By Zubeida Mustafa
If education in Pakistan in 2013 were to be described in a nutshell, it could appropriately be said: “More of the same.”
Nothing really changed in the education sector this year, in spite of the noise made about it. Two years ago an education emergency was announced but it is now plain that nothing came out of it. The claims by the various provincial governments and political parties were no more than hot air.
There is no doubt about the fact that awareness at the popular level about the importance of education for income generation and upward social mobility has grown. Regrettably there is not sufficient realisation of the need for education to be of good quality to create an impact.
The leadership has responded to the public demand by making tall promises which few believe will actually be fulfilled. With 2013 being an election year, every single political party included a section on education in its manifesto. Unsurprisingly, none of them that were elevated to positions of power as a result of the May elections actually took meaningful steps to translate their promises into action.
Newspaper headlines betrayed the pathetic state of education in the country. They were no different from what we had been reading for the past 20 years: Cheating in examinations. Teacher absenteeism. Ghost schools. Shoddy textbooks. No funds for educational schemes. Student assessment tests show that class five students cannot read class three textbooks. The list is unending and can be depressing for someone who cares. It clearly emerges that everything is not right with the education sector.
In 2013 some key pointers reflected ominously on what to expect in 2014. To begin with there was the ugly backlash against Malala Yousufzai’s campaign for education. Having recovered sufficiently from her head injuries caused by a Taliban attack on her, this teenage activist made several public appearances in the West as she collected awards in highly publicised ceremonies.
Voices began to be raised in Pakistan against her. Why was the West patronising her so overtly, it was asked. What was its motive? Without going into the nitty gritty of the arguments advanced against Malala, one could sense the undercurrent of resistance that education faces from diverse quarters in the country.
At one end are the obscurantist Taliban and other religious extremists who oppose female education in principle. At the other end are the anti-imperialists who oppose the US, along with whatever is promoted by the West even if it is good for us.
Then there are the opponents of neo-liberal economics who challenge the creeping wave of privatisation, which in this case is represented by Malala’s father who is seen as a torchbearer of the profiteering private sector by virtue of the chain of schools he runs in Swat. This should come as a warning as to what an uphill task it is to spread education in Pakistan.
The biggest obstacle to taking education to the people is the government itself. After the education sector was devolved to the provinces under the 18th Amendment, it fell on the provincial governments to promote this vital activity in their own jurisdiction. Their efforts have proved to be disappointing. Article 25-A introduced in the constitution by the above-mentioned amendment has yet to become an effective force. It speaks of free and compulsory education for children between five and 16 years of age. For that the Right to Education Act has to be enacted by every provincial assembly. Progress has been slow. So far, the National Assembly, the Sindh Assembly and the Balochistan Assembly have adopted the law but the rules which make the law effective have yet to be formulated.
The education budgets did not reflect any dramatic shift towards a political will to promote education either. Although the federal and all the provincial governments increased the size of their education spending, the problems of lack of capacity and corruption meant that a lot of the money earmarked was under-utilised or pilfered.
The ineffectiveness of the government’s strategy was underlined by the fact that the literacy rate remained stagnant at 58 per cent. It is significant that the private sector is spending more on education than the government does. With the standards in government institutions on a slide the number of students enrolling in private schools and colleges has been on the rise. In other words, the people are spending from their pockets on their children’s education.
The dwindling public confidence in the government’s performance was further reflected in the rising number of children opting for O-Level and A-Level exams. According to British Council sources, 16,000 students from Pakistan appeared for these exams conducted by the Cambridge Board. In 2013, a sum of Rs 720 million was spent privately on the O and A-Level examinations fees because our own boards have lost their credibility.
The authorities are focusing so much on numbers that quality has taken the back seat. The announced goal is education for all and we are moving towards that by number crunching. There is no talk of academic excellence which should also be the desired goal. Ideally, the aim should be to provide every student equal opportunity for quality education.