Pakistan’s education has been woefully underfunded by the state for decades and the new budget does little to change that. Higher Education is very important but how building a pyramid top down makes sense? This is what our new budget seems to be aiming at by allocating a total of Rs57.4 billion to the higher education while having little to show for the basic education. What this ensures is providing opportunities to the higher and middle class kids living in the cities. What about the millions of non-school going kids in rural areas and millions of illiterate adults in rural areas and urban slums? These millions will remain prone to contributing to the country’s major problems such as population growth, terrorism, crimes, drugs, and healthcare. The only way Pakistan can find its way out of the hole it is in is through climbing the ladder of democracy and education. While focus on Higher Education and distributing laptops is productive, what is needed even more is to provide immediate Basic K-5 Child Education and Adult Literacy combined with Skills Training. The idea must be to inculcate desire and provide opportunities at mass level.
Walk through the labyrinth of alleys, concrete structures, and corrugated shacks in the sprawling Karachi slum of Orangi Town, and you get a sense of the power of education. In a settlement of 1.5 million people there are hardly any government schools in sight. Deprived of their right to a free public education, some of the world’s poorest people have to pay for the privilege of sending their kids to private schools that lack qualified teachers, books, pencils, clean water, and toilets. Bilqis Khatoon, a widow with four children who lost her husband to the continuous violence in the city, has no doubt that the sacrifice is worthwhile. By doing two jobs she can just about keep two of the children in school. The elder of the two, Hadi, is fully committed to the value of education. “If I can make it through school, my future will be brighter. Maybe I can go on to become a doctor because then I will be big enough to work and finance my education.” But the truth is that Hadi is already working. He helps his mother pay the school fees by working for six hours a day at a shop in the nearby market. His biggest fear is that he will have to drop out of school, like his elder brother who, at 15, is already a fulltime worker in a garment factory. Every day, across the country, parents like Bilqis make huge sacrifices for their children’s education as, like other poor countries, in Pakistan appallingly poor parents are struggling to get their kids an education that will help them escape poverty. They know learning offers a route to higher income and expanded opportunity.
Having pledged, as part of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), to achieve universal primary education by 2015, Pakistan is trying to keep pace with the international community. However, I do not understand how Pakistan is going to achieve that goal if the country’s resources are not veered towards its achievement. To make matters worse, there is a gathering body of evidence highlighting the shocking quality of education endured by millions of children. What is being offered to children is often mock education. This schooling does nothing to assist the growth of children as rational human beings and as productive members of society. One study in rural Pakistan found that, after five years of schooling, half of the children were unable to write a sentence including the word “school”. Also, education will be worthless if it does not give children the tools to defeat the culture of violence and intolerance. The foundations of such education have obviously to be laid at primary-school level. The curricula in our public schools have to emphasize equality of human beings instead of blessing divisions based on religion and gender. The qualitative improvements are just as important as the quantitative ones. In most areas there are basic educational resources, as the schools are there. However, many villages and urban areas suffer from other factors that inhibit education, like malnutrition or resource scarcity. As an instrument of hope, education is also most threatening to the Taliban, an organisation who can only thrive on despair. The efforts of the Taliban to damage existing institutions and structures in the areas where they have some control appear even more infuriating when one sees the comparative data that shows progress of the countries and regions with no systems or existing resources.
With the date for the attainment of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) less than three years away, it seems ever more likely that Pakistan will not make its targets. Especially, in progress towards goal number two to achieve universal primary education. Despite the appearance that the government is making headway with enrolments, many girls are still being left behind. Reviving progress towards the MDG targets will require a far stronger commitment to equity on the part of the new government. Progress, over the past decade, by countries like Ethiopia, Tanzania and Bangladesh show that poverty does not have to be a barrier to education. But political leaders must demonstrate a commitment to reaching those who have been left behind. So must donors. Over the past few years, the record of the aid community for Pakistan has gone from bad to lamentable. While the country receives billions of dollars, apart from the disaster-relief, most of the aid is provided either to the Pakistan Military (the US) or to the religious establishments (Saudi Arabia and Gulf countries). The educational development assistance has been dismal in country with large swathes or territory where young girls are more likely to die in childbirth than make it through primary school.
In a country like Pakistan, where there is a clearly established link between educational disadvantage and poverty, today’s inequalities in education are clearly perpetuated to guard tomorrow’s disparities in opportunities. Breaking down those inequalities would act as a catalyst for growth and poverty reduction. Getting all of Pakistan’s girls into secondary school would prevent an estimated 200,000 deaths annually. Achieving universal basic education means breaking down the deprivation that forces over 7 million children out of school and into labour markets. It means confronting the public attitudes to gender that result in more than 1 million more girls being out of school than boys. And it means designing policies that extend opportunities to hard-to-reach children, such as those living in poor rural areas and slums like Orangi Town. The current demographic pressures in Pakistan, namely an increased population and an overrepresentation of youth, are placing unreasonable demands on the country’s infrastructure. With about 40% of Pakistan’s population aged under 15, and the country’s fertility rate of around 4, providing free primary education is having a negative impact on educational standards. Thus increased enrolment has placed enormous stress on the country’s education system with overcrowding, increased student-to-teacher ratios and inadequate resources.
What Pakistan needs is to declare universal education its foremost national priority backed by a fund for education like those that have delivered such striking results in the health sector in some other countries. This will create a platform to bring together the country’s government, donor governments, NGOs, and the private sector and can thus spur international action and deliver results.
Improved governance is also essential. It is a fact that the public schools teachers can generally earn much more than qualified private school teachers and 4 times the average per capita income of Pakistan. However, a lack of meritocracy in recruitment and the absence of effective performance controls have meant that public education’s higher salaries at the basic levels have not translated into a higher level of commitment among teachers.
Also, while we endeavour to alleviate inequalities in access to education we pay no heed to another type of inequality: namely, inequality in learning. Despite increased enrolment and attendance, inequalities between the rich and poor still persist and the move towards universal primary education has resulted in more parents sending their children to private schools as reports of low educational standards within government schools emerge. There are real fears that the quality of education within government schools is diminishing in order to cater for more students. Several years after the passage of Article 25A to the constitution, under the 18th Amendment, the provincial governments seem to be struggling to establish implementation mechanisms.
It is therefore imperative to continually conduct reality checks on the state of education in Pakistan to remind ourselves that while making real steps towards the goal of universal primary education, it is important that the education system as a whole does not suffer. This is a tall order and a long-term challenge. Spending a mere 2-3% of the budget on education and half-hearted planning will not get us anywhere.