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Pakistan’s educational problems

Published Dec 09, 2012 05:18am

The first time I thought about education and its significance to this society was when I went on a field trip to a school set up by an NGO in the late 1990s. It is now a rightly famous NGO but back then during my sixth grade field trip it just seemed like a project of a group of cranky Karachi businessmen who had decided to spit against the wind of the government’s non-interest in providing education to its people.

These rich grouches had gotten together in the chaos of 1995 Karachi and seeing the government more interested in massacring hard-boiled militants than provide social services, they decided to simply pool their own money and build their own schools. How benevolent of them. I would love to see these rich men’s tax receipts.

The citizens of a country shouldn’t be dependent on the benevolent charity of rich men. Through their own democratic political process, citizens must enforce upon their richest members the income taxes necessary to fund an education system that reaches every child in the state. The fact that Pakistanis have not done so points towards the weakness of their political system in dealing with its population’s educational needs.

There is no real shortcut from the state actually enforcing a tax system that extracts the adequate revenue needed to fund the creation of a school near every human settlement in Pakistan. The goal I have described of having a school near every human settlement in Pakistan, is what Pakistan is obligated to do under its current international treaties and the simplest and most straightforward way it can be done. It is certainly not impossible. Pakistan has managed to make sure that no human settlement lacks a mosque. The same needs to be done for schools.

Where we went wrong

Nationalisation of schools, as was done by the Z.A. Bhutto administration, was a shortcut that cannot be used, and was actually instrumental in ruining government schools. The provincial governments that ran education departments became overstretched then to the point of breaking. The schools that were nationalised saw the prospect of future capital and human investment in them pointless, as the former owners were now dispossessed of their old stake in the schools. Good teachers left, rather than become government employees to be posted in far flung places, and the lack of good teacher training colleges, a necessity unacknowledged up until recently, saw little competent replacement.

By nationalising the missionary (Christian), faith-based (Muslim) and private schools, an unwieldy, unplanned expansion of Pakistan’s school system reduced the status of government school teachers to the corrupted, incompetent, ineffective place it finds itself in today. Teachers do not come to classes, and if they do, they are ill-prepared to teach. It becomes difficult to weed out and penalise underperforming teachers because their status as government employees prevents them from being penalised as they would be in the private sector.

As much as this rhetoric may sound similar to the United States, Pakistan’s teachers’ unions continue to shelter wildly incompetent teachers, who beyond being simply bad at teaching, many times do not even show up.

Anti-participatory environment

We are not helped either by large class sizes, low teacher to student ratios, non-production of teachers in a sufficient quantity and quality by the low number of Pakistani teacher-training colleges.

Central to this remains the criminally low expenditure on education by Pakistan, and the failure to collect or divert enough revenue to the education sector. Taking the education emergency of Pakistan seriously would mean finding means to increase the amounts spent on education in Pakistan, on a war footing.

Students cannot themselves push for an effective learning environment. Despite the fact that some students actually do want to learn, the environment that exists in classrooms, does not brook dissent. This discourages students from bringing up flaws in their educational setting. This anti-participatory environment in classrooms is facilitated by excessively large class sizes, which discourages teachers from having more individualised interactions with students.

This anti-participatory trend in classrooms is complemented by an anti-democratic trend in schools, where no voting is done to elect new prefects or monitors, rather the relevant students are appointed by the school administration.

Giving students an opportunity to actually vote for their school leaders might inculcate democratic and participatory values in them at an earlier age, and teach them the responsibility of making their own decisions.

If and when these students reach Pakistani universities, they can adequately recognise the entrenched authoritarianism accumulated in many of Pakistan’s universities over the last three decades.

Student politics

This persistent anti-democratic trend within Pakistan’s educational establishments has reinforced the low academic quality of these institutions.

There is little legitimate input from the student bodies on how their education is conducted. Since the 1980s student union elections have been either banned or delayed, witnessing unrest in a violent country like Pakistan ripple into campuses as violence, as opposed to measured debate.

The situation turned chaotic in the 1990s when the general mayhem of the city of Karachi coincided with violence on the Karachi University campus.

The presence of such violence made the students of that decade disinterested in participatory politics. This suited the authoritarian and bureaucratic administrations of varsities, as well as the sclerotic, unelected leadership of Pakistan’s political parties. They did not mind that the students of Pakistan slid into political apathy.

However, the importance of student politics was re-kindled in the 2007 lawyer-led movement against the dictatorship of General Musharraf. The importance of student politics was even acknowledged by the government that won against Musharraf in 2008, when it lifted the ban on student and trade union elections.

However, the twist in the tale has been the glaring domestic democratic deficit of this government. The anti-participatory atmosphere on campuses has not lifted as no memorable student elections have been held. Neither have any well-publicised trade union elections been held. And most significantly, no internal party elections have been held in any party that maintains a decisive number of seats in parliament.

What the lack of student democracy has to do with Pakistan’s state of education is that there is no feedback from students, who are the objects of education. There is no diminishment in the cruel authoritarian atmosphere of Pakistani government classrooms, where teachers, in negligent enough environments can still use sticks to punish students.

Outdated syllabus

Along with training enough sane and competent teachers to replace the dangerous, lazy and incompetent ones, Pakistanis must also look to revise an outdated and at times bigoted syllabus. This would be a little more difficult as it would require dealing with ill-created syllabi across four different provincial textbook boards (textbook creation being a provincial subject).

We know the importance of education in Pakistan. This is the second decade of the 21st century and it has just begun to sink into the population of Pakistan that the education of their children is necessary for their economic prosperity.

One can credit the digital and electronic media explosion of the last decade for finally driving this point home for our population, that children’s education is no longer an option, but a necessity. Our digitized and plugged-in century has abundantly made clear to people the necessity of modern education.

I never really thought about education in society as a child. That would have been expected of any 11 year old. But when I visited a third grade NGO school classroom in the late ’90s and saw another 11 year old struggling with phrases I would read just for fun, it hit me how serious the problem of illiteracy was for Pakistani society.

In a misbegotten decade as that one, beyond the Gordian knot we had witnessed of Karachi’s bloody politics, the reality of children’s mis-education struck me as a crueler fate, a dire issue that had to be resolved immediately. That’s because these ill-educated children would not remain children much longer. They would soon be badly-educated adults.

And if this cruel act of omission by Pakistani society was not amended quick enough, then one more generation would see their adulthoods wasting away under the 21st century curse of illiteracy.

Tax the rich, teach the kids. We have an education emergency on our hands.