Is more money good news?

July 08, 2013

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ALL provinces have increased their budgetary allocations for education and as an educationist I am expected to be pleased by the development. I am not — might we not be throwing more good money after bad?

As an analyst I need to see a credible diagnosis that education is held back by a shortage of funds. I find it curious we have so convinced ourselves of that. There are many countries that started out at the same level of economic development and have done much more with equally constrained resources.

Take just one indicator, the literacy rate among 15- to 24-year-old females: Pakistan at 61pc compares very unfavourably with Sri Lanka and China at 99pc, Nepal and Bangladesh at 77pc, and India at 74pc. It would be hard to argue that Sri Lanka or Bangladesh or Nepal were more resource-rich than Pakistan.

One might argue they allocated more to education than Pakistan in which case it is the flip side of the equation that is really the more interesting. Given that Pakistan was in the same league as these countries in terms of resource endowments, what prevented it from allocating more to education? What was unique about Pakistan? Were there popular pressures against education? Were political parties opposed to education? Was there no demand for better education?

None of these is a plausible proposition. The only conclusion that holds up is that successive governments, despite much lip service, have actually assigned very low priority to educating citizens. And this is what shows up in the resource allocation numbers.

Of course, another reason for better outcomes in the countries cited above could be much more efficient utilisation of resources. If so, it would point to the serious problem of public-sector governance in Pakistan that everyone is familiar with.

The present state of education is akin to a bucket with many holes in its bottom. Pour Rs100 into it and perhaps Rs5 will get to where they were intended. This would be a grossly inefficient way of promoting the national interest although it would be a bonanza for all those who would pocket the other Rs95.

Attaching low priority to education and extremely poor governance are major causes for the sorry state of the education sector today. Clearly, more money is not going to have any impact on governance. It is much more likely that the increased allocation would leak away as it has in the past in the form of salaries for unqualified or non-existent staff and for the construction and renovation of schools that exist only on paper.

More importantly, decades of neglect, corruption, misuse, and poor governance have distorted the education system to such an extent that more money might no longer be the most relevant input in its revival. The best analogy here is of cancer — the treatment that works when it is detected early is completely inappropriate when it has ravaged the body.

Once again, it would suffice to mention just one aspect of the non-monetary problems that plague the sector — the content of education. Pakistan has the second highest number of out-of-school children in the world — over five million in just the five- to nine-year age bracket – but what they might be taught is more problematic than whether they are taught at all. Someone rightly said that the educated middle classes in South Asia are more bigoted than the illiterate masses because they are ‘educated’.

I find nothing in the discussions that convey any sense of systemic thinking about the big issues in the sector. All the focus is on increasing allocations and that, in my view, is putting the cart before the horse.

What is needed is an appraisal of the issues followed by the articulation of a revamped system that passes the scrutiny of credible experts. Only when such a certification is obtained would it make sense to spend any money at all on the implementation.

This brings up the million-dollar question: what would trigger the transition to a revamped system that is certified as sound and sensible? What has changed from the past that would ensure this time is different?

For the moment I remain a pessimist. I have yet to see anything that suggests the state is really ready to raise the priority it accords to education. We will continue to be at the receiving end of lip-service and high-sounding promises.

What is needed to change the dynamic is serious, tangible pressure from citizens. That is the way politics is supposed to work in the age when sovereignty resides with the people.

A look at history might be instructive. In France students had to riot in 1968 to force reform of its outmoded system of education. Columbia University in New York City agreed to changes when students agitated in the same year. More recently, massive student protests in Chile between 2010 and 2012 brought radical change in education on the political agenda.

It is a fact that systems change, more often than not, either when a change is in the interests of the ruling class or when it is forced by pressure from below. Even a cursory look at Pakistan’s education system would reveal its bipolar distribution. There is just enough quality education at the top to accommodate the needs of its tiny elite. There is no pressure from below to improve the rest of the system.

Citizens need to be concerned. Citizens also need to be sufficiently organised to channel that concern in a politically effective manner. Without that there will just be more sweet whisperings in our ears.

The writer is dean of the School of Humanities, Social Sciences and Law at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.