In the last few decades in Pakistan, education has been a subject of controversy with epic tales of bribery and corruption. In recent times however, facts have uncovered ‘ghost schools’ being operational in the country. Though, treated as one of the most notorious crimes under institutionalized corruption globally, it is one of the least covered crimes in Pakistan estimated to be over billions of funds, benefitting the illegal economy.
The people responsible for these losses have been pocketing funds meant for schools’ salaries for teachers and maintenance for schools, under the garb of providing quality education to the poor. Several years have passed with several incident reports highlighted in almost all provinces across the county, yet the crooks always seem to beat the system and keep skimming monies that go into bribing government officials to allow fake teachers to keep fake jobs and usurp salaries, originally meant to benefit honest dedicated teachers and deserving students.
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The current government is introducing the SNC-Single National Curriculum aiming for equal quality education across the board, but it is yet to be seen how they will address the issue of bribery and corruption. How can most of the poor benefit from this curriculum when there are ghost schools existing on paper and no teachers on record?
‘Ghost schools’ under BECS
Few years back, an audit was conducted to review the performance of the BECS-Basic Education Community Schools program authorized by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), where it was found that one-teacher-one school programs were not run properly. One such recorded example was of a BECS teacher who was pocketing salaries of over 31 ghost schools in Balochistan province between July 2010 and October 2011. There are over 2300 schools falling under the BECS system.
In 2018 under the then chairman PAC, DG Federal Audit compiled a report that revealed over 2000 ghost schools being operated by the Ministry of Education under the BECS program. These schools were fake schools, only on paper. No one questioned the Chairman PAC as he was the chief whip of the government at the time and the whole chapter was buried completely. To run thousands of ghost schools, one needs to also uncover the issue of fake ID cards that were being used at the time. This breach of national security was never investigated despite the involvement of NADRA (National Database and Registration Authority).
The secretary of the Ministry of Federal Education at the time had failed to submit a comprehensive investigation report and the accountability committee formed via order NO 5 /9/2015-16(G&P) in December 2015, completely failed to identify the culprits. The matter was sent for investigation to the BECS management as the audit team was seeking the records related to NADRA.
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The committee was given the task to probe the matter by identifying the exact number of ghost schools, students-teacher identification and validation, while investigating illegal money transfers from official mandate accounts to unknown accounts. Millions of funds were siphoned off in the process. Despite identifying another 350 ghost schools during the time, no one was held accountable.
This illegal activity has been flourishing undeterred in the education system for decades. The bigger failure was the inability to recover the siphoned amounts and identify the officials involved in the process of nepotism, while a small elite mafia got rich taking bribes and allotting fake jobs to people who were programmed to pocket funds, meant for deserving poor students who are unable to pay for education. Before we can venture into new curriculums, we must ensure the institutions are being run by actual people and curriculum is being taught by ‘real teachers’ and attended by ‘real students’ unlike names on a ghost-list.
If the current government can first validate the BECS project of the Ministry of Education, they will easily track down over 12304 schools and the ‘One Teacher –One School ‘. Here, they would find out whether over 500,000 of the students enrolled in these schools (Class 1 to Class 5) were given primary education with the prescribed student-teacher ratio (30:1) and identify process failures.
This is a sizable criminal offense globally but unfortunately; we have been witnessing corrupt officials and administrators taking bribes and appointing illiterate and sub-standard teachers with fake degrees at the behest of powerful and corrupt. It would not be entirely incorrect to state that lots of government officials directly benefit from the proceeds of corruption within the sector.
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If we see where we stand constitutionally, under Article 25-a, it is clearly stated that the government is responsible for ensuring free and fair basic education to all children without any discrimination based on social or community status. Despite being formulated under law, the existing system fails to bind the corrupt government officials, allowing them to manipulate the system due to the absence of accountability.
On a positive note, one good thing about the SNC is the uniformity of curriculum, applicable to all schools- public or private, making it easy to monitor P&P (people and performance) and identify loopholes in its implementation. To make it work, the system would require NADRA verification of all educational documentation and online verification checks to avoid paperwork that leads to forging of documents and degrees. Secondly, the salary process needs to be completely automated. This new system would be requiring ‘accurate’ recruitment of qualified teachers, reducing the level of nepotistic tendencies like fake-recruitment, that lead to bribery and eventually destruction of the entire system.
Lack of accountability
In the past, millions of rupees in external funding allotted to the education sector was extorted systematically and pulled out of the system illegally by the very people hired to protect the process, including the bureaucracy and the government.
Historically, crimes that fall under the orbit of education have hardly been taken seriously with the lowest convictions through the justice system as the culture in the country considers corruption as an acceptable risk or as we say: “part of the process”.
Few years back in the province of Sind, an education minister approved illegal postings of thousands of teachers without following due diligence protocols and lots of unqualified teachers were hired. Since the selection criteria was purely through political pressure and bribery, the teachers failed to perform. They were later discharged off their duties by the incoming minister and their salary dues were forfeited. The matter went to the provincial courts and the matter was eventually buried after a short hue and cry. The net result was millions of losses in salaries and a systemic breakdown of the system. The ongoing trend within the education sector has been grossly under-reported by the media.
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Post COVID-19, affordability is becoming a serious problem as not everyone has the financial means to afford an expensive private education in an otherwise poor nation as private schools associations encourage schools to take exuberant amounts of monthly fees despite government pressure to reduce the cost of primary education in the country.
Another important thing to highlight is an excessive over-reliance on online studies and classes that have not been entirely productive, with children complaining of lethargy, lack of focus and reduced eyesight due to constant use of online media devices (cell phones and laptops) due to COVID. This proves that nothing beats the physical school environment both from a learning perspective and from a health point of view.
A clear way forward strategy for this government is to ensure 100% turnaround in the field of education, induct good qualified instructors, bring former leaders as teachers, ensure good salaries and demand accountability.
Past governments failed due to 1) Lack of political will to identify and punish corrupt officials 2) Lack of proper monitoring of funds 3) Lack of attractive salary structures for teachers 4) Lack of a standardized system of curriculum development and teacher training. 5) Lack of play spaces in schools for children. Some of these challenges will be hopefully addressed with the new SNC, but the issue of bribery and nepotism has been ignored by the government.
Thirty years ago, in 1989, world leaders formulated the CRC- Convention of the Rights of the Child as the most widely ratified treaty in the world. Today, Pakistan continues to struggle to provide basic primary education as the right of the child.
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Considering the robust policies of the current government, difficult decisions taken earlier will ensure damage control for the larger interest of the country. More focus is required to pull the qualified and educated brass, management experts, thought leaders and mentors back into academia and ensure that the teaching profession itself is taken seriously, just like working for the Armed Forces or MNCs is considered noble, viable and secure.
Eventually, accountability should lie with the administrators on the federal and provincial levels and no senior appointments should be made without a maker-checker process in place to bring an end to rampant bribery and corruption within the education sector.
The author is an environmentalist & change maker, with over 20 years of expertise in Media, Education and Banking sectors. He is the founder and director of Children Nature Network Asia, a leading advocacy and training initiative operating across Asia. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.