Talking of reforms

December 28, 2018

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

THE government is right in saying that it is hard to show success in 100 days. Most of the issues that we are trying to tackle, on the economic or social front, are not issues that can be resolved, if they can be, within a few months. The economy will take time to respond to policy changes. Even in social sectors like education and health, given that we are talking of large systems with entrenched issues, 100 days are too few to show any change.

But, the government argued, the direction of change can be gauged from the policy initiatives of the new government. And this is what was celebrated a few days ago, in Islamabad, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab.

How do we gauge the rightness of direction from policies? This is a non-trivial matter. Let me take the example of education to talk about this in some detail.

The ultimate goals in education that the government has endorsed are a) education for all five- to 16-year-olds and b) quality education for all children. In other words, are all children in school and are they learning what they are supposed to learn at their level? We have to judge all policies in the light of these ultimate objectives that have been set.

Are we going to jail parents if they are not able or willing to send children to school?

Some of the law and policy initiatives that have been announced by the Punjab government, in the area of education, are as follows. They are going to introduce three new laws in education. The truancy act will make it a civil/ criminal offence for parents to not send their children to school. There will be legislation for regulating the private sector and there will be separate legislation for introducing the idea of teacher certification and/or accreditation.

How do we judge, from the intention of introducing these laws (so-called direction of reform), as to whether these reforms will help or hinder in achieving the overall objectives? One obvious problem is that we do not know if these laws will be implemented effectively or not. There are plenty of laws on the books that have never been effectively implemented.

But even if we leave implementation issues aside, how do we work out if the said laws will help achieve the overall education policy objectives?

One way is to look at historical evidence or evidence from other countries. We did have an act pertaining to primary school enrolment and attendance even before we had Article 25A on the right to education inserted into the basic rights section of our Constitution. There is no evidence that that act was either implemented, or if it was, that it had any impact on enrolment or attendance. Even the inclusion of a clause 25A in the basic rights section of the Constitution of the country does not seem to have had any impact on either enrolments or attendance. Why would we think that the new law will have an impact?

All this is separate from the fact that criminalising non-enrolment and/or attendance for parents might not be a good idea to start with anyway. There are multiple reasons why children are not in schools. These might have to do with school availability, quality of education being given in schools, facilities, safety, and so on. How does criminalising non-attendance address any of these factors? And is it even fair to do so when so many other issues linked to supply, quality, cost and convenience remain unresolved?

The issue of regulation of the private sector is also very problematic. Look at how difficult it has been, even for the Supreme Court, to come up with any sensible and reasonable regulations. Our experience of trying to regulate the private sector in other domains as well, when state institutions are weak, incompetent and quite corrupt, has also not been very positive. Even large and specialised regulators like Pemra, Nepra, Ogra, SECP and the Competition Commission of Pakistan have made a hash of their respective domains. Will the experience of trying to regulate a much larger in number but more dispersed private education sector be any better? Will this help or hinder in achieving quality education for all?

The evidence on teacher certification is also quite mixed from other countries. There is no robust finding from the area that having certification requirements for teachers, even when well implemented, has an unambiguous and positive impact on teacher quality and quality of instruction.

Under the circumstances, should the government really expend energy on taking up these laws on the books and trying to implement them? None of this is going to be easy to implement. Are we going to send parents to jail if they are not able or willing to send children to school? Are we ready to do this? There are hundreds of thousands of private schools in Pakistan. Do we have the wherewithal to be able to regulate them effectively? Or will this legislation just end up facilitating opportunities for corruption or ad hoc victimisation? There are a million-plus teachers working in Punjab alone. Are we ready to certify all of them or turn them away from teaching if they do not get a certification?

When the gains from such legislation are so unclear, how do we start making judgements on whether the policy ‘direction’ is right or not? What is true of laws is also true of policies. Judging the efficacy of policies, from just policy announcements, is not easy.

The best thing to do for the government would be to have strong feedback loops from policy and/or law implementation to outcomes and then from outcomes to policy change. If a policy shows promise through outcome changes, we get to know about it. If not, the feedback loop allows us to amend policy in the desired direction. But this can only be done over time and if proper data gathering and policy feedback loops are in place. The notion of judging ‘direction’ seems vacuous.

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

Published in Dawn, December 28th, 2018