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Education concerns

June 19, 2017


A LONG time ago, I was in a quandary. I’d obtained basic academic qualifications, attempted a professional degree, and needed to figure out a career path. And while I did that, my far-from-impressed parents insisted that I get a job.

So I took the path trod by thousands of young women in urban Pakistan. I got a job as the class teacher for Grades 2 and 3 at one of Islamabad’s up and coming private schools — this was no middling-level school of dubious standards.

Today, I must ask: what qualified me to be the primary person handling the teaching of multiple subjects to seven- and eight-year-old children? I was, to be honest, a law school dropout with what even then had been reduced to that most pedestrian of BA degrees for the idly educated, English literature; this was my first real job.

Why was I considered fit to be the conveyor of ‘education’ to children who were in the formative stages of learning: tackling concepts, understanding the roots of analysis and critical thinking, developing the ability to question and cross-reference, and so on? Surely such potentially life-shaping power should have gone to a person with at least relevant experience if not a degree — to say nothing of commitment?

Standards are falling even in the best schools.

My tale encapsulates one of the most pervasive, yet under-recognised, gaps in the country’s education system — the disconnect between the resources pumped into colleges and universities, and the near-criminal paucity of the same at the primary and early-secondary tiers.

The Higher Education Commission has been the recipient of large sums of money. Instead of betterment in academia in real terms, though, the gains have largely been in terms of numbers: so many more accredited institutions, so many more PhDs, etc. The trouble is, PhD theses turn out to be plagiarised; ‘scholars’ resort to self-published books to boost their credentials; persons in august positions of academic excellence are exposed as having clay feet.

The National University of Science and Technology recently made it to the top 500 in the QS World University Rankings. A few other Pakistani institutions also hold positions on this scale. But depressingly, , of the over 180 varsities in the country, only six are ranked on the QS. By contrast, India has several institutions rating amongst Asia’s top 100.

We’re aware of the ruinous ‘education emergency’ that has Pakistan in its thrall, with no end in sight. But my contention is, even in the best schools, amongst those that are privileged enough to access education, there are falling standards. Part of the answer can be found in the type of person hired to teach at the early school-years-level.

Two types of teachers (almost exclusively female) dominate. There are those with little experience other than their ability to keep children involved in glorified daycare centres. Many of them are committed and profess to love children, which is great. But commitment and connection cannot replace degrees and formal training. Then, there are those that I think of as the ‘otherwise-housewives’, who are teaching at levels where degrees are not required so that the tuition fee of their own children is reduced. That says something about motivation, as well as the rapacious workings of ‘respectable’ institutions.

The onus lies not on these hard workers, but on the institutions — which is perhaps most of them — that display these hiring practices. They maximise profits (even while charging customers in the hundreds of thousands of rupees) by hiring staff that they can get away with paying the minimum possible — simply because they can. Such staff has neither commitment nor, usually, a long shelf life.

By contrast, consider that by Class 8 or 9, an amateur cannot teach maths or biology or English literature because the standards of the examinations being prepared require specialised knowledge. But in Class 1 or 2, or in kindergarten, institutions can get away with anything — and they do. The customers are held hostage by the lack of choice: private schools operating in a manner somewhat akin to a cartel, and the responsibility for quality public-sector education having long been abdicated by state institutions.

By the time students get to higher grades where they have access to specialist teachers, for many the damage has already, irretrievably, been done: poor grasp of concepts, weak ethical moorings, the tendency towards rote learning and short cuts, the search for the ‘right’ — not well-researched and well-argued — answer, an understanding of education and learning as something to acquire and file away rather than a lifelong mission towards understanding and excellence.

Is it any wonder, then, that Pakistan’s universities are churning out dross?

The writer is a member of staff.

Published in Dawn, June 19th, 2017