What ails educational publishing in Pakistan?

By Zubeida Mustafa

62-25-02-1992Many of the imported globes and atlases being sold in Pakistan have the words “Disputed Territory” or simply “DT” overstamped on the spot showing Kashmir. What is strange is that the authorities’ sensitivity to cartographical precision does not extend to the text6ooks being published by their own Textbook Boards.

Just pick up any Social Studies or Pakistan Studies book being taught in the schools in Sindh and you can consider your child to be fortunate if the maps are correctly drawn. More often than not our cartographers are fond of showing a common border between Pakistan and what was the USSR until December!

That is not all. The profusion of errors and distortions in the books is appalling. The absence of an imaginative approach makes the text not only dull but also in many cases conceptually beyond the child’s comprehension. The poor quality of the printing and paper of the Board’s publications is sure to kill whatever interest a student might have in his studies.

It is horrifying that the government which claims to be aware of these weaknesses has failed to do much about rectifying the situation. The Sindh Education Minister, Mr M.A.Jaleel, who has been in office for fifteen months is today the staunchest critic of the textbooks produced by the Sindh Textbook Board. And rightly so. But what is intriguing is that the only solution he has been able to offer so far is to set up a committee of experts to revise the books. He has also tried to change the existing arrangement by taking away the printing and publishing contract from the private publishers in the province. He claims that he can save Rs 11,800,000 by giving the job to some printers in Punjab.

Whether the government will manage to keep the prices pegged down to their current prices until 1994 as Mr Jaleel has promised will have to be seen. But what is disturbing at the moment is the prospect that no significant improvement is to be expected in the contents and style of the books. The minister feels that this is too massive a job to be undertaken in the short term. Mr Jaleel categorically ruled out any rewriting of the textbooks. “Corrections” was all that he could promise.

The focus of the current custodians of the Textbook Board in Sindh appears to be on the production, printing and timely availability of books. These are no doubt issues of fundamental importance. But one could well ask, of what use are neatly printed, low priced books which students can buy at the start of the academic session (presuming the Board can arrange that) if these are intellectually impoverished in their contents and fail to inspire a student?

What ails educational publishing in Pakistan? Until it was taken over by the public sector in 1962, the textbook trade was a thriving one in this country. When General Ayub Khan decided that only the government was qualified to train the minds of the young and the West Pakistan Textbook Board was set up to take over the preparation and publication of school and college books, the rot set in.

The first to be killed was high grade authorship. While previously private publishers had competed with one another to enlist the services of the best writers by offering them attractive royalties, the Textbook Board was ensured a captive market by virtue of its monopoly. Hence it was virtually under no compulsion to tap the best talent. Considerations other than merit and scholarship began to determine the allocation of the 350 or so titles to the writers.

Where a writer had no connections, he had to make do with a pittance. Some writers received just Rs 250 for a book as the writing fee. Others received nothing. Thus Dr Abul Lais Siddiqui, whose book Urdu ki Adabi Tareekh ka Khaka which has been in use in Sindh’s colleges for three decades, has still to receive his royalty. His case is now before the Ombudsman. The concept of royalty is not recognised as the writer’s right. Yet the Sindh Textbook Board has been calculating a 12 per cent royalty in the pricing formula it has adopted. According to one estimate this should .have fetched at least Rs 100 million to the Sindh Textbook Board in the 20 years since its inception. Where has this money gone?

From all reckoning, the Textbook Board is not short of resources. When it was set up in 1970, the STBB received Rs one million from its predecessor, the West Pakistan Textbook Board, as its share from the sales proceeds of Swedish-gifted paper. Today it collects every year no less than Rs ten million as royalty on the textbooks sold. It also recovers the price of the paper — euphemistically termed as handling charges — which the Board receives free of cost as a gift from foreign aid donors. The elaborate construction work being undertaken at the Board’s regional office in Karachi and the new investment that is being made in printing machinery and the foreign training of technicians testify to the abundance of funds available.

Had all this money been channelled into building up a publishing infrastructure or creating an authorship base, one would not really have grudged it. The Board has failed to invest in this direction. It has no editors, linguists, educational psychologists, illustrators or cartographers worth their names. A staff of such experts could have worked wonders with the books.

Instead the Board went in for unproductive investments such as acquiring a printing press at Jamshoro which is running below capacity and at a loss. The Minister himself admitted that. Incidentally, this is the only Textbook Board in the country to be the proud proprietor of a printing press.

The Board could learn a lesson or two from neighbouring India. Although textbook publishing is largely in the public sector in that country too, a number of private publishers are also printing textbooks and their publications are prescribed in schools and colleges. What is important is that the National Council of Educational Research and Training has created textbook writing expertise by giving due encouragement to scholars. The best specialists in a subject are contacted, provided research material, secretarial support and sabbatical leave to facilitate their work. Over and above that they receive a hefty sum as royalty. The only feasible solution to the textbook problem in Pakistan lies in introducing healthy competition in educational publishing. The Sindh Education Minister rejected the idea on the ground that education cannot be privatised. He took the stand that since it is the government’s responsibility to educate the citizens, it must also undertake the task of textbook publishing.

Given the massive induction of the private sector in the field of education under the present government, this argument is not too convincing. The authorities’ excessive concern for uniformity in the textbooks in use betrays an utter lack of understanding of the basic issues. No one would question the need for some uniformity in the syllabus in all schools in the province. But there is no reason why private publishers cannot be asked to produce books within the parameters of the syllabus laid down by the Federal Bureau of Curriculum. This would encourage competition since the best manuscripts among those submitted could be selected for publication.

That others can also do a good job is evident from the SPELT experiment. The Society for Pakistan English Language Teachers undertook a meticulous exercise to prepare a course book for English. It managed to persuade the education authorities to accept it as the prescribed textbook. The STBB now publishes it as the English primer for Class VI when the teaching of English as a second language begins in the schools in Sindh. The qualitative difference is most pronounced between the book prepared by SPELT and the Board’s earlier publications for the teaching of English language.

Similarly, the books planned to be published under the World Bank-sponsored supplementary reading scheme will be produced by private publishers. Since one of the conditions laid down by the Bank is open competition, the government has been obliged to invite private publishers to participate in the project. The best manuscripts will be selected. Why cannot the same principle be. applied for school textbooks?

Another area in which the Board has been found sadly wanting is that of preparing teachers’ guides. A few years ago some guides were produced but nothing has been heard of them ever since. Now the Book Group, consisting of some teachers from private schools, is attempting to prepare guides to help teachers use the existing textbooks in a more imaginative and scientific way, until the Board gets down to revamping the textbooks. This is just the beginning of an experiment that deserves support from academics. But in the final analysis, it is the content and publication of the textbooks that must be tackled.

Source: Dawn 25-02-1992