A slogan ready for retirement

May 29, 2017

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PAKISTAN spends more on education than anyone thinks. Calls for Pakistan to ‘double the education budget’ are repeated as if by rote, but the slogan deserves questioning.

The education budget is closing in on the official defence budget, at Rs790 billion and Rs860bn respectively last year. It’s no surprise that the education budget caught up. It has more than doubled since 2010, from $3.5bn to $7.5bn. It did not double at once. Instead, it grew by an average of 17.5 per cent every year.

The federal education budget — still 2pc — continues to be cited to inspire horror at how little Pakistan spends on education. But education has been a provincial responsibility since 2010. To know what Pakistan budgets for education, one must add up provincial budgets. Those figures are not out yet but will probably follow the trend of previous years.

Most provinces allocate over 20pc of their budgets to education — KP budgeted 28pc last year. Half of KP government employees are in education. Half of all government salaries in Balochistan go to education. Pakistan’s teaching force is the size of the military but without discipline and a sense that national interests must be doggedly pursued.

Double the education budget? We should demand 100pc literacy instead.

Unesco recommends that 15pc to 20pc of national budgets go to education. The global average is 14pc. Pakistan’s budgets amount to 13pc, the same as the US and the UK.

What does amount to 2pc of the education budget is foreign aid. The UK’s largest aid programme is in Pakistan, but their education aid equals only 2pc of what Pakistan budgets. USAID’s contribution also equalled 2pc at its height. The resources to resolve this crisis are at home.

We think that Pakistan underspends on education because our discussion fixates on one point: Pakistan budgeted 2.83pc of its GDP on education last year, short of a 4pc global standard. But that is just one way to measure spending, and it is not a good fit for Pakistan.

First, a small part of our GDP is a large part of our budget because we don’t have money to spend. We don’t recover enough of our GDP through taxes.

Second, nearly 40pc of children in Pakistan are in private schools. So almost half of education spending is coming from parents’ pockets. The Institute for Social and Policy Sciences estimates that parents spend Rs829bn on education. That easily doubles Pakistan’s spending past 4pc of GDP.

The biggest problem with making the GDP measure the centre of public advocacy is that it is hard to digest. The moment I start talking about GDP, people’s eyes glaze over. Ironically, Pakistani elites have defined their education debate so esoterically that we cannot think critically about it.

‘Double the budget’ is a narrative that elites have chosen. It is static; divorced from the layman’s reality. It is also very convenient for leaders in charge of education. We demand that they get their budgets, but we have little to say about where that money goes.

The rationale for spending 4pc of GDP on education is that everyone else is doing it. But there is a crucial follow-up question that no one asks: will spending another Rs400bn put kids into school — the crux of the education crisis?

Experience tells us ‘no’. Enrolment has stagnated since 2010, even though Pakistan has doubled its budget. How Pakistani provinces are performing has little to do with how much they budget. Sindh has octupled its budget, but it lags far behind Punjab and KP in getting teachers to show up to school.

It turns out that children are out of school because they get so little out of going to school.

Children in government schools say teachers arrive late, drink tea, make them massage their feet, ask them to buy them barfi, and leave early. At best, these schools are daycares. At worst, they expose children to physical and sexual abuse.

Currently, less than half of grade 3 students can read. By grade 5, most kids have dropped out. Among those who are left, only half can read. If I was a child facing a choice between spending five years in school and having half a chance at literacy or finding something better to do with my time, I’d choose the latter.

Schools in Pakistan do better when they spend efficiently. Currently Punjab is outsourcing failing schools to private management, and getting better results, at half the cost of what it normally spends per child.

Thanks to the barebones salaries of private school teachers — Rs2,500 to Rs5,000 per month — low-cost private schools spend half or less than what the government does per child but their students are two grades ahead. Government teachers are paid Rs15,000 to Rs100,000 per month.

The danger of doubling the education budget without a plan is that it will go straight into salaries as it has in Sindh where the salary budget has gone up by 12 times since 2010.

Instead of original analysis using open budget data, we have opted to recycle a foreign-fuelled slogan, blindly. No one noticed when Pakistan doubled its budget or when the education budget began to rival the official defence budget. Even the Pakistani government got ahead of the advocacy campaigns and public intellectuals. The path that Punjab and KP have taken — steady increases each year, coupled with reforms, driven by uncompromising political leaders — is a more sensible approach.

Instead of getting the education budget to 4pc of GDP, we should demand a 100pc literacy rate for the 17 million children who are in primary schools. If schools can signal this level of basic functioning and governments can demonstrate that they are optimising their use of public resources, then finding the money to expand an already unwieldy system will be a much smaller challenge.

The writer is a Wilson Centre Global Fellow and author of Pakistan’s Education Crisis: The Real Story.

Twitter: @NadiaNavi

Published in Dawn, May 29th, 2017