleges were established in 1982-91 and 1990-99 respectively.

Making education low cost – but also of a low standard – did not boost enrolment in a massive way as is generally believed. In the 10 years before nationalization, enrolment in colleges had gone up by 58 per cent.

In the nationalization years, the increase slid down to 45 per cent while in 1982-1991 it suddenly jumped up to 128 per cent. In the decade of the nineties it slid to an all time low of 25 per cent and has been falling ever since.

The reason for this decline is mainly the fall in standards. As a result, the pressure has moved to the good private colleges in spite of the fact that they charge higher fees and admit a limited number of students on merit and according to their capacity.

The government colleges have failed to attract a growing number of students despite their being accessible and affordable. The moot question is: why has the government not tried to improve the standards of its own colleges and why has it not opened enough of its own colleges?

Take the case of Karachi. The nazim, Mr Naimutullah Khan, announced the other day that since he has been in office he has opened 30 colleges in the city – an average of 10 per annum.

That would appear to be an impressive performance especially when seen in the broader context of college education in the country. If you look at the ratio of the private and public sector colleges in the city, a significant picture emerges. Today there are 149 private colleges in Karachi as against 110 government colleges. (The figures were given by the Sindh Education Department).

The teachers should not believe that the St Joseph’s Government College is doing very well because its students are clinching top positions in the board and university examinations.

Under the centralized admission policy introduced in 1999, the zonal scheme and quota system in admission were abolished and the all-Karachi open merit system was introduced.

That automatically draws the best students of the city to St Joseph’s, which continues to live on its past glorious image. Hence the sizable number of position holders who are now sharing the honour with students from private colleges.

It is time the government worked out a rational policy vis-a-vis college education. While it is universally recognized that basic education is the fundamental right of a child and it is the responsibility of the state to provide it, it is unrealistic to expect universal college education as well, which should be the right of those who qualify for it.

The education sector needs to be reformed if it is not to be stratified with the children of the rich getting good education in private institutions and the children of the poor consigned to the public sector institutions which are in a state of decay.

But the solution does not lie in levelling the standards down. It would be more sensible to raise the standards of the government institutions (both schools and colleges) so that they can compete with the best private institutions as they used to do in the good old days.

Since the concept of public-private partnership has come to be accepted, the government cannot shirk its duties and put the load entirely on the private sector. By its very nature, the private sector will seek profits from its investment, unless of course it is a philanthropic trust or an NGO working on a no-profit-no-loss basis.

Hence in the interest of education, the government should hand back all the nationalized college buildings to their rightful owners who wish to take them back on the condition that they will set up a college there.

The existing colleges should be moved to new premises which are available. Thus the number of colleges will multiply. As for the private colleges which are coming up in substantial numbers, rules should be framed to protect the interests of the teachers and the students.

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