Home Digital Magazine The state of education in Pakistan – Ali Moeen Nawazish

The state of education in Pakistan – Ali Moeen Nawazish


Ali Moeen Nawazish |

The importance of education cannot be overstated; as a great equalizer and a foundation for the future of any develop- ing country. The world has moved on to a knowledge-based economy and without the right skills and training, indiscriminately accessible to all, it will be a di cult road ahead for Pakistan. Pakistan started o with a fairly good education system coming out of colonial rule. Of course, the goal of education then was different, as one colonial ruler said, “the purpose of the Indian education system is to produce clerks”. Still, we saw brilliant minds emerge, educators like Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, who took education by the helm.

However, the past 40 years have seen that, rather than adapting, modernizing and improving the quality of education, our public sector education has been on a downward trajectory. Earlier generations swear over the higher quality of education they received and this was despite schools lacking basic infrastructural facilities. Today, the quality of education has plummeted, forgotten by bureaucrats, coupled with an indifferent ruling class. The consequences have been daunting. We are producing a workforce, which lacks the ability to research and generate workable solutions to the problems in our society.

It also means that even locally we don’t and the requisite skills to uplift the Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) sector and technical trades. Technical training o ers fast-track employment with opportunities for entrepreneurship and is an absolutely vital way of helping the country and people move forward.

Universities are not spending enough on developing research proficient alumni, rendering the higher education systems incompetent. There is an urgent need to develop critical thinkers, with independent minds, ready to engage in debate, to cultivate a culture of innovation through research. Our graduates are becoming less competitive, a qualified workforce will go a long way to ensure mutually beneficial deals are possible with foreign companies. This lack of technical and academic discourse directly impedes progress. In most cases, students are left to the mercy of employers, for training and acquisition of technical skills required to solve the real problems in our society, industries, and economy.

Read more: Pakistan’s Education: Lack of Critical Thinking?

Free and Compulsory Education 

Article 25(a) of the Constitution codified into law, that the state was responsible for providing free and compulsory education: “The State shall provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age of veto sixteen years in such manner as may be determined by law.” Yet, we still see that a significant portion of the population is still out of school; it is a collective failure of the nation. Free and fair education laws need to be followed up by a strong political and bureaucratic will. In India, Kerala achieved 100% literacy because of the presence of will to take actions.

In January 2016, Kerala became the first Indian state to achieve 100% literacy rate through its education programme “Athulyam”. The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE Act) which was enacted in 2009 made it compulsory for all private schools to reserve 25% seats for children from disadvantaged groups which were to be reimbursed by the state as part of the public-private partnership plan. We see this in some areas in Gilgit Baltistan as well, and the village of Rasoolpur in Gujrat Pakistan, which has also achieved 100% literacy. There has to be a will, even at the lowest of levels, in the bureaucracy, which brings about change.

Of course, the goal of education then was different, as one colonial ruler said, “the purpose of the Indian education system is to produce clerks”. Still, we saw brilliant minds emerge, educators like Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, who took education by the helm.

Divide and Rule

The principal challenge in bringing about reforms lies in the massive divide between education systems across the country. It is divided via different boards that conduct the examinations, the language of instruction by the public and private sector, the local and international qualifications, religious education vs. secular education, by province, by the textbook board, and by geography. We don’t have a one-size ts all approach to education in Pakistan, which can be a positive given the flexibility it provides to the masses. But, in Pakistan’s case, it has become a roadblock in the way of equal access to standardized quality of education for all citizens.

The core issue is of education system variance, and a lack of quality control, resulting in graduates of the same level producing different qualities of work. If you were to start reforms you would have to bring everyone on the same page and make reforms universal, so no child gets left behind. One affordable curriculum and accessible exam system will go a long way in providing equal opportunity to all our children in exploring their potential. Partly this divide is caused by bad government policies. Multiple boards were created by different governments both provincial and federal. The Education Act needs to create one board to minimize this impact.

Read more: Can education be decolonized in Pakistan?

No one to Care!

One of the most important reasons for the dismal state of affairs is that no one with the power to bring change and reform to our education system has any personal stake in doing so. The concurrent private vs. public education systems in Pakistan means that our ruling elite and middle classes are completely disconnected from the public education system.

As Pakistan’s own education system deteriorated in quality, the elite, movers and shakers of society moved to alternatives in the form of private education with “imported” education. O Levels, A Levels, IB, senior Cambridge and junior Cambridge have become status symbols for the elite.

The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE Act) which was enacted in 2009 made it compulsory for all private schools to reserve 25% seats for children from disadvantaged groups which were to be reimbursed by the state as part of the public-private partnership plan.

This movement away from an indigenous education system by the chattering classes reduced pressure on the government to implement reform to improve the system. Only if examination quality is guaranteed will we be able to bid adieu to foreign boards, who also contribute hugely in eating up foreign reserves as well as creating an iniquitous society.

Everyone in parliament, top executives and top military personnel send their children to private schools. These elite private schools provide education for only those who can afford to pay. When you have people running a system, with no personal interest in improving that system, you won’t see the system improve.

Read more: The quality gap in Pakistan’s education system

A National Priority?

The importance of education is ingrained in our societal and cultural values. We are all taught at home about how important it is to study. With the exception of a few tied down by economic circumstances, most families would like their children to study and succeed.

This prioritization of education at the social level; however, has never translated to prioritization at the government and political level. One argument is that political education is a hard sell to voters – you can’t easily show bene ts of high- er quality education unlike pointing to a bridge built by the government. Similarly, voters don’t demand education with the same gusto and zeal as they demand other things from their political representatives such as assistance in police and legal matters.

Thus, there is a great disconnect between our belief, “Education is vital and important,” and the implementation of this belief. We would like to believe it is a priority, we support it being a priority, but when it comes to putting our money where our mouth is, we fail.

Is it about the Money?

A lot of debate has always revolved around how much money we spend on education. As a percentage of GDP, our spending on education is the lowest in South Asia.

It can be tempting to think that throwing more money at the problem may x it but the truth is that there is a fundamental lack of capacity to use the funds in a meaningful way in our system. The money needs to be spent, but not before reform is undertaken to make the system more efficient. For example, ghost schools and ghost teachers who don’t show up to teach are a big issue.

If we want to develop 100 more schools in a year, the existing bureaucracy will fail to deliver that. It won’t be possible to hire the required quality teachers toll these schools. Even if such schools were established we wouldn’t be able to get enrollment in them as per required levels. So, it isn’t just money, it is the implementation and consumption of that money which becomes a problem.

Read more: Education: A luxury afforded by the rich

The State of Higher Education

Over the last few decades, we have made significant strides in improving the state of higher education in the country. It has borne fruit and we see many quality universities producing quality graduates. Higher education, in general, received a huge push under the era of General Pervaiz Musharraf with Dr. Atta ur Rehman as his Minister for Science & Technology. We saw universities increase ve-fold in number.

The private sector also invested and we saw the establishment of private universities. While this increased enrollment and brought a check on quality, the research side still suered. Quality across the board also remains a real issue. We see many graduates in various subjects like Urdu or Arabic or even Law who don’t have any of the skills required to be successful in professional life.

The concurrent private vs. public education systems in Pakistan means that our ruling elite and middle classes are completely disconnected from the public education system. As Pakistan’s own education system deteriorated in quality, the elite, movers and shakers of society moved to alternatives in the form of private education with “imported” education.

If you speak to employers they tell you that, even students who have done Masters are not for basic jobs, and can’t write a letter properly. This speaks of the need to reform and more importantly, cultivate industry and academia linkages in the higher education sector. Our biggest industries have very little linkages with our graduates or what is studied.

The other major deficiency lies in the lack of research capability in our higher education sector. While at some level, some universities are producing graduates who are competitive and these graduates go abroad to work and study and do well, research wings in universities are struggling. We are simply not producing world class research and the quality of our Ph.D’s is not up to mark.

Part of this has to do with funding research needs, without funding good research cannot be carried out. Secondly, we need an industry which believes in using local research to solve local problems. That has been an allusion so far, this vital link which has to feed resources into our academia has not worked. Without funding both private and public schools, and a real focus on research needs and applications of that research, we won’t be able to improve our research standings.

Read more: Plutocracy and poverty in Pakistan

Focus on Technical and Vocational Training

One of the key solutions to Pakistan’s economic problem lies in equipping our workforce with technical skills. Countries that have recognized that a traditional education is not the only way have produced great results. Specially, Germany, where traditional college and a technical education are seen as equally good in the eyes of the public. A large part of our technical workforce is informally trained and not certified. This means that a lot of our workforce can’t avail opportunities abroad in countries which pay well but require formal training. It also means that even locally we don’t and the requisite skills to uplift the Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) sector and technical trades.

Technical training o ers fast-track employment with opportunities for entrepreneurship and is an absolutely vital way of helping the country and people move forward. It is important to let go of traditional ways of looking at the sector as having less prestige. Many in the TVET sector can now make more money than people having had more traditional degrees in subjects which don’t have demand or employability.

Read more: Plutocracy and poverty in Pakistan

The Solution

I have always held the view that xing the education system in Pakistan is no rocket science, it just needs to be done. The following reforms and actions need to be taken on a priority basis to x our ailing system:

  1. Create consensus on a national curriculum which will enable learning outcomes to be the same for all students.
  2. Simplify and unify the examination system. All students in Pakistan should be taking a quality standard exam.
  3. Revamp our current books to ensure that the mistakes present are not there.
  4. Empower public sector principals to manage their own schools (i.e. re/hire and hold accountable their sta ).
  5. Increase spending while increasing number of schools.
  6. Create public and private partnerships where the government can foot the bill for private schools in areas where public schools aren’t available.
  7. Link higher education courses and research with industry needs.
  8. Promote technical training as an alternative career path.

With the proper political will and good governance, we will see improvements in education. However, people need to feel that it is a national priority not through words but through actions.

Ali Moeen Nawazish is an eminent Pakistani academic and columnist who currently serves as the General Manager of Strategy and a weekly columnist for Daily Jang. In 2009, he scored 22 A grades in A levels and set a world record. He was also given the Pride of Performance award for his achievements by the government of Pakistan. He did his Bachelor’s degree in Politics and International Relations from Trinity Hall, Cambridge, and then completed a Master’s degree in journalism from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. The views expressed in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.