Education conversation

September 07, 2018


A NARRATIVE has been created and is being reinforced that education devolution, under the 18th Amendment, was a mistake and ‘some’ things need to be brought back under the control/ influence of the federal government. I want to offer some pushback against this view.

Have provinces not been able to make the progress that we expected them to make? It is true there are multiple and very grave issues in the education sector, across the country that need to be addressed on a high-priority basis. But these have not been created due to the fact that the education sector was devolved under the 18th Amendment.

Before 2010 and the 18th Amendment, the federation did have a larger role in education. Was education in a better position then and has the situation deteriorated, in any province, since then? Nothing in the data I have been looking at seems to suggest that.

In fact, devolution had forced the provinces to work harder on education and has also given rise to some competition amongst them. Since we also had different political parties in power in the provinces, the competition was quite intense. Even today there are debates on whether the PML-N government did more for education in Punjab or the PTI-led government did more in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa during the 2013-17 period. Budget allocations, claims about changes in the public sector, successes under private-public partnerships, scholarship schemes, and a host of other initiatives are identified as contributions that the respective governments made to the education sector. This was part and parcel of the competition that was set up by the devolution exercise undertaken through the 18th Amendment. Why would we want to reverse that?

Why should provinces not have the power to set their own curriculum?

Another way of thinking about it is to ask if the provinces have done anything they should not have done. The main ‘fears’ that have been expressed have been about the lack of a common curriculum and lack of standards. Will the provinces choose to teach different types of mathematics or teach more or less of it? The fears are not about mathematics and/ or science; they are more about history and regional narratives and the possibility of losing the dominant national narrative.

There are some important issues here that need untangling. Should the federation set a curriculum for the entire country? There does not seem to be a good argument for saying that they should. Why should provinces not have the power to set their own curriculum? Why would we assume that the federation would be more worried about the people in a province than the provincial government of that province? Is commonality, across Pakistan, important?

In some cases, standards might be important. In others, it does not matter. We should expect children who pass grade 5, 8 or 10 to have a certain level of competency, but why would we want the government to dictate that centrally or not allow certain variations in it? Some commonality on standards can be achieved without a rollback and through voluntary agreements, with the provinces, through the Council of Common Interests and similar fora.

The federation should definitely invest in having standardised data on education from the provinces. There is a need to create some uniformity in education information systems across the provinces, and if that is achieved the federation can collate the data to create a standard and harmonised national picture of education data from across the country.

We do not need standard examinations across the country. There is already some variation in examinations across boards. Why should that be taken as a weakness? Other countries too have many examination boards, and schools can choose which boards they want to prepare their students for. We can have the same system in Pakistan and can even allow private examination boards to come up.

Creating examinations is not an easy task and we could argue that since we do not have a lot of psychometricians, we need to consolidate examination creation in a few places rather than have many boards. But this is an argument for thinking about the reorganisation of examination boards, and not one for centralisation under the federal government. The two issues are separate.

The federation may have an interest in ensuring that all children be exposed to certain narratives about religion and nationalism. This can also be done through a voluntary agreement with the provinces. And it can be done through issuing a ‘model’ curriculum that the federation can develop and publicise. If the model curriculum is good, the provinces will more likely than not follow it.

Another powerful tool the federation can use, and this is used in some other countries as well, is to offer conditional grants to ‘encourage’ provinces to move in a certain desired direction. If the federation wanted provinces to invest more in educating girls it could offer conditional and/ or matching grants. It would be hard for provinces to resist if the offer were attractive enough.

Last but not least, the PTI has been making a strong case for local governments and devolution and has promised to introduce and implement effective local government mechanisms in Punjab. How do we square the vision of a decentralised government with the demand for centralising certain aspects of education?

There are many first-order issues in the education sector that need attention: how do we get all children into schools, how do we improve the quality of education, do we impart skills training and when, and so on. Attempts to centralise will only detract from the more important issues and debates and not yield anything of value either. It is not a fight that we can afford to indulge in.

The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives and an associate professor of economics at Lums, Lahore.

Published in Dawn, September 7th, 2018