Where do the drop-do the drop-outs go?

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

PAKISTAN, indeed, has a split personality. A dualism in our life is most prominent in our education system How else would you describe a country which has 46 million adults who cannot read or write, and probably will never be able to learn. On the other hand, only a few thousand children receive the best education in high quality institutions with the best of facilities.

How would one explain this dichotomy in our education system? The problem has a long history behind it. With no tradition or culture of learning, the Muslims of India never considered education to be something worth investing in. How many universities did the great Mughal emperors leave behind along with the gardens and mausoleums which dot the South Asian landscape? Recognizing this fallacy in our approach, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan tried to make amends. But he failed to create a grassroot culture which regards education as a birthright and an essential element for human dignity and growth.

As a result, education has always been a low priority sector in Pakistan. Before capitalism and the market place gained unchallenged supremacy the world over, much to the detriment of the downtrodden class, it was widely recognized that it is the government’s responsibility to provide elementary education to the masses. This was the case not just in the socialist states with their principle of looking after the welfare of their citizens from the cradle to the grave. Even the fountainhead of capitalism — notably the United States — invests substantially in its education system. It knows that the marketplace thrives on competition and the only rule it recognizes is that of the survival of the fittest. Hence the need to educate its people.

The Third World countries with limited resources were faced with a dilemma because they had to divert their funds from other sectors if they wanted to invest in the schooling of their citizens. Some of them who were governed by rulers of vision managed to keep education high on their planning agenda and in the process managed to climb high on the ladder of progress. Sri Lanka, Cuba and even China (which after all began life as the People’s Republic as a developing country) are some outstanding examples and today have impressive literacy rates — 91.6, 96.7 and 85.2 per cent respectively.

What did Pakistan choose to do? It set up commissions after commissions to prepare reports which were never implemented. It also paid a lot of lip service to high sounding and noble ideas but never allocated more than 2.4 per cent of its GNP (in 1988-89) to this sector. Today we spend 1.7 per cent of our GNP on education when Unesco recommends at least four per cent. As the country’s macro-economic indicators and the GNP have grown, the education budget has expanded in absolute terms. But this has not been translated into an expansion of the school/college infrastructure because inflation and the monster of corruption have crept in to absorb these nominal increases in the education budget.

Today, the country has 162,200 primary schools (so the Pakistan Economic Survey 2002-2003 tells us) ‘educating’ 19.5 million children. Of course many of these institutions are ‘ghosts’ (the term coined in Pakistan to describe schools which exist only on paper) and obviously their students are ‘ghosts’ too. By the time they reach the middle level (class VI) the enrolment figure dwindles to 3.9 million. Where do these drop-outs go? They lapse into illiteracy (presuming they had learned something of the three ‘R’s during their brief stint in primary school) and when they are fifteen they will help inflate the pool of adult illiterates in Pakistan. With the population growing at the rate of 2.6 per cent per annum and the literacy rate growth being under one per cent, small wonder, the number of illiterates above 15 years of age in the country has been mounting steadily.

It would not be fair to say that the government has not been worried by this dismal state of affairs. Nearly everyone who matters and is in a position of authority speaks of his concern at the rot in the education sector. But the solutions which are being devised hardly address the core issues. The immediate need is to make education accessible and improve the quality of pedagogy and the school environment so that the children who are enrolled have an incentive to stay on in school. It is important that they complete at least ten years of schooling. That is long enough to give a person the basic knowledge and skills to enable him to improve his capabilities even if he does not study any further.

The government’s solution has been to induct the private sector into the field so that it shares the burden of this all important task of teaching the young. Given the contemporary trends, one cannot quarrel with this approach, especially when many of the private institutions are known to be imparting education of a really high standard. What is actually worrisome is that the government has used this strategy to start shedding off its own responsibility, thus leaving the people with no choices.

The number of new primary schools being opened in the country has been on the decline. Only 800 were opened last year when there was a time in the mid-nineties when as many as 5,000 or so new ones used to be set up annually. Given the failure of the government schools to educate the children who enter their fold, the number of children on their rolls has been falling. The private schools which have been encouraged are taking up a greater share of the school enrolment.

This is evident from the growing strength of their enrolment. According to Unesco’s Education for All: Global Monitoring Report 2002 , 34.8 per cent of the children in primary schools in Pakistan attend private schools. This is a very high rate when compared to other countries — US 11.6 per cent, India 17.9 per cent, Iran 4.4 per cent, and Sweden 3.4 per cent.

Since the private sector schools, which offer better education, are costly, it is plain that a large chunk of the population is deprived of worthwhile education . It is also obvious that a preponderant majority of those who make it to the top have studied in private schools. It is time a survey was undertaken of the institutions of higher learning to determine which schools their students attended.

While this would be an instructive exercise, some facts are mind-boggling. As it grapples with the primary education sector, the government has proceeded to expand the higher education sector at a rapid pace. It seems to be in a hurry to make up for the failings of yesteryear. The other day the Higher Education Commission released a list of institutions authorized to award degrees. It gave the names of 103 and 49 of them are in the private sector. Many of these had been operating for a number of years and have now been given a charter.

Thus the universities and institutes which have mushroomed in all major cities in response to the public need will come to be regulated. But one wonders how the government hopes to keep academic standards in the universities high if the base — that is, primary education — continues to be so weak and limited. From where will the institutions of higher education have their intake? Poorly educated school leavers will lower the standards of the universities. After all, their ultimate success or failure will depend on how well we educate our children in schools.