As part of its efforts to portray itself in a positive light, the PML-N government at the federal level, and in Punjab, has been engaged in a campaign to highlight the importance it places on education . As such, much has been made of relatively large amounts of funding that have been allocated to the Higher Education Commission, and the government has also been quick to stress its commitment to providing an increasingly large share of the budget to education over the next few years.
At one level, the government’s emphasis on education makes complete sense; there are obvious benefits that could accrue to society from investing more in education , and it is seen by many as being a panacea for all of Pakistan’s problems. It is assumed that education holds the key to developing Pakistan’s economy, lifting people out of poverty, and producing more informed citizens and voters. While all of this may be true, the almost single-minded focus on education in the popular discourse is one that often overlooks the fact that there are many other structural constraints that impede the realization of the goals listed above. Indeed, it could also be argued that absent attempts to address the broader context of inequality and political marginalization that characterizes Pakistan , increased spending on education will yield far fewer benefits than might otherwise be expected.
The problem begins with the reality of the state’s approach to education . Historically, governments in Pakistan have done little more than engage in tokenistic and symbolic attempts to reform the education sector, trumpeting their dubious ‘achievements’ while persistently presiding over abysmally low levels of spending on reforming and improving the country’s schools, colleges, and universities. Pakistan lags behind its South Asian neighbours when it comes to spending on education as a percentage of GDP, and this is a situation that is likely to continue amidst the lack of any clear governmental desire to change the status quo. The situation is compounded by several other factors; given the country’s disproportionate and arguably unnecessary expenditure on defence, there is less money available to be spent on social development and areas like education and healthcare. This has been exacerbated by Pakistan’s escalating levels of debt, with an ever greater share of the budget being set aside for debt-servicing. Furthermore, in addition to the way in which these two ‘essential’ areas of expenditure divert funds away from social development, the adherence of successive governments to the dictates of the IMF has meant an acceptance of the need to reduce the role played by the state in the Pakistani economy. Given the state’s proven inability to raise revenues through taxation, attempts to reduce the deficit focus almost entirely on reducing government spending. In a context where defence and debt-servicing are sacrosanct, austerity always falls on the public sector, subject to wholesale privatization since the late 1980s, and further reductions in government spending on healthcare, sanitation, education , and other social services.
All of this assumes, however, that if the government were to throw more money at education with the aim of addressing the capacity and infrastructural constrains faced by the sector, many of the problems plaguing the sector would be solved. Again, the reality is a bit more complicated. It is clear that the current state of affairs in Pakistan is one in which the bureaucracy, from the federal to the local level, is marred by inefficiency and large amounts of corruption and rent-seeking, all of which is made worse by the role of politicians making use of the funds at their disposal to improve their own position and engage in patronage-based politics. As a result of this, it is reasonable to assume that while increased spending on education might yield some positive outcomes, a lack of bureaucratic and political reform will ensure that much of the additional funds provided to schools and colleges will be subject to the same kinds of misappropriation and graft that has existed in the past.
At present, Pakistan has an education system that differentiates between people on the basis of wealth and class. The elite send their children to top private schools in Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad, the middle classes attempt to do the same, and the poor are relegated to the position of relying on a public education system that suffers tremendously from constraints in terms of resources, both material and human. For the poor, the opportunity cost of sending children to school can also be very high. As the cost of living continues to increase in Pakistan , forcing more and more families to make difficult choices when it comes to ensuring their continued survival, it is usually not possible to ensure that their children are able to continue their schooling, especially when their labour could be used to supplement a meagre household income. As the rich continue to perpetuate their privilege by ensuring their children are able to benefit from the best educational facilities available, the poor are rendered structurally incapable of using education as a means through which to lift themselves out of poverty. Indeed, as statistics from rural Pakistan clearly show, there is a clear correlation between land ownership and educational attainment; the more land you own, the more likely it is that you will send your children to school and educate them to as great an extent as possible. While it is obviously important for there to be quality schools that people can send their children to, it is also clear that wealth plays a huge role in determining a child’s educational prospects.
Finally, it is also important to pay attention to the broader ideological context of education in Pakistan . From primary school onwards, students in Pakistan are fed a diet of dogma and nationalist rhetoric while simultaneously being encouraged to engage in rote learning at the expense of critical thinking. The state curriculum in Pakistan is one that continues to foster values that militate against a spirit of inquiry and tolerance, focusing on the propagation of values that continue to provide legitimacy to the worst aspects of the popular discourse in Pakistan; a chauvinistic nationalism rooted in a parochial view of Islam, a lack of respect for ethnic and religious minorities, and a deep and abiding skepticism of science and philosophies that undermine the legitimating tropes of the political and military establishment. Even if the government were to spend more money on education in Pakistan , it is worth asking if this would be a good thing in the absence of curriculum reform aimed at reversing the ideological damage that has been done over the past thirty years.
The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.
The Annual State of Education Report, 2013 released in January 2014 offers a grim picture of school education in Pakistan, but is only the proverbial tip of the iceberg. It shows there has been little change in Pakistan's schools since 2010, when the 18th Amendment enshrined education as a fundamental human right in the Constitution. Problems of access, quality, infrastructure and inequality of opportunity, remain endemic. These problems deserve the most urgent attention, but a holistic approach is required to see the overall problem for what it is.
The spectrum of Pakistan's education problems is much wider and deeper than just schooling. It affects all sectors of the education system, ranging from primary and secondary schooling to higher education and vocational training. Higher education remains ineffective in imparting appropriate skills to the large majority of Pakistani graduates who emerge from universities. As a result, most are unable to become productive contributors either in Pakistan, or on the global stage. Vocational education is neglected and its quality remains uneven. Over 75 percent of graduates have some foundational skills, but no marketable skills for employment. Higher and vocational education are primary departure points for Pakistani youth into Pakistan's economy and society. Under-preparation at these levels severely limits national development.
Pakistan does not have the luxury of waiting to reform the education system, nor can it afford to prioritize certain sectors over others. The need of the day is a balance between resource allocation between sectors and tailoring reform plans to each sector's needs and constraints. For example, prioritizing primary education over the large number of young people in need of vocational training may put currently achievable goals out of reach in five years.
The creation of a priori blueprint for reforming the entire education system would be a complex and demanding task that can only be led by major stakeholders, including the government, political leaders and civil society. Stakeholder buy-in is crucial, because the process will require making serious choices about the level of resources to commit to each sector, and choosing what to reform and how. Nonetheless, the following guiding principles can be considered a good starting point.
First, any reform must be systemic, focusing on a defined set of areas for each sector and addressing them simultaneously. Focus areas may include governance, fiscal resources, human resources, curriculum and infrastructure. These areas are crucially interlinked and omitting one is likely to hamper meaningful and sustainable long-term change.
Second, institutions' standards of excellence must be tailored to purpose. A system is ‘excellent’ if it has a variety of t-for-purpose institutions delivering what they are designed for, within their resource constraints. Aiming for system excellence must not impose uniform performance standards on all institutions.
Third, implementation resources must be carefully nurtured and protected. Implementation eventually comes down to people who possess the motivation, skill, experience and resolve to build and maintain reform efforts - promising reforms often fail when one or two key people exit. Therefore, it is important to recognize the dangers of replacing teams before the ground gained in reform has been secured. This is particularly important because of the difficulty in replacing talent in Pakistan and the high learning costs for new participants.
Moving from principles to actual reform blueprints requires serious, system-level reform rather than piecemeal initiatives. This is particularly difficult as the current government has taken notice of highly emotive and visible problems such as the economy, energy and security. Problems falling within these themes—inflation, slow economic growth, energy riots, sectarian violence— are daily news, and the political capital gained from addressing them is far greater than the longer-term payoff from investing in education.
A second challenge to initiating reform will be the institutional impasse created by the 18th Amendment. It has left the government uncertain about responsibility, authority and accountability. Resolving this uncertainty is crucial because actors will be reluctant to relinquish political capital as long as it is unclear who can take credit for reform achievements. In the current inertia, it will be very challenging to mobilize communities around an agenda.
The biggest challenge of education reform in Pakistan will be implementation. The problem is not just deciding what needs to be done, but in resolving the Gordian knot of who will do it. Most observers will probably agree that the problem in past education reforms was implementation. Even with sincere government intent, the lack of implementation capacity will be a major challenge.
Evidence from other countries has shown that decentralization to local levels and involving communities through civil society can help push systematic reform and mitigate the implementation challenge–education outcomes can improve when parents participate actively in their children's education. Mechanisms to increase clients' power by increasing transparency allows civil society to organize and lobby and break the destructive nexus between public officials and public institutions, that creates dysfunction. Thus, even while changing the supply side of the education system, increasing clients' power can contribute significantly to ensuring that reforms are sustained.
The key message for Pakistan is that it is imperative to initiate education system reform while a window of opportunity still exists to do so. But sectors are linked, and such reform must tackle all sectors in the system — primary/ secondary schooling, higher education and vocational education—as Pakistan does not have the luxury of delaying reform in one sector until others improve. Furthermore, reform must be systemic; goals within each sector must be well-defined – piecemeal initiatives do not constitute ‘reform’. Finally, the all-important Achilles' heel of reform is implementation, where Pakistan has chronically limited resources, and has often foundered. However, examples do exist that show success is achievable if government and civil society can gather the will to initiate and sustain reform.
Adapted from Mehnaz Aziz, David E. Bloom, Salal Humair, Emmanuel Jimenez, Larry Rosenberg and Zeba Sathar, “Education system reform in Pakistan: why, when, how?”, in Education and Skills 2.0: New Targets and Innovative Approaches, David E. Bloom, Ayla Goksel, Jody Heymann, Yoko Ishikura, Brij Kothari, Patricia Milligan and Chip Paucek, eds. (Geneva, World Economic Forum, 2014). Complete publication available from http://goo.gl/PIWc6N.