DOES the private sector deliver higher-quality education at cheaper rates than the public sector? And if so, what implications does this have for public policy on education?
There is a narrative developing around the claim of private-sector efficiency and quality superiority and the idea that with the same amount of public money we are spending at the moment we can educate a lot more children.
Quality of schooling, especially in the public sector in general, is indeed poor. Learning outcomes, measured through various tests and examinations, all show that. This should be a focus of attention for education-sector reforms. But we should be very clear about what this implies and what it does not imply.
The problem of poor quality of education is not restricted to the public sector only. Most of the private schools, leaving aside the small percentage of high-fee private schools, are also imparting poor educational quality. Examination and test results do show, on average, children from private schools doing better than children from public schools, but we have to add a few caveats.
First, the results of low-fee private sector are also quite bad. So both systems are failing our children, though the public sector is doing it by a larger margin. Second, most of this data is about the primary years of schooling. There is evidence of much movement from private to public schools as children get to grade 8 or 9 and the debate on quality differentials thus becomes a lot more confused at higher levels. Third, the differences in outcomes are smaller if effects of other factors like parental income, social status and location etc are controlled for.
So, we need to improve the quality of education for both kinds of schools. Since we do not have a regulatory mechanism that allows us any effective control over private schools, we might have to impact them indirectly through changes in government schools. If government schools are providing the benchmark and minimum quality standards in education in the country and a low-fee private sector pitches itself a little above this benchmark, and if we start raising the quality standard in public schools, it might force the private sector to raise standards as well. It is, as of now, hard to see how we can directly impact quality issues in the private sector.
The issue of cost differentials and efficiency of the private sector as compared to the public, also needs to be unpacked. The public sector spends in the range of Rs1,500 to Rs2,000 per child per month. Most good-quality schools charge pupils a lot more than that. But there are many low-fee private schools that charge a lot less than what the public sector spends. Teacher salaries form a big expenditure head in any educational institution or system; the other main cost is infrastructure. On the one hand, the private sector bears the full cost of infrastructure provision whereas the public sector has the advantage of using state land for building schools. On the other hand, the private sector is paying very low, though market-based, salaries to teachers. Public-sector salaries are three to four times the salaries that low-fee private sector schools pay their teachers.
Interestingly, teachers are not even guaranteed the minimum wage, by law or by default, in Pakistan. Though the Punjab minimum wage law covers all teachers, the provincial government is not implementing the law. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s legislature has taken out private-school teachers from the ambit of minimum wage legislation. As a result, whereas the public sector, by and large, pays teachers more than the minimum wage, the low-fee private sector does not. Herein lies the large cost advantage that the private sector has. But should this be seen as ‘efficiency’?
Is it acceptable to pay teachers even less than unskilled workers? People join a profession on the basis of expected returns. If a teacher is paid Rs6,000 per month or so, how is he/she expected to live and raise a family. Who will join the teaching profession under such conditions? And if only those join the profession who cannot enter any other profession, how will we be able to raise the quality of education?
Currently we are in a position where low-fee private schools have access to a large pool of educated women who, due to social or other reasons, prefer to work as teachers only. Due to their limited options, they cannot demand high salaries from the schools. But do we want to build our education system on the exploitation of this anomalous fact?
The narrative gaining popularity in some circles is that due to the higher efficiency of the private sector, the state should either aim for similar ‘efficiency’ in their schools or consider handing over public schools to the private sector. If gaining efficiency means improving quality, cutting out wastage and eliminating corruption from the system, this is understandable and should be done. But if it means lowering salaries of the public-sector teachers or handing over schools to a private sector that does not even pay minimum wages to teachers, it should be thought through much more carefully.
There are about 21m children out of school still. Even with approximately 100,000 public schools and almost as many private schools in the country, we still have too few schools compared to the number we need to educate every child for 10 years. For example, Punjab has some 37,000 primary schools but only about 10,000 middle and 6,000 high schools. Even if we allow middle/high schools to be larger than primary schools, can all children who come to the 37,000 schools be accommodated in these smaller number of schools while allowing for increased home-school distances as numbers go down? Clearly, an efficiency drive will only take us that far: we will still need major injections of additional money in the public sector to educate all.
From the Dawn, Pakistan, published Friday 17th November, 2017.