Society stratified.

UNESCO's Global Education Monitoring Report, launched recently, points to a basic flaw in the education systems of South Asia. It is the inequity that the fast-growing private sector in education has spawned. The GEM report does not say it in so many words but the fact is that inequity is stratifying society itself.

I can speak for Pakistan, where, on numerous occasions, some of us have pointed out that education is no longer the equaliser it was meant to be. It is dividing the country into two. The GEM report confirms this but only in passing.

The key question is: how has the private sector come to occupy such a big space in education? It is so predominantly entrenched now that it has become an existential threat to national integrity. The expanding presence of 'non-state actors' (the private sector) is the result of the government's neglect of its own responsibility in educating Pakistan's children, which has created a vacuum prompting private entrepreneurs to step in. Other factors have also been at work, such as the highly competitive job market and parental pressures. The expansion of non-state actors has enabled the latter to influence policymaking in education.

With more funds in hand, the private sector conventionally performs better than state-owned institutions that suffer from financial constraints and bureaucratic strictures. The state has been a part of this process. Thus, it has opened the door to the private sector while not pushing its own institutions to put their acts together. Today, nearly a third of school enrolment in Pakistan is said to be in private institutions. Some claim the share is larger.

Education is no longer the equaliser it was meant to be.

The forte of the non-state actors is their diversity and adaptability. That is how they cater to a variety of needs of a variety of clients from all classes - but for a fee. Those who can pay more get quality education and those who cannot afford a high-fee school must content themselves with low-quality education for a low fee. Such a school is still considered to be better than a state institution that doesn't function at all.

The schools catering to the privileged class that have the money naturally set the trend, as they are perceived to be the role models for success. The most exploited element is language. False propaganda has created the myth that English alone can bring economic prosperity, social status and wealth. Hence the chase for English-medium schools, as...

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