EDUCATION is commonly thought to be a social good, and by some, considered a cure, or solution. Education, we are told, can be the driver of social change, create economic growth, and promises social mobility.
A year I spent with unemployed university graduates in Lahore paints a different picture of what education means in Pakistan today. The experience of being highly educated and unemployed should make us question some of the received wisdom, and to recognise the significance of social status. It also begs the question: what is the problem to which education is considered the solution?
International advocates including Gordon Brown and Michael Barber have referred to the transformational capability of education. For them, Pakistan is in need of development and education is the means to achieving that end. The World Bank views education as a crucial ingredient for economic growth, capable of reducing poverty. Nobel Peace Prize recipient Malala Yousafzai argues that education is a harbinger of a bright future.
While learning is not unimportant, it gets lost in the quest for employment and prestige.
Local politicians echo some of these sentiments, highlighting the potential shift to a ‘knowledge economy’. Other local advocates, who have a more nuanced view, see an education crisis, involving 25 million children between the ages of five and 16 years estimated to be out of school. But what we all have in common is an unquestioning belief in the economic and emancipatory power of education. Or do we?
Some unemployed graduates see education differently. While there is a strong faith in the cognitive abilities granted by further studies, there is a view that education is part of a strategy of securing a job along with status in a highly competitive environment. Thus, while learning is not unimportant, it gets lost in the quest for high marks, for employment, and for prestige. I began to understand that the other part of the education strategy involves applying for government jobs, which in turn means that test scores and qualifications are the key instruments in the race. In a way, this tightly competitive scramble is driven by the quest for prestige, a stable income, and perks and privileges.
The significance of education in this race may have something to do with the nature of the competition. Over 14,000 people applied to take the 2014 CSS exam, competing for 222 positions. Job seekers are cognisant of the fact that 30,000 applicants were due to take a screening test for the Sindh Public Service Commission in December, and that nearly 100,000 individuals applied for a limited number of positions in the defence ministry in March 2014. This crushing competition should be seen in the context of an increasingly educated labour force.
Estimates by the State Bank indicate that two million individuals enter the labour force annually. The Higher Education Commission statistics indicate that more than half of those entrants may have a university degree.
In light of these demographic and economic pressures, what does education mean today? What the two different conceptions of education share is the belief that attaining an education enables social mobility. But where the two different perspectives diverge reveals the way education falls short of the great expectations it cultivates. This gap illustrates how education is deeply connected to a system of status and power.
For young men with degrees but without jobs, that system positions people in government hierarchies and redirects highly trained professionals including engineers and doctors towards the elite bureaucracy. But without contacts, guidance, mentoring and above all, power, education becomes a limited springboard for their aspiration of joining another class.
This experience confirms what other studies have shown in other parts of the world, as access to education has become easier but securing employment has not. As researchers have pointed out, education by itself will not resolve inequalities or create jobs.
Few would dispute the importance of education. After all, it’s hard to disagree with what seems like common sense. The main point, of course, is that education in and of itself is no panacea. The system of education, as the experience of many young people illustrates, is embedded in a larger race for status and power. And the way to negotiate the job market is, therefore, not just about getting an education but about looking for a ‘source’ or for sifarish, itself in many ways a hopeless quest.
Systematic inequalities brought about by the multiple systems of education, economic disparity, and by a skewed structure of opportunity raise questions about the enthusiasm for education among certain sectors in Pakistan. Perhaps the problem is not a lack of development or growth but the system of class and power that positions people, however intensely they pursue opportunity by merit.
The writer is a PhD student in applied anthropology at Teachers College, Columbia University.
Published in Dawn, January 12th, 2015