Education: the dividing factor

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

SEPTEMBER 8 was International Literacy Day and the government observed the occasion as best as it could at a time when elections and politics are stealing the show. The media did not show much concern either, as the observance of such days has now become no more than a ritual.

This may sound cynical. But how else would one perceive Pakistan’s approach to literacy and education when after 55 years of experimenting with a variety of programmes and campaigns, those at the helm have not managed to make even half the population (above 15 years) literate?

The UNDP’s Human Development Report, 2002, places Pakistan’s literacy ratio at 43.2 per cent in the year 2000 (Pakistan Economic Survey, 2001-2002, however, claims it was 47.1). In 1985 it was 31.4 per cent. This accounts for an increase of not even 12 percentage point in the literacy rate in 15 years by UNDP measures (16% by the government’s claim). Whichever data we accept, the significant fact remains that in the same period the population grew by 40%.

Given this dismal scenario, one cannot feel very optimistic. Not only is the pool of illiterates in absolute terms growing in Pakistan, we stand low down the rung of the literacy ladder – there being only ten countries in the world with a literacy rate lower than ours. Needless to say, they are much poorer than us in terms of national resources and started their existence as independent states at a much lower benchmark of development.

If we were to go by all the advertisements the government splashed in the print media about its literacy goals, shouldn’t we feel hopeful about turning the corner? According to the much touted ESR (education sector reforms), literacy should jump to 60 per cent in another two years. In the absence of any visible changes in the field – the efforts of dedicated individuals at the micro level notwithstanding – it is difficult to expect the performance of this sector to improve dramatically.

Even if we put aside our scepticism about the increase in the literacy rate, there is much else to cause us serious concern. In a recent BBC programme, President Pervez Musharraf appeared quite complacent about his government ‘s efforts to promote education. But not everyone feels that way. One cannot even be certain that all those listed as literates can actually read, write and make simple calculations. Even assuming that they are “readates”, “writeates” and “numerates” (to borrow the terms coined by literacy experts), it is important that people are taught to put their literacy skills to practical use.

It is at this stage that primary education acquires great importance. In fact, it is a more effective way of spreading literacy among the younger generations. A country which has enrolled all its children in school does not need adult literacy programmes, after some time.

If primary education is to make an impact on literacy, it must keep in view three imperatives, namely, accessibility, quality and equity. The three are closely interrelated and have a lot to do with the private sector versus public sector debate that now rages in every area of the country’s economic and social life.

Over the decades, all these factors have not ranked equally among the priorities of the policy makers in the education sector. Accessibility of education was the first consideration in the seventies under the first People’s Party government. The thrust was towards nationalization of schools which ensured affordability since fees were kept low. But the government failed to mobilize sufficient resources to fund the massive nationalization programme, as a result of which there was a rapid slide in the standards from which the government schools have failed since to recover.

The quality factor came to the fore when General Ziaul Haq inducted the private sector into education in a big way and also denationalized some institutions. This helped raise the academic standards somewhat — albeit in a very small section of the education infrastructure. In the public sector, not only did the standards continue to decline, the expansion of the education system also slowed down, thus affecting the accessibility factor.

Since the nineties, there has been a loosening of economic and social controls as part of the trend towards deregulation and globalization. This has made education not only less accessible and less affordable but also highly uneven in terms of the quality of pedagogy, textbooks and classroom management.

The massive induction of the private sector in education has, as could be expected, made education expensive. Although the government schools in many provinces have abolished their already low fees, this has not created the desired impact. The private schools (about 15,000 of them) account for over 20 per cent of the primary school students. This will not promote the spread of education because the fees of the private schools are beyond the reach of most people, 44 per cent of whom are said to be living below the poverty line now.

It is a pity that the government schools which can offer subsidized education to the poor are not playing the role which should be theirs. Since the military government assumed power three years ago, on an average only 3,000 primary schools have been opened in the country every year. The enrolment has at best inched up. Besides, these schools do not have much to offer by way of academic standards in education. Hence the dropout rate is alarmingly high — at one time it was said to be 50 per cent. Now the official documents do not even take note of it, while enrolment in these institutions has declined.

A disconcerting aspect of the education scenario is the stratification it is actively promoting in Pakistani society. If a person is rich, he can send his children to the best private schools and universities to receive the best available education. That would ensure their qualifying for the best jobs available in the country.

A parent from the low-income class cannot afford the facilities available in the private sector. Hence his children have to study in the government schools — that is if they study at all. Here the teachers (mostly unqualified) are quite often absent, good textbooks are not available and the education is quite irrelevant to the employment market. These children, when they grow up, can never hope to get well-paid jobs and they would never make enough money to provide their own children the education they were themselves denied. True, there are freeships and scholarships which the elitist institutions never tire of boasting of. But will a deprived child from an impoverished family ever hope to move up sufficiently to qualify for these scholarships?

Given the state of the education sector, the gap between the haves and the have-nots will continue to widen. In the absence of good education, which is the first requisite for a coveted job in a market-driven economy, the poor can never hope to improve their status in any walk of life. Thus, education will become a stratifying factor instead of a force for the uplift of the people.

The only solution to this paradox lies in adopting a policy which is education-oriented. A government which provides a reasonably good quality education to all the citizens can ensure their entry into the job market in competitive conditions and open new opportunities for them. Quality education which is accessible to all will also offer competition to the private sector and thus force it to reduce its fees.

This is possible only if the government is prepared to enhance the education budget considerably and practise sound principles of financial management to prevent leakage and squandering of scarce funds. It will also have to ensure the efficient funding of its schools. Regrettably, the unstinting induction of the private sector into education has provided a pretext for the government to gradually disengage itself from the education sector.

As a result, the education budget is not growing in proportion to the rapidly growing population. The government has allocated Rs 77.7 billion for education for 2002-2003. This works out to two per cent of the GNP — quite a fall from the 2.7 per cent of the mid-nineties. If the government is serious about changing the dismal literacy scene it will have to address the primary education sector more earnestly.