The question of nationalisation

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

PRIME Minister Gilani stirred a hornet’s nest when he termed Z.A. Bhutto’s 1972 policy of nationalisation of schools and colleges as a mistake.

Most people, especially those who have watched the slide in education over the years with dismay, have joined forces with the prime minister on this issue. Others have defended the PPP’s founder on grounds of principles. In the debate that has ensued, the polarisation between the two sides is sharp.

It has also clearly emerged that there is very little understanding of the conditions in which the nationalisation policy was pursued in the education sector and the reasons for the poor results we see today.

In today’s age when the marketplace reigns supreme no compunction is felt when the poor are left to their own devices by limiting the role of the state in the social sectors. It is a pity that none of those who have argued for or against the statement made by Mr Gilani has deemed it necessary to place the issue in its historical and ideological context to understand why such an extreme move was contemplated and why it failed. When it is dubbed a ‘mistake’, the yardstick presumably used is the appalling state of public-sector education in the country today.

But this gives the impression that it was all hunky dory in the education system in Pakistan in the pre-nationalisation era. The fact is that the system was flawed even then; the only difference was that the flaws were of another kind. A solution was needed but to be effective it had to be more focused than the nationalisation policy.

Before 1972, the public sector in education — at least at the school level — was larger than the private sector. There was no private university at the time. The performance of government schools was considered to be satisfactory enough if not ideal. Their examination results were relatively better. The key problem of the education sector was that of accessibility. Expansion of the government school network was not taking place fast enough to reach all sections of society and not keeping pace with the rapidly growing population. The private sector could not step in to meet the shortfall.

Another problem was that private institutions, with a few exceptions, were mismanaged. The teachers were treated with contempt and corruption was rife. A report by a committee set up in 1969 by the commissioner, Karachi division, to probe “into the affairs of the private colleges in Karachi with particular reference to irregularities and malpractices prevailing in those institutions” was quite an eye-opener.

Some findings are worth quoting: “Salaries are not disbursed regularly … [the teachers] were not paid their salaries for several months…. The teachers were forced to sign on higher amounts of salaries than actual payment.” Maltreatment and abuse of teachers was commonly reported and this included “the slapping of teachers by the proprietor”. In one case a part-time teacher served as the principal of a college and the hiring of under-qualified teachers was quite common.

Some of these irregularities were confirmed by the Hamoodur Rehman Commission set up by the Ayub regime to investigate the causes of unrest in universities. Anita Ghulam Ali, who was then the president of the West Pakistan College Teachers Association, recalls that her association had sent a charter of demands to the PPP leader in April 1970. Among other things it suggested that the government pay the salaries of the teachers of private colleges while setting up a body to regulate the working of these institutions.

Nationalisation did not rectify the weaknesses in the system existing at the time though not because the government could not cope with the financial responsibility it entailed, as is generally suggested. It was more a case of bad management that characterised the working of many private institutions as well.

All senior, experienced and meritorious teachers above the retirement age were sent home and the positions vacated were stuffed with loyalists of the ruling party. Time and again it has been proved that loyalty is no substitute for merit.

Intrinsically, the nationalisation of schools cannot be faulted. It was its flawed implementation that doomed it from the start. It was not that the government could not bear the enhanced expenses incurred on education. Previously the government had been subsidising the private sector considerably to make education affordable for all. It was another matter that much of this subsidy went into the owners’ pockets. After nationalisation the subsidies were discontinued and have never been revived.

The need of the hour was, and still is, the regulation of the private sector and the expansion of the public sector concurrently under an efficient management system. That is why the denationalisation policy introduced in the Zia era and the boost to the private sector thereafter failed to improve education in Pakistan. Even today when the private sector is having a field day and private institutions account for nearly a third of school enrolments, matters have not improved. If anything education is in a mess.

The simple reason is that the private sector cannot provide education at affordable rates. It has to earn a profit on its investment. Neither can it make education universal at the school level. It will not open a school in a remote low-income area — be it rural or urban. Only the government has the resources and political compulsion to do that.

The problem with the nationalisation policy was that it was implemented in a ham-handed manner and not professionally. The sooner Mr Gilani understands that the better will it be for education in Pakistan. The upscale private institutions that are providing excellent education to the elite are no solution. The bulk of the children who need education are not from the elite class.

Yet the government wants to shed its responsibility of educating the youth of Pakistan by entering into partnerships with private entrepreneurs. The world over education is preponderantly in the public sector and does pretty well in providing this service to the people. By criticising Bhutto’s nationalisation policy Mr Gilani appears to be looking for a pretext to renounce his government’s role in the education sector.