Education: Put It to the Test

By Anjum Altaf

Once again, claims are flying around about the astounding results achieved by the Higher Education Commission (HEC) in an earlier period and attempts are being made to return to that dispensation with promises of a revved-up ‘knowledge’ economy that will propel Pakistan into the future. Such claims need to be taken seriously because of the importance of education for the progress of the country. 

There are many who remain deeply sceptical of these claims. While wars like those of 1965 and 1971 and incursions like Kargil have caused immense setbacks to Pakistan, it is possible for a country to recover from such disasters. But the combined havoc wreaked by the nationalization of schools by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, their Islamization by Zia ul Haq, and the quantification of higher education by the HEC under Pervez Musharraf has done damage that is well-nigh irreversible. Those who have graduated from the resulting education system are now imparting education as teachers to subsequent generations. In addition, there are so many vested interests involved — ideological, political, and financial — that it is simply not possible to undo the damage. All this is at the expense of the young who should be the future of the country and whose parents are shelling out hard-earned money to have them educated.

The bottom line is that there are claims and counterclaims with no real objective evidence on the basis of which citizens can assess the truth of either. Given the immensity of the consequences we cannot continue with a situation characterised by one word against another because when that is the case it is always the party painting the rosy picture that prevails in an environment of uninformed governance.  

How then do we resolve the controversy? I propose a very fair test — an independent assessment of Pakistan’s school and higher education systems. These assessments need to be conducted by agencies that have no stake in the outcomes, i.e., those who have neither contributed to the design nor funded the implementation of existing systems, and also not by those who are wary of antagonizing the government, which is the case for most local NGOs.

Each assessment should be conducted by two teams, one local and the other external, and their findings should be compared and discussed at the conclusion of the exercise. For  schools, a local organization already carries out the Annual Status of Education Report which, incidentally, does not paint a rosy picture but has not been taken seriously enough as an input into policy. The ASER team strengthened by the addition of individuals with the credibility of, say, Zubeida Mustafa and Abdul Hameed Nayyar, can leverage their already existing resources to deliver the required output.

For the external evaluation, I would recommend a team from a small country with no political axes to grind in Pakistan. The ideal would be a country like Finland which has reputedly the best school system in the world. This external evaluation should include administering the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) test to obtain a comparison of the state of school education in Pakistan relative to other countries.

Assessing higher education would present more difficult challenges. For the local team I would consider eminently qualified individuals like Kamran Asdar Ali (dean of the school of humanities and social sciences at LUMS), Syed Noman ul Haq (dean of the school of liberal arts at University of Management and Technology), Muhammad Hamid Zaman (endowed professor of biomedical engineering at Boston University), and Sayed Amjad Hussain (emeritus professor of surgery and humanities at the University of Toledo). Eminent scientists Dr. Atta ur Rahman and Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy are excluded from the list as the assessment would essentially involve a validation of their respective claims. 

For the external team, one would have to search for academics with stellar reputations in the field of education and an understanding of the role of higher education in postcolonial countries. With my limited experience I can think of Martin Carnoy from Stanford (author of many books including the celebrated Education as Cultural Imperialism) and Philip Altbach (founder of the Boston College Center for International Higher Education and a longtime analyst of higher education in India). They could recommend other experts to be included in the team.

The aim of this suggestion is not to identify the teams but to stress that such an independent evaluation of Pakistan’s education system is long overdue and badly needed. Without an assessment of how much our students know and the quality of what they are being taught the entire future of the country will be at stake. Such an evaluation should also be a legitimate demand of students and those investing their hopes and money in their education. 

One would have to wonder why if the government declines an objective and fair test of the present state of education in the country.

This opinion appeared in Dawn on October 5, 2019 and is reproduced here with permission of the author who was dean of the school of humanities and social sciences at LUMS. 

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