Overhauling education

The government recently unveiled the National Education Policy 2009 amidst much fanfare. In accordance with this plan the federal cabinet has approved an increase in the budget outlay for education to seven per cent of the GDP by 2015.

Even if this plan is not altered in the next six years, which, according to the country’s track record is unlikely, it will not be possible to inject the proposed additional funds — though desirable — into the education sector because of resource constraints and mismanagement. Previous administrations were incapable of utilising the full amount allocated to them even when public expenditure on education was around a paltry two per cent.

According to a recent report, ‘Lahore alone had 1,340 schools but out of them 344 were without electricity, 223 without drinking water, 183 without walls and 185 without main doors. In Punjab 362 schools were grabbed by powerful local people … out of the 79,000 private schools, only 18,000 were registered with the government’. The situation is not any better in Sindh where it is estimated that there are 6,480 ‘ghost schools’. This is only the tip of the iceberg as conditions in the NWFP and Balochistan are worse.

Even if the proposed allocation of seven per cent of the GDP is met by 2015, formidable issues need to be resolved. Inter-provincial coordination needs to be established before the proposed uniformity of the syllabus and standards between public and private schools can be brought about.

Furthermore, many of the objectives of this document are based on the principle of equal opportunity for all. Although this looks impressive on paper, social dynamics in Pakistan present roadblocks that will be insurmountable if an attempt is made to redress them solely through an education plan. For instance, the federal minister for education, Mir Hazar Khan Bijarani, envisages an increase in the literacy rate from 55 per cent (ranking Pakistan 160th in the world) to 85 per cent through the implementation of the proposed education policy. The establishment of new schools and free education can only be fully utilised if the family income is above subsistence level. Soaring inflation and meagre wages have compelled all able members of a family to work. The priority here is survival and food on the table as opposed to merely acquiring a diploma or a certificate that cannot immediately meet the needs of the family.

Moreover, vocational training will address the pressing needs of families living below the poverty line better than merely increasing the period of high school education by two years. Keeping the deplorable state of the economy and job market in mind, this acquisition of skills must be backed by micro-credit schemes for the establishment of small business units nationwide.

The other hurdle in increasing the literacy rate is the cultural and perceived religious taboos that are associated with female education. This is the primary reason behind the appalling female literacy rate of an estimated 42 per cent in Pakistan.

A portion of the envisaged outlays for the education sector must, therefore, be utilised to address the problem. This would entail collaboration, if possible, with the mosque/madrassah networks as their influence amongst the masses is immense. This is likely to be resisted by the seminaries as many of them are hand-in-glove with the Taliban who reject female education as anathema to Islamic teachings.

The education minister has also stated that the madrassahs will be persuaded by the interior ministry to include subjects that will allow their graduates an opportunity to obtain employment. The interior ministry was previously given the task of establishing a Madrassah Welfare Authority by Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani to regulate and reform these seminaries. The resistance from religious parties, the ministry of religious affairs and the madrassah boards that followed, derailed this initiative. There has been no substantial change in the present structure or drastic shift in the mindset of vested interests to suggest a different outcome.

Furthermore, if madrassahs are being considered as educational institutes then their regulation should fall under the jurisdiction of the education ministry and not the interior ministry. However, the justification behind this anomaly is that, according to previous interior ministry statements, 10 per cent of these seminaries are known to subscribe to the Taliban/Al Qaeda ideology. These statistics raise the question why nothing has been done to neutralise these ‘factories of terror’.

Another study indicates that economic and social reasons account for 89.58 per cent of madrassah enrolment; the remaining 10.42 per cent is for religious, educational and political considerations. The acceptance by successive governments of these institutions functioning as social welfare organisations by providing board and lodging to millions of children whose families live in poverty, is tantamount to admitting that the state has failed in its responsibility to provide basic amenities to the less fortunate.

The provision of charitable services by madrassahs is only a smokescreen for obscurantist indoctrination in the guise of education. This has produced a radicalised segment of society that is not capable of either acquiring gainful employment or pursuing higher education. Moreover, the seminaries are not reliant on government funds. They are, therefore, unlikely to be receptive to the proposals outlined by the education minister.

Previous weak-kneed attempts by the state to regulate and reform madrassah activities and curriculum have been futile.

If the government is incapable or unwilling to reform these seminaries, then it should utilise its resources in providing board, lodging and education to the underprivileged as is being presently done by madrassahs.

Therefore, the implementation of the National Education Policy 2009 will entail the overhauling of not just the education system but the socio-economic set-up in Pakistan. This is a daunting task which requires the synchronisation of the efforts of various ministries and public-private partnerships to promote equitable educational opportunities.

Once the road maps are established to implement the goals proposed in the education policy it will be realised that there are no quick fixes. The problem is serious and requires an equally serious and sustained effort to resolve it.

The writer is editor-in-chief of Criterion Quarterly.


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