Elitist approach to education

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

THE chapter on education in the Pakistan Economic Survey 2004-05, released in June, is ‘question-provoking’, if one is allowed to use the term. It says the right things about the importance of education for change in society and the progress of the masses.

The goals of the government spelt out are also very inspiring, that is if you believe them. It says that the “Government of Pakistan has adopted this sector (education) as one of the pillars for poverty reduction and benefit of masses. Government is fully committed to provide best Educational Facilities to its people in the minimum possible time.” (Reproduced without editing).

How have the policymakers decided to go about their task of spreading education in the country with the idea of achieving EFA (education for all)? Regrettably, all the loud talk notwithstanding, one finds little in the strategy adopted to inspire confidence in the government’s education policy. In analysing the reasons for our failure in the education sector, the Survey observes, “One important factor is that Pakistan’s educational system has been highly fragmented and segmented. It has, therefore, created some intractable problems in the optimal utilization of human resources under the given labour market condition.”

This analysis is to a certain extent correct though equally important is the poor quality of education being imparted to most students. The approach adopted will only serve to fragment the system even further and will hardly improve the standard of education. Moreover, enrolment and literacy are not growing as fast as one would have liked them to.

According to the government’s statistics, literacy went up from 51 per cent in 2001-02 to 53 per cent in 2003-04. This is hardly an increase of one per cent in the literacy rate per annum whereas the primary school enrolment grew at about 0.8 per cent in the last year. With the population growth rate said to be 2.7 per cent, it is obvious that the country is not keeping pace with the number of new children being added, not to speak of the existing backlog of illiteracy.

In other words, even though the literacy rate is going up, the absolute number of illiterates in the country is also growing. This phenomenon cannot be halted until the government steps up the expansion rate of educational institutions, especially at the primary level. Things are

not too bright on this front either as the government is gradually slowing down its pace of expansion in the primary education sector and gradually shifting the load to the private sector.

This has euphemistically been termed as the public-private partnership. With the private sector actively being encouraged to enter this field, the number of private schools, colleges and universities has suddenly shot up. So has enrolment. Nearly 42 per cent of primary school children now go to private schools.

This is not a very happy situation. First of all, the private schools which do provide good education are either too elitist and charge an exorbitant fee which few can afford, or are not easily accessible as they are community/trust/denominational schools and are few in numbers. The others which have mushroomed are not necessarily providing education of a high standard.

Since the government is so beholden to them for sharing its responsibility, it is not in a position to exercise any regulatory authority over these institutions. This would explain why enrolment is not going up fast enough and why standards are going down. The authorities should not underestimate the intelligence of the poor. When their child cannot be provided education that improves his prospects in life, they prefer to pull him out of school.

The concept of public-private partnership has been misunderstood and is confined to the NCHD (National Commission for Human Development). This commission that was set up in 2002 has as its mission the promotion of development in the field of education, health and micro finance. Although it has mobilized $5.5 million from private donors, the bulk of its funds ($34 million) come from government resources.

Yet the NCHD has been given a free hand to administer the schools while individual adopters (in Karachi under the Sindh Education Foundation’s adopt a school programme) have been expressing their frustration at the non-cooperation of and interference from the education authorities. These factors do not permit them to improve the performance of their school for which they have been paying.

It is strange that the government has chosen to neglect the primary education sector. With dynamic leadership provided by its head, Dr Attaur Rahman, the Higher Education Commission has become the focal point of the education sector. It is good if college and university education receives a boost. It has after all also been neglected for years. But without the base (primary education) being strengthened, it seems unrealistic to expect the universities to produce graduates of a high class.

The primary sector continues to be stagnant as the basic malaise affecting it has not been addressed. The lack of efficient monitoring and inspection has given rise to problems such as ghost schools, absenteeism among teachers and corruption. The poor training of teachers has resulted in a dismal quality of education. Whether this will ever be attended to, time alone will tell.

But the basic fact is that the political will to educate the nation is missing. As one of our letter writers pointed out the other day that the president or the prime minister never attend the convocation of a public sector university but appear quite willing to go to the graduation ceremonies of one of the elitist private institutions. This is creating further fragmentation which the Economic Survey warns against.

We surely cannot have education for the rich and education for the poor. This will perpetuate the class divide which has already become so pronounced in Pakistan. If education is bifurcated too, unemployment, underemployment and low-paid jobs will be the lot of the poor.