The road to corruption?

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

FOR many decades governments in Pakistan considered it a waste of resources to invest in education.

This was such a neglected sector that those aspiring to a ministerial portfolio generally shunned the offer to head the education ministry. Then the scene changed when foreign donors demanded that we educate our children.

The education sector turned lucrative as billions began to flow in from abroad. Fabulous projects were designed and education became the fashion. This new interest in education was on two counts.

First, as one of the largest employers in the country this sector provided openings for jobs. According to the Pakistan Economic Survey 2008-09, the country has over 1.3 million teachers at all levels — an increase of 7.6 per cent per annum over the last decade. This is in addition to the substantial non-teaching staff in the administration. With the political advantage that control over jobs offers, the education sector is no more the Cinderella it once was.

Secondly, who doesn`t like money? Being awash in funds, the education sector offers perks, if not directly then indirectly, if not honestly then dishonestly. Stories of moneymaking ventures in education are legion.

In view of this sector`s dismal performance, one feels cynical about the talk of the massive injection of funds into it. This is one of the reasons why the National Education Policy (NEP) announced last week did not bring cheer. I am not anti-education. Nor am I against our measly education spending being increased to provide for the intellectual development of Pakistan`s youth. I worry about how this fund will be used.

According to the NEP, last year the government spent 2.5 per cent of GDP on education while 0.5 per cent came from the private sector. The Economic Survey puts the government`s spending at 2.1 per cent (Rs275.5bn). Hence eyebrows shot up when the NEP announced that by 2015 our education spending would be jacked up to seven per cent. Doubts have been expressed if this huge amount will really be made available. One should also ask whether the money will be put to good use or be siphoned off to line people`s pockets as is being done today.

At one stage we were told that the NEP draft had been sent to the finance ministry for approval. One can therefore presume that the feasibility of the funding envisaged has been checked. What we do not know are the details of exactly how this amount will be spent. The NEP lays down broad policy guidelines. But the specifics are missing. One would like to know how the educational finances will be distributed between the various sub-sectors and among the centre, provinces and area governments.

It is not even clear how much of the seven per cent of GDP will come from the government. There is much emphasis on public-private partnership and the NEP speaks of “exploring ways to increase the contribution of the private sector, which at present contributes only 16 per cent of the total educational resources”.

So it is the private sector that will be asked to take over the government`s responsibility by increasing its share in educational spending. Won`t that make education more costly for the common man? A policy that seeks to inject enormous amounts into a programme without creating the requisite absorption capacity or monitoring the spending is an open invitation for corruption.

This can to an extent be pre-empted by placing the NEP before the National Assembly for a comprehensive debate. Other forums and the media should also discuss the NEP and fine-tune it to meet the genuine demands of all stakeholders.

It is important to address the monitoring issue which is crucial for the success of the policy. At present the only reference to monitoring is in the context of implementation. That will be done by the Inter-Provincial Education Ministers (IPEM) Conference, the education departments, the education ministry and the textbook boards.

What about the monitoring on the ground? In the present scheme of things this is virtually absent. The inspectors who are supposed to visit the schools and the auditors who check the accounts are obviously not doing a very good job. If they were, the education ministry would not have had to admit that 12,373 educational institutions in the country were `non-functional` — ghost schools in popular parlance. We do not know how much money is being misappropriated in the name of these schools.

No inspector has visited schools, which I have, where eight or so are clustered in one building where the ratio is one student to 10 teachers. There are schools in the rural areas where teachers don`t show up for months at a time or they outsource their job to people who know nothing, which drives away the children.

It is a pity that the NEP dismisses this malaise in a few words “Another type of implementation problem surfaces in the corruption that is believed to pervade the system. Anecdotes abound of education allocations systematically diverted to personal use at most levels of the allocation chain. Political influence and favouritism are believed to interfere in the allocation of resources to the districts and schools, in recruitment, training and posting of teachers and school administrators that are not based on merit, in awarding of textbook contracts, and in the conduct of examinations and assessments.”

All this is attributed simplistically to “political interference and corrupt practices in recruitments, transfers and postings”. But how is this to be checked? No answer.

It is important to create an independent monitoring authority comprising men and women of integrity who are active and committed. They will have to be entrusted with the job of checking the checkers. This body should also receive complaints from the public and then make personal visits to investigate. The need is to make the education departments` personnel accountable to someone who can act independently and is empowered to take remedial action.