Education elitism: the great divide between public, private universities


MUCH has been said rhetorically about the importance and necessity of education. A lot of effort has also been put into making plans and feasibilities to make this ‘luxury of sorts’ available to the masses. But little attention, if at all, has been paid to keep a check on the drastic diversity of education quality that reaches the few who are lucky enough to acquire it.

In Pakistan there are quite a few parallel educational systems and students often find themselves in a bit of a mess while mulling study options. But the situation gets even messier when it comes to pursuing higher studies.

There is a market for higher studies, selling different products and the deal-makers are quick to spot the scope for a new product or make real-time adjustments to those already on sale in order to make good bucks at the end of the day (read: semester).

And now that we have used the otherwise business-oriented term ‘market’ for institutions offering higher studies, it won’t hurt to say that the ‘product’ is made available at various price packages.

It’s generally based on the purchasing power of the target audience, or the amount of money people are willing to pay for no matter what the quality of product they get in return — as long as it lands them with good career options. This unchecked rise in ‘product cost’ has given birth to a new sense of elitism among institutions and subsequently the students taking admissions there.

Education elitism is creeping not only in society but also in the job market — and that is where it hurts the most.

The divide between a public-sector and a private-sector university is getting bigger and wider by the day, with no hope of it ever coming back on level terms — and it is affecting students the most.

There are those taking unfounded pride for just landing an admission at a high-end university, and there are those who start grumbling about the apathy of the state the moment they take admission in a public-sector university.

Exceptions apart, one needs a deep pocket to get on board the private-sector entities, while at the other end one needs to qualify on the basis of how good one was at rote-learning at the previous exam tier.

The closing merit for Arts subjects, which were once considered a secondary option by those who couldn’t get admission in engineering or medical fields, have now reached near the 80 per cent marks in public-sector universities — with International Relations and Mass Communication disciplines leading the show.

Public universities are offering these courses with arguably the best available professors at definitely the most reasonable prices; less than Rs10,000 per semester. But at private universities, with teachers having half the experience, if not less, the same courses are offered at prices ranging Rs50,000 to Rs100,000 per semester. And even the students who graduate from these universities are not satisfied with what they get there.

Ms Jehangir, who recently graduated from a seriously expensive institute in Karachi’s Korangi area, said she wasn’t satisfied with the quality of education provided under such a heavy price tag. She had paid around Rs70,000 per semester for a degree in Social Sciences. “Having paid such a heavy fee I thought it would have been better to study abroad. I mean, there wasn’t much difference in fee,” she said with sarcasm oozing out of her every word and syllable.

Not much different is the case with Fine Arts courses. Public universities offer them for a sum of Rs15,000 to Rs20,000 per semester. But in the private sector, the price rockets up to Rs90,000 per semester.

Madiha Khalil, who holds a bachelors degree in fine arts, graduated from the Visual Studies Department of Karachi University. She was of the opinion that there is not much difference in the quality of education at private or public universities. “Just that the former are more organised than the latter. But since the fee is less at a state university, why not study there?”

What compulsions – other than profits of course – force the private universities to charge such astounding sums is beyond comprehension. There is no proper authority to keep a check on the fee structure at private universities, and if there is any on paper, then it is yet to make its existence count.

The woes remain similar for most of the students pursuing different fields at various universities.

Arfa Badar, studying software engineering at a private entity in Gulshan-e-Iqbal, pays Rs60,000 fee per semester. While it is mandatory to wear uniform in that university in the name of ensuring there was no class discrimination on campus, “all this equality talk is limited to the uniform; not to other expenses,” she said.

Javeria Tahir, pursuing the same degree at the Federal Urdu University of Arts, Science and Technology, pays Rs8,000 in fees and is quite content with what she is getting in return.

Aiman Ali is studying Media Studies at Karachi University, paying Rs6,000 per semester, while her friend, who could not get admission at the same department, is paying Rs85,000 per semester for the same course at a private university in Clifton.

Everyone studying at public universities may not be happy with the quality of education, but they do realise that the critical cost-benefit ratio is heavily in their favour. The private universities justify their fee structures against the facilities they provide on the campus and it is a fair argument in most cases.

The lack of facilities and exposure at public universities makes the case easier for private universities, because at times they become the only option for someone who is interested in quality environment.

Farah Batool, who did her MBA from a private university, sounded quite content with the fee she had to pay for the degree. “Considering what other universities are charging for the same degree and quality of education, I would say I am satisfied.”

This seems to be a never-ending debate till there are tangible tools to gauge the actual ‘quality of education’ that is being offered and what impact it actually makes on the students’ ability to perform once they have the degree in hand.

Right now, the public-private divide is damaging the education setup in one way or the other for sure. The most harmful is the education elitism that is creeping not only in society but also in the job market — and that’s where it hurts the most.

In the recent past, many organisations have ‘limited’ themselves to hiring aspirants from certain private universities, looking down upon students of public universities. This is making the situation worse for the students of public universities; as if they hadn’t had enough already!


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