Can it be implemented?

By Zubeida Mustafa

IT is a strange coincidence that two important documents pertaining to education were released in Pakistan in March 1998 within a span of a few days. One was the report titled Human Development in South Asia 1998: The Education Challenge prepared by Dr Mahbubul Haq and Khadija Haq and published by the Human Development Centre, Islamabad, and the Oxford University Press (Pakistan). The other was the Pakistan government’s education policy prepared by the Federal Ministry of Education.

The former came without much fanfare. It was the second report to be prepared by the HDC, an organisation headed by the famous whizz-kid of finance and development economics of Pakistan, Dr Mahbubul Haq, who has served many masters well. But unlike the 1997 document, which had taken a broad look at human development in South Asia, the 1998 issue focuses on education.

This is a subject which is of profound relevance to Pakistan, because its dismal record of failure in this sector has been the key factor in the political backwardness and the socio-economic under-development of the country. The HDC report should arouse considerable interest among academics and educationists.

Needless to say, the HDC’s report is too radical for our planners. Unlike their education policy with its rhetorical tone, the Haqs are more forthright in their assessment. They don’t mince words when describing “South Asia as the most illiterate region in the world and Pakistan among the most illiterate countries in South Asia.” The strategies they suggest are not exactly new – this paper has been recommending some of them for years now – but they are not pleasing to the government.

While few believe that the bureaucrats in the ministry of education will actually implement their own education policy announced recently, it is certain that the Human Development in South Asia will not be taken seriously by the policy makers either. They will treat it as no more than an academic exercise by a bunch of researchers not meant for implementation. Arguably a major reason for this perception is Dr Mahbubul Haq’s own inability to translate into action many of his pet economic principles and theories when he strode the corridors of power. He has shifted his stance from time to time ever since he rose to prominence on the economic stage in Pakistan but has failed to implement his own idea. If they were too idealistic for his own colleagues in power, then why expect others to do it now?

Nevertheless, the report is worth studying because, in the first place, it put together in one volume the record of our failed performance in education which should shock the government out of its complacency. Secondly, it analyses intelligently and sums up in crisp and catchy phrases Pakistan’s key failings in the education sector. Thirdly, it outlines strategies which are perceptive and implementable, provided the political will exists in the policy-making circles.

South Asia has emerged as an anti-education society in the midst of a pro-education  Asia culture, states the report rightly, Japan, China, Indonesia, Korea, Thailand and Malaysia have made rapid strides because of their widespread belief in the vital importance of education. South Asia lacks this culture and has lagged behind. Its 400 million illiterate adults account for almost half the world’s illiterate population. Pakistan is nearly at the bottom of the heap in the backward region.

In terms of mean years of schooling (2.9 for boys and 0.7 for girls) it is outdone by only Bhutan. It has the lowest school enrolment ration (36 per cent for boys and 25 per cent for girls) and the second lowest literacy rate (38 per cent) after Nepal in the region. In terms of gender disparity, Pakistan has the worst record in South Asia in school enrolment (the number of girls in school is only 61 percent of boys) and mean years of schooling (23 percent). The gender gap in literacy (48 literate women to 100 literate men) is slightly better than that of Nepal.

The challenges faced by South Asia (as well as Pakistan) are three inter-related ones, low enrolment, low completion and low achievement. In simple words, this means that very few children are going to school, among those who are enrolled far too many drop out before completing five years of schooling and the quality of the education being imparted to them is poor. Of course, the policy makers would be able to identify the reasons of these failings. But they need to be reminded again and again why many of our children are not going to school, not staying there long enough and failing to achieve much even when they complete their studies.

The low accessibility of schools and poor facilities in the education institutions do not attract students. In fact the distance factor is actually deterrence, especially where girls are concerned. With 92 per cent of schools without playgrounds, 73 per cent without electricity and 70 per cent without latrines, it is surprising that so many are still enrolled in school. Worse still is the fact that the children who go to school do not acquire the skills which could make a difference to their life, especially in gaining employment. The report quotes the finding of a survey, which is shocking. Of the 11 to 12 – years-old primary school completers tested only a third could read with comprehension and only 17 per cent could write a letter. In some areas, like the NWFP, only nine per cent displayed reading competence (only six per cent girls). There was a failure of socialisation and only a quarter of these children were competent in life skills.

Dr Mahbubul Haq offers the following prescriptions to cure the ills of the education sector:

  • Remove gender disparities, (2) build up technical skills, (3) provide better teachers, (4) promote non-formal education, (5) enhance the funding for education.

None of these is a dramatically innovative suggestion. What is important is that these policy measures are actually adopted. The report has done well to identify the strategies which must to be given priority to promote a particular goal. For instance, to eliminate gender disparities it is stressed that schools should be easily accessible (preferably within a kilometer of the girl’s home), sufficient number of women teachers should be trained and the government’s policies should be supportive of female education. In Pakistan’s case all this is easier said than done. Given the dismal status of women in this country and the treatment which is being meted out to them in the name of religion and cultural norms, it is difficult to believe that the state and society would go that extra mile to enhance female literacy and enrolment in school.

The chapter on technical education is very relevant and the ideas it puts forward have been mooted from time to time. Thus it is considered important (theoretically, if not in practice) to link education with industry and the labour market, involve industrialists in the technical training programmes and increase funds for this sector. Thus the report comes as a timely reminder of what needs to be done but, if one feels skeptical about such a strategy ever being adopted, it is not surprising.

The training of teachers is another area which has been widely written about. Rabindranath Tagore’s quotation, “A lamp cannot light another lamp unless it continues to burn in its own flame” graphically sums up the basic quality of a teacher for him/her to serve as an agent of knowledge. How does one create good pedagogy when the teachers are ‘themselves the products of a rotten system? The strategy of change which has been suggested is so simple that a government with the commitment will not find it impossible to implement it. The report suggest that the minimum level of academic education for primary school teacher should be raised, the curricula of teachers’ training programmes should be drastically revised, pre-service training should be school-based, the teachers should be hired from the local community, the parents should be encouraged to monitor the work of the teachers and, above all, the status of teachers should be raised.

The report’s section on non-formal education (NFE) could prove to be somewhat controversial. Committed educationists insist that there is no substitute for regular schooling. In fact many of them are opposed to NFE on the grounds that it gives the government the pretext for not shouldering its responsibility of providing education to all children. Dr Mahbub ul Haq and Khadija Haq, however, plead the case of non-formal schools to the extent of calling on the government to ‘deformalise’ the formal primary education system. While admitting that their impact has remained limited, the authors recommend the non-formal schools for their low cost (in Pakistan the regular school costs eighty times more per capita than an informal school) and the community participation they ensure.

Many of the advantages recounted are undoubtedly substantive. But factors such as the curriculum being tailored to the need of the child, community participation, accessibility and flexibility of timings can be incorporated into the regular school system without disturbing its essentially holistic and integrated approach. What, however, needs be made clear (which is not in the report) that NFE is at best an interim and stop-gap solution to clear up the backlog of illiteracy which has been the curse of all Third World countries. Every society must strive to provide its children with comprehensive education.

The Human Development report considers 5-6 per cent of GNP as essential to universalise primary education. Pakistan’s education spending amounts to 2.7 per cent of the GNP (cumulatively South Asian spending is 3.5 per cent). The extra resources can be mobilized by cutting down military spending, retiring domestic debts by privatizing public assets and levying special taxes for education. They are pitfalls in this approach in the case of Pakistan as the authors must have experienced personally.

Given the political weight of the military in Pakistan, no government wants to risk its survival by scaling down its defence budget.The proceeds from privatization from have so far not benefited the national treasury in a big way. Hence it will not generate massive resources to help the government pay off its debts. Dr Mahbubul Haq who was the author of the Iqra surcharge must be himself fully aware of its fate and how it was diverted to sectors other than education when he was in the government. What is lacking is the political commitment for tackling the educational tasks that lie ahead. The report speaks of the importance of this factor but fails to point out emphatically enough its absence in the case of Pakistan.

Source: Dawn, 4 April 1998