The private sector in higher education

By Zubeida Mustafa

61-14-01-1992aTen years ago there was not a single private university in Pakistan. Today there are three. The policy of inducting the private sector in education in a big way has begun to produce a visible impact.

The Aga Khan University in Karachi which was chartered in 1983 and the Lahore University of Management Sciences (founded two years later) today enjoy a prestige in the field of higher education in Pakistan that no other institution in the country has ever known.

The Hamdard University which received its charter in 1990 still has some time to go before it becomes functional. In characteristic Pakistani style, the university failed to respond to some basic queries to which the other private universities were prompt in providing information. 61-14-01-1992b-1

In terms of academic facilities, instruction methods and the quality of the teaching staff, AKU and LUMS can easily compete with some of the best universities abroad.

Take the case of the teacher-pupil ratio which is taken to be a key yardstick of academic excellence in an educational institution. The Aga Khan University has one teacher for every three students. At LUMS there are ten students to one teacher. This is a different world from the government-managed institutions of higher learning in the country some of which have a teacher-student ratio of 1:46.

Even the courses in the private universities are tailored to meet the demands of professionalism and modern-day education. For instance, the Aga Khan University devotes nearly 20 per cent of its five year undergraduate course to community health sciences. This has a direct bearing on the practice of medicine in any Third World country.

A study conducted by Akbar Zaidi found that only three per cent of the teaching hours are devoted to the study of community medicine in the medical colleges affiliated with the other Pakistani universities.

In such a situation private universities should, theoretically speaking, provide the ideal solution to the problem that plagues the higher education sector in the country. But in actual fact this is not the case. Private universities have a very limited role to play in an underdeveloped country.

Given the cost-benefit ratio of private university education and the fee structure of such institutions, they are simply not financially viable, economically feasible and socially sustainable on a large-scale in a society such as ours.

The fees are so phenomenally high that only a miniscule minority can even aspire to enter the portals of these institutions. At the Aga Khan University a medical student is required to pay Rs 43,000 per year whereas LUMS’ charges are even more fabulous: Rs 102,000 per anum.

This places these institutions beyond the reach of the majority, in spite of the financial assistance provided by them to nearly half the students on their rolls. The financial aspect of private universities has another dimension apart from their af61-14-01-1992cfordability.

Since their cost structures are in part international — the staff is drawn from the world market to achieve academic quality — the private universities have to look for other sources of funds.

Their high fees notwithstanding, these institutions fail to recover fully their running cost from the students. The AKU collects only Rs 25 million every year from tuition fees when its annual budget is to the tune of Rs 175 million.

LUMS refused to disclose its budget but a World Bank study had stated some time ago that its fees meet only 60 per cent of its operating costs. The rest comes from endowment grants, loans and scholarship funds.

As for the capital costs, they cannot be recovered from the tuition fees.

The other key aspect is that the graduates from such universities would expect to take up high-paid jobs with remunerations that are commensurate with the capital investment they have made in their higher education.

Since it is too early for long-term follow- up studies to have been undertaken, the employment profiles of many of the graduates of these universities are not fully known. It would not be surprising that eventually many of the doctors passing from the AKU leave the country for greener pastures abroad. Already more than a third of them are studying abroad.

LUMS claims that most of its 1991 graduates joined local organisations or multinationals based in Pakistan. The average monthly salary offered was Rs 10,500.

In any underdeveloped economy such as Pakistan’s, private universities would lose their relevance very soon because of the cost factor. The saturation point in such high-paid jobs would be reached very soon.

The private universities have in effect created a parallel system of education. They offer better quality education for a higher price. They should not be grudged their elitism. It cannot be denied that the existence of an exclusive, good quality and expensive system financed by private entreprenuers along with a populist, low-cost but inefficient government managed system is a fact of life in Pakistan’s health and education sectors.

But this very exclusivism of the private universities does not make them the feasible answer to the problems of higher education in Pakistan.

The thrust will have to be towards expanding and upgrading the universities in the public sector. This calls for greater government investment in the fund-starved institutions of higher learning so that they emerge as centres of excellence in their own right.

At present the universities in the public sector are receiving per capita budgetary allocations that are barely one fifth of what the private universities spend.

If the resources available to the universities are increased — fees have been raised but the UGC’s grants have been slashed — their academic standards can be improved. An expansion of the staff strength by recruiting more and better qualified teachers and the upgrading of the laboratory, library and research facilities can work wonders.

Source: Dawn 14-01-1992