Education: Is More Money Good News?

By Anjum Altaf

All provinces have increased their budgetary allocations for education and as an educationist I am expected to be pleased by the development. I am not – might we not be throwing more good money after bad?

As an analyst I need to see a credible diagnosis that education is held back by a shortage of funds. I find it curious we have so convinced ourselves of that. There are many countries that started out at the same level of economic development and have done much more with equally constrained resources.

Take just one indicator, the literacy rate among 15 to 24 year old females: Pakistan at 61 percent compares very unfavorably with Sri Lanka and China at 99 percent, Nepal and Bangladesh at 77 percent, and India at 74 percent. It would be hard to argue that Sri Lanka or Bangladesh or Nepal were more resource rich than Pakistan.

One might argue they allocated more to education than Pakistan in which case it is the flip side of the equation that is really the more interesting. Given that Pakistan was in the same league as these countries in terms of resource endowments, what prevented it from allocating more to education? What was unique about Pakistan? Were there popular pressures against education? Were political parties opposed to education? Was there no demand for better education?

None of these is a plausible proposition. The only conclusion that holds up is that successive governments, despite much lip service, have actually assigned a very low priority to educating citizens. And this is what shows up in the resource allocation numbers.

Of course, another reason for better outcomes in the countries cited above could be much more efficient utilization of resources. If so, it would point to the serious problem of public sector governance in Pakistan that everyone is familiar with.

The present state of education is akin to a bucket with many holes in its bottom. Pour a hundred Rupees into it and perhaps five will get to where they were intended. This would be a grossly inefficient way of promoting the national interest although it would be a bonanza for all those who would pocket the other ninety five.

A low priority for education and extremely poor governance are major causes for the sorry state of the education sector today. Clearly, more money is not going to have any impact on governance. It is much more likely that the increased allocation would leak away as it has in the past in the form of salaries for unqualified or non-existent staff and for the construction and renovation of schools that exist only on paper.

More importantly, decades of neglect, corruption, misuse, and poor governance have distorted the education system to such an extent that more money might no longer be the most relevant input in its revival. The best analogy here is of cancer – the treatment that works when it is detected early is completely inappropriate when it has ravaged the body.

Once again, it would suffice to mention just one aspect of the non-monetary problems that plague the sector – the content of education. Pakistan has the second highest number of out-of-school children in the world – over 5 million in just the 5 to 9 year age bracket – but what they might be taught is more problematic than whether they are taught at all. Someone rightly said that the educated middle-classes in South Asia are more bigoted than the illiterate masses because they are ‘educated.’

I find nothing in the discussions that convey any sense of systemic thinking about the big issues in the sector. All the focus is on increasing allocations and that, in my view, is putting the cart before the horse.

What is needed is an appraisal of the issues followed by the articulation of a revamped system that passes the scrutiny of credible experts. Only when such a certification is obtained would it make sense to spend any money at all on the implementation.

This brings up the million dollar question: What would trigger the transition to a revamped system that is certified as sound and sensible? What has changed from the past that would ensure this time is different?

For the moment I remain a pessimist. I have yet to see anything that suggests the state is really ready to raise the priority it accords to education. We will be continue to be at the receiving end of lip-service and high-sounding promises.

What is needed to change the dynamic is serious, tangible pressure from citizens. That is the way politics is supposed to work in the age when sovereignty resides with the people.

A look at history might be instructive. In France students had to riot in 1968 to force reform of its outmoded system of education. Columbia University in New York City agreed to changes when students agitated in the same year. More recently, massive student protests in Chile between 2010 and 2012 brought radical change in education on the political agenda.

It is a fact that systems change, more often than not, either when a change is in the interests of the ruling class or when it is forced by pressure from below. Even a cursory look at Pakistan’s education system would reveal its bipolar distribution. There is just enough quality education at the top to accommodate the needs of its tiny elite. There is no pressure from below to improve the rest of the system.

Citizens need to be concerned. Citizens also need to be sufficiently organized to channel that concern in a politically effective manner. Without that there will just be more sweet whisperings in our ears.

 Anjum Altaf is Dean of the School of Humanities, Social Sciences and Law at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. This op-ed appeared in Dawn on July 8, 2013 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.

A more detailed analysis of the political economy of education is here: Why is Pakistan Half Illiterate?

Useful links to topics on education are here: Education in Pakistan: Ten Big Questions

A proposal for educational reform is here: Remaking Public School Education in Pakistan

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  • Marwah
    Posted at 12:25h, 09 July Reply

    I couldn’t agree more with you, Sir. There is nothing more dangerous than a bigot who claims to be a literate person. Sadly in Pakistan a majority of those who receive education and are considered literate by Pakistani standards are those who have suffered indoctrination throughout their education years and now they themselves are contributing to it. This process undoubtedly leads to mere extinction of critical thought process.

    While I agree that citizens need to rise to articulate this need and exert pressure for reform through appropriate channels, for them to do this requires them to be aware of this particular need. Unfortunately those who realize the need for this educational reform are those who have rarely, if at all, suffered at the hands of a bad system of education and they constitute a minority. The majority of students in public schools and universities who are victims of this system continue to pass through the system without paying much heed to the need for change. So,I believe there are two things to be tackled here. First, creating awareness among the heedless majority about the need for such a reform and second, providing a platform and/or helping all like-minded people in organizing themselves to exert the much needed pressure.

    Various NGOs are playing their role in creating such awareness in public schools. Through additional sessions in schools they are also helping students think out-of-the-box and question the fundamentals. However, their work and hence impact is limited to those few people these NGOs are able to reach. A possible solution that recently came to my mind through my work at HEC is to train faculty, especially those at primary and secondary schools, to adopt teaching practices that allow students to think broad and wide and beyond what their textbooks say. Those teachers who are trained once can be made to train their fellow faculty members at their parent institutions. While such a solution has teacher training costs but if implemented properly a relatively small investment in faculty trainings can lead to a large number of faculty benefiting, the effects of which would trickle down to their students. HEC Pakistan has been conducting such trainings for faculty in higher education institutions for many years now. While the framework used has some loopholes it could be improved and then implemented for the benefit of primary and secondary schools.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 05:33h, 11 July

      Marwah: You raise two issues. The first is that of a demand for good education among the majority. I feel the demand is there which is why parents spend substantial amounts on private tuition to supplement what students don’t learn at schools. However, this is the “exit” option and also not a very effective one because the general quality of private tuition is not much better. The real issue is that the demand is not finding an effective political articulation because no political party really attaches importance to it beyond the lip service of increased allocations.

      The second issue is training teachers to be effective. I feel this is too expensive and cannot cater to the millions of teachers at the primary and secondary level where learning habits are formed. If you look at human beings you will find their actions are much more a function of incentives than of training (all our bureaucrats are extensively trained)> If the right incentives are there, people would get the training themselves. Look at all the poorly educated people who have learnt to SMS on cell phones.

      So, if there are incentives and rewards for teachers to be creative, they will be. This is a much less expensive solution. But then, have you followed the fate of creative teachers in educational institutions in Pakistan? Which brings us back to the million-dollar question, doesn’t it?

  • Ebad Pasha
    Posted at 20:48h, 09 July Reply

    Sir, you wrote “The only conclusion that holds up is that successive governments, despite much lip service, have actually assigned a very low priority to educating citizens.” I believe its not only successive governments but also we, the citizens, are responsible. Marwah rightly says that those who are aware do not care, and others do not understand the importance of education.

    Especially in the rural areas and smaller towns, sincere efforts have not even been made by the NGOs, let alone the governments. There is a dire need of looking for alternates to formal day-schools that usually operate in Pakistan. Due to lack of sincerity,however, we have failed to find alternatives and impose them. Evening schools and informal education are solutions that may easily be implemented. Others can just be found using local expertise and experts in the sector. But then again, who will walk that extra mile? I agree only money is not the solution. Need of the hour is to look sincerely into why the system has failed and what solutions we can offer.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 05:21h, 11 July

      Ebad: I think the failure is not one of lack of sincerity. Much more it is a failure of organization. There must be some people who believe that they are not being provided the education they need? They have not been able to articulate this demand in a politically effective manner.

      The need of the hour is to look critically, not necessarily sincerely, into why the system has failed. Would you agree that there is nuanced difference in these positions? Are all sincere people critically minded? Are all critically minded people sincere?

      There are some education NGOs that are very sincere but they have very little sense of how the education problem in Pakistan is to be addressed. The scale of the problem is such that it cannot be addressed by charity and philanthropy. Sincerity by itself is not enough in this context.

  • Hasan Davar
    Posted at 22:27h, 09 July Reply

    There is a law which says that only a person holding a college degree can contest elections. The value of the college degrees obtained from most Pakistani educational institutions deserves little mention. If the quality of legislators is a function of these degrees then we know that they are unlikely to understand the abysmal state of the educational system. This law is a valve that blocks change from the mainstream because filters electable individuals to a tiny fraction of the population. It’s an injustice to the people because the infrastructure to deliver college education is grossly insufficient. It’s one of the factors creating a drag on change (education and otherwise) through the political system, however flawed it might be. Anyone should be free to contest elections, whether or not they have been so called “educated”.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 05:13h, 11 July

      Hasan: I agree. The real problems in Pakistan can all be attributed to the educated. After all it is they who make all the policies and important decisions. Brings to mind a great couplet by Mir Taqi Mir:

      Nahaq ham majbooroN par yeh tohmat hai mukhtari ki
      Chahein heiN so aap kare haiN, hamko abas badnaam kiya

  • Saifullah
    Posted at 08:22h, 10 July Reply

    Sir, thank you for raising such an important issue with the student body.

    Having thought about this a great deal in the past, I have formed my own conclusions about how the government of Pakistan should go about solving an issue that has been conveniently swept under the rug by almost every government ever to rule this country, yet is the single biggest contributor to our downfall as a nation.

    More so than lack of education, the real cancer eating away at our country is the lack of general awareness in the average Pakistani, which directly impacts on his ability to think for himself. We are all too readily enraptured by powerful orators, swindled by corrupt politicians, enraged by the most minor of details and lied to over and over again by our leaders. From an early age, we are taught ‘facts’ that are held to be unshakeable, such as our innate superiority as ‘The Chosen People’ and the absolute might of our army. Conversely, the mistakes that we could truly learn from, such as the hand of corrupt politicians in destablising our country from the very start, the events of 1971 and the effects of Islamisation of Pakistan by General Zia are conveniently blotted out of our history books altogether.

    What I propose is a complete revamping of the curricula followed in Pakistani schools. Rather than let students revel in our former ‘glories’, and be lulled into a false sense of security, they should be taught about how we went wrong, what problems we face as a result, and how we can collectively overcome them. They should be told that just because their name does not end with Jinnah does not mean they cannot be truly exceptional human beings and Pakistanis.They should know that being Pakistani or Muslim does not mean we can do no wrong. They should be taught that no matter what our skin color, caste, language or religion, none of us can be better than the other except in character. Most importantly, they should be taught that by adhering to a simple set of values and by learning to make their informed own decisions, they can help make this country truly great.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 05:05h, 11 July

      Saifullah: “Most importantly, they should be taught that by adhering to a simple set of values and by learning to make their informed own decisions, they can help make this country truly great.” True, but who will teach them this?

      “Having thought about this a great deal in the past, I have formed my own conclusions about how the government of Pakistan should go about solving an issue that has been conveniently swept under the rug by almost every government ever to rule this country, yet is the single biggest contributor to our downfall as a nation.” True, but why should this government be different from all the previous ones?

      These are the real questions to address.

  • Heer
    Posted at 09:37h, 10 July Reply

    Very well written sir!
    Completely agree that both corruption and the content of the education are the main reason of the low level of education here. Getting rid of corruption is something I’m not too hopeful about, but I strongly believe that revising the curriculum is something that can be dealt with relatively easily, with pressure from the citizens like you said. But even if I for instance raise my voice and approach the ministry to consider changing the curriculum, I’m sure they are going to present me with a project already designed to do the same. I think the problem is also the lack of global and open mindset amongst a lot of people working on education; a lot of people working with the ministry of education do not see the need to revise the curriculum themselves, so getting to change the mindset of these people should be something we should look at.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 03:50h, 11 July

      Heer: If you raise your voice and approach the ministry nothing will happen. But if a 100,000 Heer’s do, then?

  • Mariam
    Posted at 16:03h, 10 July Reply

    We need to introduce a change in the mindsets of the school teachers; children must be allowed to question, to think on their own. Unless we let critical thinking develop…especially regarding the so-called controversial topics, we cannot truly have a revolution in our education system.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 03:48h, 11 July

      Mariam: We are back to the million dollar question. Why would a ruling class allow or enable the mass of citizens to think critically?

      If you read the longer essay linked in the post (Why is Pakistan Still Half-Literate?) you will see the analogy with the slaves and the slave-owners in the American South. If the slaves had been allowed to learn to read, would they not have remarked on the following sentence in the Declaration of Independence – “All men are created equal”? Would they not have asked some critical questions about theory and practice?

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