Denationalization: why this delay?

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

While the Sindh education department has dragged its feet over issuing the notification of the cabinet decision to transfer the St Joseph’s and St Patrick’s colleges (SJC and SPC) to the Catholic Board, some quarters have continued to protest against the move.

Statements issued by the nazim of Karachi and the Sindh Professors and Lecturers Association (SPLA) have created much uncertainty. Why they are trying to stall the move is intriguing, especially when the arguments advanced by them do not carry weight.

To take up the government’s role in the matter first. It is either intimidated by those who oppose denationalization or vested interests in the education department are working against the policy of their seniors. The cabinet took the decision to hand back the colleges on July 28, 2004. But for over two months, the notification was not issued. Issuing a notification is normally a procedural act which is necessary to formalize the government’s decision and facilitate its implementation.

The notification was at long last handed over to the representatives of the Catholic Board in mid October. It was undated but stated that it would be effective from October 1. It is significant that all along the protests continued and now the demand is for the revocation of the notification.

Meanwhile, the committee which was set up to see to the practical side of the transfer is still not functional. But the Sindh education minister, Dr Hameeda Khuhro, has consistently declared that the government will proceed with the denationalization of the two colleges. The Catholic Board was required to hand over a list of its teaching staff to the education department.

If one were to study the arguments advanced, it is plain that those opposed to the transfer of the colleges to their former owners have been trying to fudge the issues to mobilize public support. Let us take up their arguments. The nazim, Naimatullah Khan, in his letter to Dr Hameeda Khuhro explicitly termed the nationalization policy of 1972 “a mistake”. But denationalization would be “a bigger mistake”, he categorically stated.

However, he has failed to explain convincingly why the colleges shouldn’t be returned to their owners. The nazim has also objected on technical grounds saying that after the devolution of the education department to the CDGK, he should have been taken into confidence and consulted before the change in status of the two colleges was effected.

He added that denationalization would bring “miseries” to the students, the teachers and the non-teaching staff. He doesn’t explain how. But the stand taken by the SPLA is that the privatization of colleges would make college education beyond the reach of middle class families. It has also challenged the government’s authority to transfer the teachers who are government servants to the private sector as was agreed upon initially between the government and the Catholic Board.

To win a wider audience and enlist its sympathy, critics of the denationalization move have given it an ideological hue. If education has to be universalized then it must be nationalized too, so goes the argument. This is the mantra which is blindly repeated on every occasion. No attempt is made to analyse the damage caused to the education system in Pakistan by the nationalization policy of September 1972 and the factors responsible for it.

Theoretically speaking, nationalization may have appeared to be a sound strategy to tackle the problems which plagued the education sector in the early seventies. But nationalization didn’t produce the desired results and the nazim of Karachi has admitted that. It is now argued that when the SJC and SPC are privatized they would become inaccessible to the poorer sections of society by virtue of the “exorbitant” fees they would charge.

The fallacies in these arguments have been pointed out several times by those who know the inwardness of the situation. Yet the SPLA and their cohorts have resorted to distorting facts to give some strength to their weak claims. Hence it would be worth reiterating the basic facts to help clarify the situation. It is also important that the education department, which begins to waver on the issue every time the teachers’ agitation becomes loud, should place the denationalization issue in its correct perspective.

The first thing to be made clear is that school education is the fundamental right of every citizen in Pakistan and it is the state’s duty to ensure that every child born in this country is provided primary and, if possible, secondary education of a reasonable standard free of cost or at affordable cost. The government has failed miserably in this respect as the state of the public sector schools testify to.

Their deteriorating standards and the resultant falling enrolment have provided the leeway to the madressahs which breed religious extremism and the private schools many of which have become avenues for rampant commercialization. The solution to this problem lies in uplifting the public sector schools to such an extent that they become competitive and attract children who seek good education.

The votaries of nationalization, who cry themselves hoarse every time a college is handed over to the private sector, misrepresent the state’s duty vis-a-vis education. It is the natural process of the survival of the fittest that only the better students who pass out of school gain admission to college, the professional colleges and the universities. At this level a mix of private and public sector institutions would enable the government to improve its own colleges. At the same time, a system of scholarships and freeships and students loans could be instituted to help the indigent who excel in their studies finance their higher education if needed.

Even today, the need is more to upgrade the existing colleges rather than expand them indiscriminately. The teachers can play a significant role in this process by attending to their students, giving them the best education possible and re-establishing the rapport between the students and their teachers as they did in the years of yore. It is a falsification of the truth to say that the denationalization of SJC and SPC will deprive the students of modest income families of college education. As far as colleges and higher secondary schools in the public sector go, their capacity is enough to meet the present requirement.

This year 83,000 candidates had applied for admission to the First Year in government managed institutions under the centralized admission policy. All were admitted except the E-graders. After the admission process was over the nazim announced a list of 19 colleges and 35 higher secondary schools where seats were still available.

It is again a myth to say that only the SJC and SPC offer good education. True, the staff of these institutions when they were nationalized had the traditions of professionalism and a commitment to knowledge and ethical values to draw upon. In fact, in the case of the St Joseph’s Sister Mary Emily who was the principal in 1972 was appointed the head and continued for another 10 years when she retired after getting one extension. It goes to the credit of her successors if the college continues to be the best in Karachi in terms of academic standards as is claimed by the SPLA and the city nazim.

Anticipating the legal implications of the move, the education department gave the teachers of SJC and SPC the option to stay in the colleges after they are privatized or accept a transfer to another college. The entire teaching staff has asked for a transfer to another government college. Hence why should they worry about the security of their service. In fact they can prove their mettle by transforming the colleges they are transferred to into model institutions as they claim they had done to the SJC.

The SPLA, which has been agitating on several fronts, has said that there are 500 teaching posts in Karachi that have not been filled and there are college buildings lying vacant because there is no staff to operate them. Hence transferring the teachers and allowing the SJC and SPC to recruit their own staff would solve many problems.

It has now been reported that the teachers’ refusal to work under a private management will cost the government Rs 30 million per year and amounts to a change in the terms of nationalization as decided in the cabinet. This is a strange argument. After all the government was paying these teachers their salaries, whatever the sum came to. It can continue paying them as before and use their services to make many colleges operational.

The ones who should normally have been worried are the students who want to continue their studies in these colleges. They have been assured that they will not be disturbed and they will be charged fees at the old rates for this academic year. Further negotiations will be held between the minister of education and the Catholic Board to ensure maximum concessions for the students. Then why this delay?