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Need for systemic reform in education

There is no doubt that the future of our State will and must greatly depend upon the type of education and the way in which we bring up our children as the future citizens of Pakistan. Education does not merely mean academic education, and even that appears to be of a very poor type. What we have to do is to mobilize our people and build up the character of our future generations.

This was indeed a message of prophetic relevance to our nation’s future. The Quaid correctly emphasized the critical role education plays in the over-all health and well-being of a modern nation-state. Unfortunately, with misplaced priorities, we never focused on developing education as a pillar of our nation-building and as an asset for a modern, progressive and prosperous Pakistan.

Historically, as a public sector responsibility, education in Pakistan has remained a most neglected sector both in terms of budgetary allocation and systemic development. It has been among the lowest of our national priorities with scant attention paid to the need for systemic reform and redressal. Besides low ratio of budgetary allocations, we suffered an attitudinal complacence inherent in governmental as well as societal inertia towards our educational system.

With general disdain for academic freedom and scholars, we could not give education the place that it deserved as a major ‘building-block’ in the future of our nation. Corrupt bureaucratic hold over the country’s education system has only aggravated the situation. The experiment of nationalization in the 1970s damaged not only the industrial and banking sectors of the country but also radically changed the complexion of our educational system both in quality and output.

Instead of allocating a major share of our own resources to this primary need, we left education to be funded mostly through external ‘donations.’ Seventy-six per cent of government’s educational expenditure is met through foreign grants and assistance and Pakistan still ranks among the 15 worst countries as far as education is concerned. What is even worse is that access to good education in Pakistan is a privilege available only to the very few with affluent feudal and elitist ancestry.

Historically, as a public sector responsibility, education in Pakistan has remained a most neglected sector both in terms of budgetary allocation and systemic development.
The increasing disillusionment with the public sector educational system led to a phenomenal shift towards private education with mushroom growth of commercially motivated institutions at all levels. However, not all private institutions are for-profit entities. Many philanthropic institutions have been established and are playing a significant role in providing high-quality education. There is scope for more provided they are affordable to middle-class children. The low-cost private sector can deliver better performance than the government schools at around a quarter of the unit cost.

Sub-standard education in Pakistan is at the root of its problems, including endemic corruption and poverty, the two main scourges of our society which continue to feed off each other, locking the overwhelming majority of the people in a cycle of misery and hardship. We have remained backward in education only because of our misdirected priorities, perennial leadership miscarriages and governance failures. In the absence of the rule of law, there is no sense of justice and equity in our country.

Pakistan’s poor and underprivileged people remain burdened with liabilities that normally belong to the state. Parents pay tutors hefty fees to have their children educated. This may be a way of life in our country but simply and in fact, it is nothing but a crime and injustice to the people. Had the Quaid lived longer, he would have been embarrassed to see how miserably our successive leaders have failed to live up to his vision of Pakistan. And we are not even ashamed of what we have done to his Pakistan.

We remain clueless in determining the quality and content of our education system. Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani engaged Britain’s world-renowned educationist, Sir Michael Barber to co-chair a task force he established last year to advise him on what to do with our education system. Nobody bothered to tell our prime Minister that we have umpteen red-ribboned reports of several such task forces lying in our archives.

Over the decades under almost all successive governments, numerous studies have been undertaken at the national as well as international levels to identify the long-standing problems in our education system and to recommend remedial measures. We already have an elaborate ‘menu’ of creative options available to delineate a pragmatic reform strategy, closely tailored to our country’s problems and needs, backed by requisite resources and political will.

The increasing disillusionment with the public sector educational system led to a phenomenal shift towards private education with mushroom growth of commercially motivated institutions at all levels.
Education must become the highest priority of the state not only in terms of GDP share but also for structural and curricular reforms in our education system to make it more productive, equitable and coherent. This is the first recommendation made by Sir Michael Barber after having advised our Prime Minister to declare the year 2011 as Pakistan’s ‘Year of Education.’ The task force has reached the conclusion that Pakistan population will increase to 350 million by the middle of this century, and without good education, there is no future for this country.

Perhaps our rulers don’t know that education today is the paramount need of a developing country to cope with the demands of the 21st century. If it is recognised as a capital investment for the socio-economic well-being of a nation and a fundamental requisite for sustained economic development and for the realisation of various development-related objectives, our rulers must also understand that development cannot be made from foreign grant funds and domestic Zakat donations or even Iqra Tax. GDP growth must come through domestic resource mobilization which needs better economic management and governmental austerity.

Pakistan’s poor and underprivileged people remain burdened with liabilities that normally belong to the state. Parents pay tutors hefty fees to have their children educated. This may be a way of life in our country but simply and in fact, it is nothing but a crime and injustice to the people.
The basic parameters for improving our education system include universal coverage at the schooling level and quality not quantity at the higher education level with adequate resources and efficient management. The foremost benchmark must be the constitutional provision that every child in our country is entitled to a good education. A determined effort is needed to overcome the barriers to this goal that include ‘lack of resources, governmental ineptitude and corruption, political patronage of inefficient and unqualified teachers who don’t turn up to work, poor quality facilities and poor quality teaching.

For a successful education system in our country, we must do away with multiple systems and evolve uniform curricula. Education must be treated as high strategic priority with its GDP allocation raised from the current less than two per cent to at least four per cent to start with. According to Sir Michael Barber, many education systems have made this transition successfully; for example, Korea and Malaysia from the 1960s, Minas Gerais a large province in Brazil and a number of Indian states more recently. Some provinces of China, such as Shanghai, which topped a recent survey of 60 education systems, have also shown what is possible. Why not Pakistan?

In Punjab, one does see new passion and zeal as a ray of hope. Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, inaugurating the first of the Danish School System  in Rahim Yar Khan, the city where I started my two-year teaching stint before joining the Pakistan Foreign Service, said he intended to provide quality education facilities to people who could not otherwise afford it. His intention is indeed laudable and his priority attention to the educational needs of backward Southern Punjab is also understandable.

PML (N) Chief Nawaz Sharif was also present at the opening ceremony to reinforce his brother’s vision for bringing qualitative change in the type of education and the way we bring up our children as the future citizens of Pakistan. While emphasizing the importance of education as a foremost national priority, Nawaz Sharif said the challenges faced by the country could only be addressed if people from all income-levels were provided with good quality education. He is right.

His brother, Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif was also right when he spoke of quality education as sine qua non for Quaid-e-Azam’s Pakistan as a modern, democratic state based on social justice and equality where all citizens will enjoy equal rights and be free from fear, want and ignorance. He said that the establishment of Danish schools in the province was based on the same philosophy that the poorest of the poor students of backward areas of the province should have the same educational facilities as are available to the elite. He is right again.

But the very concept of Danish Schools is privilege-based, and has no relevance to the needed systemic reform in our country. We don’t need any more elite schools to expand the ‘islands of privilege’ that only symbolize the anachronistic culture of elitism in our society. We need genuine structural reform in our education system. The resources allocated to elitist schools would be best utilized for improving the existing government-owned schools by equipping them with basic facilities that most of them now lack.

And finally, education must remain a federal subject as recommended by National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Education. We can’t afford any devolutionary adventure at the cost of national unity and integration.

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