The shutdown is in protest against a new provincial law capping fee hikes.
Privately owned schools in the Punjab will be closed, initially, on Tuesday and Wednesday in protest against a new provincial law that regulates fee hikes.
“We have decided to shut down our schools across the Punjab on March 8 and 9 to strongly register our protest against draconian new laws that seek to strangulate, not regulate, private schools,” said the All-Pakistan Private Schools Federation (APPSF) and the Pakistan Education Council (PEC) in a joint press release issued late Sunday.
Talks on Friday with Punjab’s education minister, Rana Mashhood Ahmad Khan, collapsed. School representatives are now expected to meet with Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif to resolve the controversy arising from the Punjab Private Educational Institutions (Promotion and Regulation) (Amendment) Bill 2015, which became law on Feb. 26.
The new law rolls back fee hikes for the current financial year and caps future increases to a maximum of 5 percent, subject to government approval. The law, which the Punjab Assembly passed unanimously, also limits the admission deposit at a maximum of the monthly tuition fee. Schools not complying with the law can be fined up to Rs. 2 million.
Failing resolution, the shutdown could likely extend to the whole ongoing school term. “This initial closure may soon lead to an indefinite shutdown of all private schools in the Punjab,” APPSF and PEC state in their press release.
There are an estimated 90,000 private schools in the Punjab, according to the two organizations, APPSF and PEC. Most of these schools—including branches of Beaconhouse, Kids Kampus, SICAS and the Salamat Schools System, Lahore College of Arts and Sciences (LACAS), Lahore Grammar School (LGS), Bloomfield, City School, and Learning Alliance—will be closed on Tuesday and Wednesday.
“We deeply regret the impact that this will have on the children we serve but have arrived at this difficult decision not out of choice but because our schools can no longer afford to sustain their operations,” say the schools, adding that the new law has left them with “no option but to start reducing overheads, which will inevitably impact our services and facilities.”
The joint statement adds that the new law means “most private schools have been unable to revise teachers’ and staff salaries in the 2015-16 school year, leading to unhappy and de-motivated teachers, a factor that in itself spells disaster for quality teaching.”
APPSF and PEC say private schools are the largest employers of women, some 63,000, in Pakistan’s private sector.
The schools also note that the government is obligated under the Constitution to provide free and compulsory education to school-age children. This has not happened. The Punjab government’s Danish School project fizzled, and it is planning to lease state-run schools to the private sector.
“We are in a situation today where the government is effectively nationalizing private schools and privatizing public schools,” the chief executive of one of Lahore’s oldest private school chains told Newsweek on condition of anonymity to preclude the possibility of being singled out by the government. “Private schools have stepped in where successive governments have failed. And what’s the response to that reality? Schools are now being ordered to sustain losses.”
APPSF and PEC call the law “ill considered” and a “kneejerk response to some complaints received against a small handful of private schools resulting in all 90,000 private schools across the province being tarred with the same brush.” It says the reasoned recommendations of a committee with representation from the government, private schools, and parents, were completely ignored by Punjab Assembly lawmakers.
The controversy arose last September when (mostly well-heeled) parents protested fee increases in Lahore, Karachi, and Islamabad. These increases were rolled back in the federal capital on the orders of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Private schools inarguably provide a public service but are businesses. The new regulation, say observers, may force some schools out of business and will discourage further investment in the education sector. “The mainstream narrative of ‘rich’ school owners ‘fleecing poor parents’ is a farcical falsehood,” says an educator working with a nongovernmental organization in Lahore. “Private schools are by definition accessible only to the middle and upper classes. We should resist indulging in false narratives and ensure that all schools survive.”
Survival is at stake here. “Given the real rate of inflation and the rising cost of providing extraordinary security measures, it is not possible for private schools to operate with such stifling constraints,” says the press statement from APPSF and PEC. “Private-school rentals typically increase by a minimum of 18 to 20 percent per annum … while salaries and other overheads increase by at least 15 percent a year … Today, private schools educate approximately 60 percent of the school-going [population] in the Punjab and shoulder a large part of the government’s legal, moral, and constitutional responsibility.”
Despite their expected talks with the chief minister, the schools are not optimistic. “In the present scenario, continued provision of quality education in the Punjab is no longer possible.”