What ails education in Pakistan?

Reviewed By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

The major factor in the destruction of education in Pakistan has been the lack of commitment on the part of the government.

EDUCATION, one of the most neglected sectors in Pakistan, has received more attention from experts and laypeople than from policymakers. It has been investigated very often because the negative impact of this neglect is now being felt in every walk of life.

It is therefore welcome that SDPI, an NGO that had earlier undertaken painstaking research on textbooks and curricula, should have addressed the education sector as well. Using as a base the National Education Policy (NEP) of 1998 which was introduced by Nawaz Sharif’s government, A.H. Nayyar and Ahmad Salim have analysed thematically education in Pakistan. They enlisted the help of educationists who attended several two-day workshops last year and pooled together their knowledge born of their experience in the field. This exercise finally facilitated the analysis and recommendations that emerged.

The main issues this study takes up are the aims of education, its financing, access and quality, teacher training, examinations, management, technical education, language teaching and medium of instruction, private sector education and higher education. This long list would in itself have ensured a pretty comprehensive approach. But by listing issues in point form, the authors have kept the book concise.

The major factor in the destruction of education in Pakistan has been the lack of commitment on the part of the government. As a result, the policymakers allocate insufficient resources to this sector resulting in limited access of the people to educational institutions and poor quality of the service provided. This has unsurprisingly resulted in the failure of the country to attain the targets laid down.

One example would suffice. According to the education policy of 1959, Pakistan should have achieved 100 per cent literacy by 1975. How far we were from this target was evident from the results of the 1972 census which recorded a literacy rate of 21.7 per cent. The last policy to be announced – the 1998 document under study in this book – aimed at a literacy rate of 70 per cent by 2010. The government claims the rate is at 53 per cent today and that very claim does not give rise to much hope for the future.

The basic flaw in the NEP that still has to be corrected fully is that it is a ‘hotchpotch of a wish list with no coherence and feasibility’. Most of the policy measures have not been implemented. Another problem is that its proclaimed goal is to build a religious national identity and the emphasis on Islam is so overwhelming that it overshadows all other aims of education such as character building, instilling a sense of integrity and responsibility in the citizens and preparing skilled professionals.

The two authors have worked hard over identifying the problems and making suggestions, based on the recommendations of the workshops. Many of these suggestions, such as the one asking the government to raise the allocations for education to four per cent of the GDP — and ultimately to six per cent — are not new. But they need to be implemented and this book does not say how that will be done. Other suggestions, such as those on weeding out corruption, could be more effective if implemented, though they are too sketchy in the report under review. Some of them are too obvious to attract much attention such as the one asking for laws making corruption in education a serious crime.

The chapter on language teaching is the most significant one given the fact that in the absence of a language policy, education in Pakistan has suffered immensely. Two basic conclusions the authors reach are: first, elementary education is best given in a child’s mother tongue; secondly, not having sufficient working skills in English at the higher level puts our young people at a disadvantage. There is need to teach all languages in such a way to develop communication skills in the students. If need be a three-language policy can be adopted to teach Urdu, English and the mother tongue. But the authors do not attempt to lay down clear cut recommendations on teaching in the mother tongue at the primary level.

The dilemma for the authors is how to handle the dichotomy in our education system. Today Pakistan’s education sector is horizontally divided between the English teaching elite private school and the non-English teaching poor quality public sector schools. The students who pass from these institutions move in parallel streams which have no chances of ever merging. This class divide is further perpetuated when these students enter the job market with the products of the elite schools taking the plum jobs. This paradox needs to be resolved and a clear cut and realistic language policy adopted. Another manifestation of the class divide is the visible presence of a massive private sector in education. The multiple systems in vogue also call for some analysis.

Written in a report format, Critical Issues in Education Policy is not a book for leisurely reading. One would read it only to look into the mass of information that has been squeezed between its two covers. Not surprisingly then, the information provided appears disjointed and the arguments in support of its contentions are not very exhaustively stated. Some issues appear to have been skirted and not enough attention has been paid to the role — both good and bad — of the private sector in education. As far as information goes, the White Paper on education prepared by Javed Hassan Ally’s team set up by the federal education ministry to suggest revisions in the 1998 education policy has done a comprehensive job. Its report was released in February but has been shelved by the education ministry since it does not share the federal education minister’s views on education.

Critical Issues in Education Policy: A citizen’s review of the National Education Policy, 1998-2010
By A.H. Nayyar and Ahmad Salim
Sustainable Development Policy Institute, Islamabad

101pp. Price not listed