LAST Thursday, massive demonstrations in Santiago, Chile, captured the world’s attention. It was not the Latin American version of the Arab Spring. It was something more, which would be unheard of in Pakistan.

Hundreds of thousands of people — high school and university students, teachers and NGOs — were out on the streets demanding education reforms from the government. For the past several months they had been calling for, among other things, quality education for all, ban on the commercialisation of education in the private sector and an increase in government spending on education.

Many in Pakistan will find this puzzling in view of the fact that Chile ranks 45 out of 169 on UNDP’s Human Development Index, has a literacy rate of 97 per cent and a gross educational enrolment rate of 82 per cent while the official spending on education is 3.1 per cent of GDP. But at the root of the evil is the unequal distribution of wealth that allows 10 per cent of the population to hold more than 40 per cent of the country’s wealth.

That should explain the vast discontent in the ranks of the youth in Chile most of whom fail to benefit from the country’s wealth in terms of education and, as a result, fail to get good jobs. But isn’t that also the case with the youth in Pakistan? Yet we have never seen anyone agitating for better and more equitable education in the country. The media, especially television, do not find the malaise that plagues education sensational enough to merit their attention.

When it comes to education, I feel that enough concern has not been expressed. If there is agitation it is by teachers for higher salaries and by parents complaining against the incessant and arbitrary rise in the fees of private schools. Both have my sympathy. But their lack of concern at the poor quality of education is shocking. They are not worried about the damage our faulty education system is causing to the country and its youth. After all, who would understand this better than the teachers?

True, there are advocacy groups pushing the cause of quality education in the public sector to exert pressure on policymakers. But they don’t seem to make an impact. Some honest and sincere organisations working to provide education to the poor do not have the manpower or funds to lobby policymakers for change at the macro level.

The disparity in the education sector in Pakistan is beyond belief. Equally unbelievable is the apathy of the educated classes. They either fail to understand the implications of this inequity or they lack the conscience to play a role in the matter. At the heart of the problem is the unequal distribution of wealth that has split Pakistan into a country with a huge class of have-nots ruled by an oligarchy of haves.

The UNDP’s 2010 HDI which now focuses on the equality factor as well is quite revealing. It informs us that the values calculated for education would slip by 46.4 per cent for Pakistan when adjusted for inequality. There are only five other countries (four of them sub-Saharan states and Yemen) which show greater inequality in their education sector.

Should this surprise us? Many of our upscale schools charge fees that touch the sky. Yet there are parents who willingly pay this fee because they have that kind of money. The monthly fee in most cases is more than what an average worker earns in a month to feed his entire family of nine (if we accept the official demographic figures).

The key question is why is there no protest? The fact is that those who are adversely affected do not understand the importance of education that really educates as they have been denied this privilege themselves. Now they want their children to acquire that piece of paper which they believe will open the door for jobs and upward mobility for them.

There are others who are well endowed themselves and understand that an education that does not impart knowledge, skill and the ability to think critically will not make much of a difference to the lives of many. They act selfishly because they know that the badly educated will not be a threat to the privileges and lucrative jobs they hold. This becomes a vicious cycle as their children alone qualify for the elite schools and then for the good jobs. That is how the concentration of wealth is created.

With the country so badly split between the haves and the have-nots, it is becoming increasingly difficult to bridge the gap. But given the conditions today it is unlikely that this phenomenon can go on forever. Besides, even the privileged and the rich need the underprivileged to do the blue-collar work for them. If the government does not address this issue circumstances will take care of them.

A teacher working in a government school operating in a defence forces’ residential colony told me that at one time only the children of the lower grade staff were enrolled in her school. The senior officers sent their children to elite private schools outside the colony. Then came a time when the militants’ attacks on military installations and transport escalated. With children becoming vulnerable it was decided to bring them back to the schools in their secure protected areas. Within no time the government school was spruced up. Here there is something to think about.

www.zubeidamustafa.com

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