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Mirage of education

Published May 20, 2012 12:20am


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THE manner in which the goal of universal primary education has been pursued in Pakistan over the past few decades is a matter of national shame.

It epitomises the callous indifference, if not deliberate negligence, of the state and society in discharging its obligations towards the poor. Pakistan’s performance in the primary education sector has been dismal. Whether judged through indicators such as enrolment rates, adult literacy, the quality of education or gender parity, we have hovered around the bottom of the world’s 10 worst performers.

Notwithstanding countless policy documents and pronouncements made here and at international conferences, education for all remains a mirage.

Part of the reason for this public apathy is the lack of focus on the transformative role of primary education. It is not merely a matter of bad governance, mismanagement, favouritism or even the lack of resources.

Access to primary education, which should last to a minimum of the age of 16, empowers the individual and his or her family to seek their rights and benefit from the opportunities available in society. It is the single most powerful instrument for changing the status quo in our economic and social structure. Education also plays a vital role in forging national cohesion. The increasing fragmentation of our society can arguably be attributed to our broken educational system.

Equally important is the need for treating education as a public good. It is well known that the production of a public good — whose social benefits typically exceed private benefits — requires considerable subsidies that have to be financed through the taxation of the rich. In the absence of such cross-class subsidisation, education becomes restricted to the children of affluent households who can afford to pay the market price.

The state needs to provide additional incentives to the poor, such as conditional cash transfers to induce children’s enrolment in school. In a fiscally delinquent Pakistan, this is a very challenging demand. Resultantly, the government shifts its responsibility to for-profit or non-profit institutions. The latter, however, by their very nature are hardly committed to universal goals, although some do make concessions to those unable to pay the full fees.

The incursion of private and quasi-private (including NGO) institutions into the field of education began in 1979 in the wake of the Ziaul Haq government’s reversal of Z.A. Bhutto’s nationalisation of private educational institutions. On the face of it, it intended to stem the tide of commercialism and exploitation of both teachers and parents by private entrepreneurs — with the exception of a few who were benignly motivated — the move was met with tough resistance from vested interest parties and was undone soon after the military takeover.

Ziaul Haq allowed the private sector back into education and encouraged investment in the sector as a means of conserving resources for defence and security expenditures, which received higher priority than public services such as health and education.The commercialisation of education that prompted Z.A. Bhutto to nationalise private educational institutions in 1974 holds barely a flickering candle to the daylight robbery of today’s educational barons — some of whom are well-ensconced in political parties. The rapid expansion of chains of elitist private schools that charge fees well beyond the known earning capacity of many of the pupils’ parents, is clear evidence of the elitist bias in our educational system that diverts resources and policy attention from achieving primary education guaranteed under Article 25-A of the constitution.

Many factors have led to the rapid growth of private schools, currently estimated at 56,000 or more (accounting for about 40 per cent of all schools in the country) and make them one of the fastest-growing markets in the country. Some of the more successful private school chains are reportedly charging not only high tuition fees but ‘franchise’ money of up to Rs1.5m. The main reason is the elite’s quest for a higher quality of education and its urge for exclusivity.

The growth of private schools has gone hand in hand with the decline of public schools. Indeed, there seems to be a symbiotic relationship between the two. The growth of private schools adversely impacts the quality of education in government schools, which are reduced to educational ghettos/orphanages that have experienced the steady exodus of children of relatively prosperous parents and good teachers to private schools or tuition centres. The harrowing tales of neglect, misuse and the depredation of public schools that are related in the media are enough to scare even low-income parents into sending their children to private schools.

The supporters of private schools, however, argue that private education is no longer an elitist or urban phenomenon; that private schools are more efficient and sustainable (even affordable). Some of them would like to dismantle the publicly funded school system altogether and hand it over to the fast-growing private school and philanthropic foundations sectors. However, as argued earlier, the goal of universal primary education can be served only by the public education system and the latter can at best play a secondary role.

But it is unlikely that the trend can be reversed as the vested interests in private education are much more strongly entrenched and even in cahoots with the government. As renowned columnist Zubeida Mustafa recently commented “… on the quiet, the government is using them [public-private partnership programmes] as a pretext to disengage itself from the education sector”.

Perhaps those directly affected by this exclusionary process — the poor — will have to take matters into their own hands.

The writer is a former professor of economics at the Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.


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The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (10) Closed

JAY KOMERATH May 20, 2012 03:37pm
Jay Komerath Excellent article,but to this also should be added the fact of the perverted influence of the Clergy.I have reason to beleive that in Pakistan,"Relitigious education," begins in the Lowest grade of the sand I am told that it is one sided instead of many faceted.This breeds an army Militants,ready to sacrifice their life for religion, and extreme fanaticism. and I beleive that Zia has something to do with this. Jay Komerth
Swaraj May 20, 2012 04:45pm
you have already chosen the former - the world knows!
Cyrus Howell May 20, 2012 04:52pm
"Those who minister to poverty and disease are accomplices in the two worst of all crimes." GEORGE BERNARD SHAW = We might add all those paid to write position papers on, and attend conferences on education. . Being educated in a madrasa is better than having no education at all.
Cyrus Howell May 20, 2012 04:55pm
GUNS or BOOKS? . "I learned my country must be strong, It's always right and never wrong. That's what I learned in school."
Cyrus Howell May 20, 2012 05:14pm
The wealthy in Pakistan are true Republicans. They cannot understand why you want to send all this children to school who are unable to learn. My mother had only one dress to go to school high school in each year. Every day the same dress. There were eleven children in the family. Sometimes it was a sister's "hand me down". She became a registered nurse, an airline stewardess and a high school teacher. Many of the top gangsters I remember had holes in their shoes as children of large Italian families during the Great Depression. If you are denied education or skip it you find another way to escape poverty. . At the elementary school in my neighborhood a breakfast and a lunch are provided. At the Sioux Indian reservation on Pine Ridge, South Dakota one can see more than 100 Indian ponies tied up around the school every day. Children want to go to school and interact with other children. It is the mirror of their souls.
Amarnath May 20, 2012 09:15am
In the sub-continent, we can say with confidence that 90% of the plans by govt fails... and primary education is definitely falls in that failed bucket. Now let us say that we ban privates schools, it still would not change that underlying blatant infficiency of the govt machinery in providing public services ... in this case education. Even if private education institute charges exhorbitant fee, they atleast ensure an efficient education process for those who are able to afford it. Inefficiency of govts, cannot be cited as a reason to chide the private educational institutes, even if these private institutes are completely commercialized.
Reshma May 20, 2012 07:41am
A very important issue of mashrooming of private schools on the expense of declining public education quality is highlighted. It is one of the reasons that poor people are kept in the vicious cycle of poverty.......their children get low quality education from public school system, are unable to get better jobs and eventually end up with poverty again. Serious steps are needed to maintain the quality of education in public schools.
Meesam May 20, 2012 08:16am
Destruction of education sector is key to destruction of whole society. I believe the one single CORE problem if solved can lead us to prosperity and if left unsolved can lead to the continual destruction is the "educational quality and availability". How can we expect mere 20% educated to do anything right?
Agha Ata May 20, 2012 05:32am
We have two choices: A strong army with nuclear bombs and funds for an on- going- arm- race with India. The second choice is education. Choose one!
Abid May 21, 2012 07:37am
Maybe we can learn something from India Right to Education act. It also has a sort of school voucher scheme whereby private schools have to reserve 25% of seats for poor students. Also, we have a apartheid kind of situation when it comes to schooling. The government needs to end this. Government schools teaching in national language urdu and elite using English. This also keeps the poor people down and restricts upwards mobility. A good read on education is chapter 4 " Top of the Class" in Poor Economics by Banerjee and Duflo