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Education is Not a Solution

By Anjum Altaf

People often insist that Pakistan’s lack of development requires investing in education. They should reconsider this relationship. 

Consider the following arguments:

In countries we consider developed today, mass education followed development not the other way around. Countries did not wait till they were fully educated before they began to develop. Rather, they began to develop which created the need for the spread of education. Great Britain became a global empire when there was relatively little mass education. Today, with universal education, it is a minor player in the global system. There is no linear relationship between education and development and certainly the former does not cause the latter.

Apply this framework to British India. There was little mass education when the British took over but because there were so few they needed local intermediaries to help administer the colony in ways familiar to them. That was the genesis of the limited number of BA and MA programmes set up to produce the babus they needed. Pakistan has continued to produce many more babus than it needs. By any measure, there is much more education today than there was in 1947 without commensurate gains in development. By comparison, many countries like Malaysia and Indonesia with similar education levels at the outset have greatly outpaced Pakistan.

There is yet another problem in attributing the lack of development in Pakistan to a lack of mass education because the key economic and political decisions have been made by well-educated people. Why have they been making very poor decisions despite their excellent educations? It is a travesty to blame uneducated people for the sins of the educated rulers. 

These arguments should suggest that the emphasis on mass education in the context of development is misplaced. Policy choices, which are made by the educated, matter much more and if the policies are flawed no amount of mass education can undo the damage. Climate change is a good example — the existence of universal education in the USA is of little avail if the Trump administration opts to disregard the evidence on global warming.

All this is not to argue that education is without value — it is obviously better to be educated than not to be educated. But to appreciate this point we need clarity on what is meant by education and also differentiate between its two quite different functions.

At the level of individuals, education confers the ability to realize their full potential. Just as the lack of adequate diet results in physical stunting, the lack of adequate education results in intellectual stunting — both are handicaps that hinder the realization of human potential. But this education provides very different kinds of tools — the ability to think, to learn, to reason, to evaluate evidence, to argue logically, to differentiate truth from falsehood. In short, this education provides the foundation for leading a life based on reason.

On the contrary, what we commonly understand as education is much better described as training in particular skills like medicine, engineering and accounting. We mistakenly believe that the earlier we start students on acquiring such skills the better off they would be — thus the existence of pre-professional streams in high school. This insistence on acquisition of skills comes at the expense of the general education that ought to be the mandate of schools. It is no surprise that we have many highly skilled technicians who appear intellectually stunted.  

This second type of education, the acquisition of skills, is what people need to earn their livelihoods. Here we are guilty of a major fallacy because the demand for skills does not exist independently of the state of the economy and society. To take an obvious example, if an economy is not generating any jobs, training a whole lot of professionals is not going to lead to development. We should be familiar with this phenomenon having seen huge numbers of Pakistani professionals emigrating in search of jobs. They are moving to developing economies requiring specific types of skills. 

This reiterates the claim that development comes first and signals the kinds of skills required. In economic terminology, the demand for skills is a derived demand. It derives from the state of the economy, its needs, and the nature of its growth. For example, unilaterally overproducing highly specialized doctors in a low-income country with no environmental sanitation makes little sense — most would seek to emigrate while the majority of the population would be unable to afford the ones that remain and be forced to resort to quacks who respond to the effective demand.

These arguments should make clear that Pakistan’s development problems are not going to be resolved even if every citizen acquires a postgraduate education. All that would happen would be a worsening of the existing crisis. Today, an advertisement for the job of a naib qasid draws thousands of applicants including many with postgraduate degrees and professional qualifications. Many lawyers can be found driving Uber cabs.

Yet another societal malady militates against the acquisition of even those skills that are needed by the economy. One often wonders why in a country of over 200 million with serious underemployment, it is difficult to find a competent electrician or plumber. Is it because employment and advancement are not based on competence but other factors? If most jobs are doled out on patronage or exchanged for bribes, it is smarter to invest in connections or acquiring funds to buy jobs than to acquire additional skills..

Given the above, why do poor people in Pakistan acquire any education at all? Simply because the oversupply of labour relative to economic development has made degrees a filter for recruitment for even the most mundane jobs. This has transformed education into credentialing. People need credentials and many institutions have responded by becoming diploma mills either churning out worthless degrees or selling them outright. 

Regretfully, more education is not going to provide an easy solution to Pakistan’s development problems. A good schooling would provide a platform while sensible economic and social policies would be needed to spur growth leading to appropriate skill acquisition.         

This opinion was published in Dawn on July 25, 2019 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission. This opinion has been translated into Urdu by Dawn News.

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