Confronting an Education Emergency In An ‘Anti-Education State’
If the events of the last few weeks have demonstrated anything, it is the fact that there is never a dull moment in Pakistan. While the international media and armchair critics have a field day over the geopolitical implications of what happens in the region, the security narrative has eclipsed serious development sector challenges in the last decade. The security and stability of the country and region are undoubtedly serious concerns but so are the social and economic realities of 170 million people that are no longer even part of the conversation.
In the wake of the Three Cups of Tea controversy, there have been countless articles expressing outrage at Greg Mortensen’s web of lies, some skeptical of the entire episode and very few actually defending him. However, regardless of which side of the fence we find ourselves on, what is not fictional in his narrative is: education figures in Pakistan are dire and children, especially girls need to get educated in the country.
Pakistan ranks second in the global ranking of countries with the highest number of out-of-school children with the figure estimated to be about 25 million – the approximate population size of Australia or Ghana. The Government of Pakistan has declared that the education sector is not just in crisis but rather in a ‘state of emergency’ with disastrous human and economic consequences. The video below highlights some key statistics:
The Ground Reality
Pakistanis have a constitutional right to universal education till age 16, a little discussed fact of the law. Ironically, the fact that there are 26 countries poorer than Pakistan but send more of their children to school demonstrates that the issue is not just about lack of financial resources but rather lack of political will and articulating demand effectively. We may presume that the public school system is underperforming because teachers are poorly paid but this is also a misconception. Public school teachers get paid two-thirds more than their equivalent low-cost private school counterparts and they earn four times that of the average parent of a child in their school. Despite this, on any given day 10-15% of teachers are absent from their duties. Evidently, this is an accountability problem more so than responding to incentives.
Another issue is not only regarding attendance but the quality of teaching and curriculum. 50% of children who attend school, aged 6-16, cannot even read a sentence. Add to this dismal state of affairs the existence of an estimated 30,000 “ghost schools” i.e. non functioning schools throughout Pakistan that continue to get government funding and teachers draw regular salaries without a single child attending school.
Ironically, but not at all surprisingly, Pakistan spends seven times more on military expenditures than on primary education.
Policy analyst Mosharraf Zaidi makes the strong claim that Pakistan is an ‘anti-education state’ by natural orientation. He highlights the vested interests of the military and political elite who depend on the distribution of patronage to sustain, deepen and build power and in order to do this, they need a reservoir of patronage to begin, which is the Pakistani state. He articulates, “the only way to transform the amorphous idea of improving education in Pakistan, from a slogan to a practical reality, is through politics. Mapping, navigating and negotiating politics is the singular definitive challenge in improving education outcomes in Pakistan.”
Public sector funding needs to be accompanied by political will and transparent spending but aside from that, arguably, social attitudes and mindsets at the household level are also critical. Investment in female literacy is unattainable without concerted efforts to empower women in society first. In rural and low-income urban areas there is an in-built preference to send sons to school, congruent with the mindset of seeing sons as assets and daughters as liabilities in the long run. Until the importance of attaining education isn’t woven into the social fabric and is perceived as a right rather than a choice (as propagated by media campaigns etc), government policies can only explain the supply side issue. Demand has to be spurred by challenging existing gender stereotypes at the household level.
Whether education can help fight extremism, as many donors believe, is a separate issue altogether. The core issue remains that education reform needs to be a priority regardless of Pakistan’s security environment. While the Government has promised a renewed commitment to improving education in the country including an increased budget and the launching of new programs, given their dismal performance in all matters of governance and public policy I would be skeptical if they can deliver on this promise. Moreover, intuitively everyone would agree that education needs to be a priority for Pakistan but what exactly are the priorities within this sector, what models or approaches can be adopted to make public sector delivery more effective and equitable and what lessons can be learnt from other countries in the region with higher literacy rates (such as Sri Lanka)?
Much hope has also been pinned on the private sector to address this educational malaise. Today, more than 33% of all education is provided by the private sector. However, whether private schools catering to low-income households are providing quality education remains a debatable question and still doesn’t address the low student and teacher attendance in public schools. Furthermore, many households across the country cannot afford to pay even for low-cost private schools. Private schools are also not inclined to open up in areas where there is not enough of a market of fee-paying students. Unless private schooling can be made more cost-effective and scalable it may not be the best option to educate poorer and more remote communities.