Education: ill-prepared for globalization

By Zubeida Mustafa

The recently-released Mahbub ul Haq Centre’s Human Development in South Asia, 2001 report, which focuses on globalization and human development, points to a disaster looming on the horizon for countries like Pakistan.

The report correctly states, “Globalization is driven by knowledge and new technology. Thus there is a need not only to provide good quality primary, secondary and technical education but also to spend more on higher level of professional education. But in South Asia a trend of declining or stagnant tertiary enrolment rates is emerging.” (p.55)

Pakistan will lose in the globalization race for the simple reason that the country has failed to provide good education to its people. Leave aside the tertiary level, we are not even being able to address the problem of illiteracy and primary education. Pakistan’s adult literacy ratio is inching up at a rate slower than our population growth rate. That means that the pool of illiterate adults in the country is growing in absolute numbers every year – it was an appalling 53 million in the1998 census when it was 43 million in 1981.

Then there is the declining standard of education, which is now affecting economic productivity. The country is unable to produce the manpower with the basic expertise to handle modern technology and communication skills.

Even more alarming is the fact that education is promoting a chasm between the haves and the have-nots in the country. Instead of empowering the poor, education is actually perpetuating their poverty. The dismal quality of schooling they receive backwardizes them further. The modern education available to the rich enables them to generate and accumulate more wealth. It is a matter of deep concern that in our system education has become a major factor in the growing economic disparity between the classes and the concentration of wealth.

The first manifestation of this disturbing phenomenon is the decline in the enrolment ratio in primary education. The gross enrolment rate had registered a jump from 52 per cent in 1987-88 to 73 per cent in 1990-91. But by 1998-99 it had declined to 71 per cent. The Economic Survey 2001-2002 released by the government identifies the causes of this decline as the growing poverty and the poor standard of education in the government schools. In fact it admits that in the period that the gross enrolment ratio was falling, the private schools showed an increase in enrolment. But obviously this rise did not correspond to the drop in the enrolment in government schools, hence the overall decrease.  This only goes to confirm two basic facts. First, the parents,, even if uneducated themselves, are discerning enough to realize that it is unproductive to send a child to school if his education will not equip him for employment and a fruitful life. Secondly, private schools, where meaningful education is imparted, are beyond the reach of the poor because their fees are too high. Thus the children of the poorest of the poor are being marginalized from the education system.

With our leadership ostensibly having realized the gravity of the crisis, one would have expected the government to devise an innovative strategy to meet the challenge. And what has been the government’s response? It has come out with a concept it terms the public-private partnership. This envisages 1) provision of a package of incentives in all education sub-sectors; 2) involvement of the private sector in the management of public sector institutions; 3) making the Education Foundations effective autonomous bodies to provide substantial support to private sector educational institutions.

Having said this, the government it appears is not at all clear about how to proceed in the matter. The contradictions inherent in the public private partnership underline the confusion and adhocism which characterize the official approach to education. The fact of the matter is that the government has still not been able to determine its own role and that of the private sector in education and is therefore ambivalent about its relationship with private sector institutions.

In the case of primary schools, which constitute the base of the education structure in the country, the Economic Survey discloses that nearly 20 per cent of the primary school enrolment in the country is in private institutions. This is a significantly high share since it means that nearly a third of the students attending school in Pakistan are going to private schools.

What is more, the government wants to lighten its burden even further to “ease the pressure on its scarce resources” (to quote from the Economic Survey). But will it be possible to attain universal literacy by 2015 (the revised deadline), as is the goal of the government, through the private sector? On the one hand

it is acknowledged officially that people are withdrawing their children from school because of poverty. On the other, the government wants people to send their children to private schools where they will be required to pay higher fees. The logic of this approach is beyond comprehension.

The irony of the situation is that the Sindh government is now seeking to enforce this strategy by making primary education compulsory in the province. The Sindh Compulsory Primary Education Ordinance 2001 promulgated in December would cause a parent to be fined as much as Rs 50 a day for not sending his child to school. There could be no greater injustice for the poor than this.

As its dependence on the private sector grows, the government finds its clout vis-a-vis the private institutions declining. Since it is not giving them any grant or subsidy, or providing them any tax rebates, the government can only resort to ordinances to seek to exercise some control over their working. That would explain why the Sindh government felt the need to issue the Sindh Private Educational Institutions (Regulation and Control) Ordinance 2002.

This ordinance seeks to subject the private institutions to government controls by requiring them to be registered with the appropriate authority, which would monitor their working. Since the major contentious issue in the case of elite private schools has been the fee structure, the registering authority would be expected to take it up. The ordinance, however, gives a school the right to impose its fee structure so long as it is not raised in the middle of the academic year. It seems unlikely in view of past experience that the government will really manage to regulate the fees. Earlier efforts to curb fee hikes by private schools have failed.

Having been given a free hand in a laissez faire environment for over 15 years, these institutions insist that they are operating in the open market. If the elite institutions manage to enrol students in spite of their high fees, the reason is the better quality education they provide in response to the popular demand. It being a seller’s market, in the absence of an alternative, the schools have the upper hand. If the government will, as a matter of policy, further expand the role of private schools they will be even more difficult to regulate. As it is, nearly 29,000 of the 36,800 private educational institutions are self-owned — only 2,500 are NGO-operated and 1100 belong to Trusts – which makes it more difficult to appeal to a higher altruistic motive.

The solution lies in adopting the conservative approach, namely, the revival of the public sector school system. Presuming that the political will exists, the government should concentrate its resources, manpower and managerial skills on its own schools rather than channel them into supervising the private sector.

First of all there is the question of mobilizing resources. Although the education budget has been increasing the rise has not been substantial. From Rs 34.8 billion in 1993-94 it has risen to Rs 72.2 billion in 2000-2001. But the education expenditure as a percentage of GNP has fallen in the same period from 2.22 to 2.06. Moreover the rise has not absorbed the inflation rate.  More disturbing has been the authorities’ failure to make optimum use of these resources. Corruption, inefficient use and mismanagement have resulted in wastage, which cannot be condoned. The phenomena of ghost schools, absentee teachers and missing facilities, which are receiving funds on paper, are the biggest evil in the education system today. This would also explain why the cost per child is in many cases higher in the public sector than in the private sector as claimed by the government. Wouldn’t it be more sensible if the inspectors to be appointed to keep a check on private schools were asked to focus their energy on the government schools?

The second major problem is the poor quality of teachers, which is now undermining the education system. Without good teachers it is not possible to effect any improvement in the academic standards. Not only are fewer teachers being trained and appointed in the primary section — the student-teacher ratio has worsened from 39:1 in 1990 to 54:1 in 2000. The quality of teachers training has also deteriorated and the teachers who are the product of this tottering system are not equipped or motivated enough to reform the system. This vicious cycle has to be broken somewhere.

There has been talk of inducting the private sector’s cooperation in the management of government schools. Exactly what form it will take has not been spelt out. The NWFP has invited the private entrepreneurs to take over school buildings and run them as low cost institutions. In Sindh the adopt-a-school programme seeks to improve decrepit schools by getting sponsors to do the job. Such sporadic efforts have not made a dent in the system. There is need to define the paradigms of this partnership between the public sector and the community. The government should drop all ideas of reducing its share in the education sector — at least at the primary level. Once it begins focussing on its own responsibilities, it will be able to devise strategies to resolve the crisis.

Source: Dawn, 10 February 2002