Killing education reforms

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

EARLY this year, education in Pakistan appeared to be on the verge of experiencing a change of a positive kind . But this may not happen now. Those who control power are actively opposed to reforms though they will never acknowledge it publicly. Hence they go through elaborate motions of bringing about a change without actually changing anything.

One has to see what is happening in Islamabad to understand why education reforms can be written off now. When the Musharraf government announced in 2005 — was it under American pressure? — that a new education policy was to be introduced, one did not attach much importance to it.

After all every government that has stayed in office long enough has deemed it a matter of political prestige to announce reforms in the education sector. Pakistan has been rich in policies — 10 so far — but poor in education. But one had to take notice when the process of reform was halfway through and it became plain that this time things were moving in a different direction.

The federal education minister, a retired lieutenant-general and an ex-ISI chief, seemingly wanted to adopt the correct process to produce results. He set about appointing a national education policy review team in September 2005 and Javed Hassan Aly, who had just then retired as a federal secretary, was appointed as its head. Mr Aly modestly laid no claims to expertise in education but he certainly had knowledge and experience of public policy formulation and management processes. That more than compensated for Mr Aly’s lack of experience in the education sector.

The team undertook a “comprehensive process of consultations and pursued a structured methodology” to quote from the White Paper that this exercise ultimately produced. For over 15 months the team consulted eminent experts, invited feedback, conducted studies on previous policies, held discussions with the provincial authorities, visited various districts and wrote 23 Green Papers on different issues. After this exercise a White Paper was produced in December 2006 which was again laid before the public (vide www.moe.gov.pk) inviting recommendations and suggestions.

After another round of consultations the White Paper was revised and many changes that were suggested were incorporated in it. This document is intended to form the basis of the education policy that Mr Aly had hoped would be announced by the end of March. Following that the strategy of implementation was to be worked out.

Before this could happen, the news came from Islamabad that Javed Hassan Aly had resigned. What is more disturbing is that there are indications that he has pulled out because of differences with the federal minister. The rumours doing the rounds are that the two differed on the approach adopted by the National Education Policy review team. The fact is that for the first time in Pakistan’s history a major policy was being formulated through a participatory and open process. But this has never pleased those who stride the corridors of power because when public participation is invited the policymakers resent it as they feel it inhibits their freedom of action.

It was plain that the education minister, who has obviously been accustomed to running his outfit with a free hand, felt that transparency in policy formulation was restricting his options. Even after the White Paper had been released, General Javed Ashraf Qazi was announcing policy changes which contradicted the recommendations of the White Paper. The message was clear. The education minister had already decided the policy and the entire review exercise meant nothing to him.

Javed Hassan Aly’s departure from the education scene is a great loss to transparent and participatory policymaking. There are some lessons which emerge from this sad episode. The voices from the provinces cry themselves hoarse when demanding provincial autonomy. But where they have the opportunity to make themselves heard they prefer to keep silent. Thus only Punjab and the NWFP governments sent in their feedback to the White Paper. The Sindh and the Balochistan education departments did not bother to respond.

Two months after it had been sent to him, the federal education secretary himself had not read the White Paper. We have no way of knowing what the response was from the stakeholders — the education experts, parents, school managers and so on. The ministry’s website shows 71,269 hits at the time of writing but only 2,057 browsers went to the White Paper site of which just a handful would have read the document.

One positive departure was to be a document detailing the strategy for implementation giving the targets to be realised every year. With the White Paper’s approach so down to earth and practical, the policy was expected to be implemented this time. For instance, while recognising the need for higher financial investments in education the document bluntly states “the current capacity does not promise absorption of such an outlay immediately” (four per cent of GDP as promised by the government). Hence it insists that in the next two years the capacity must be developed to absorb increased investments in education which must planned in a timeframe of eight to 10 years and should be in the range of six per cent of GDP. This increase in outlays “must be made gradual with capacity development as a conditional precedent”.

Further planning of detailed implementation would require a substantial input from the provincial and district governments since projections to be realistic must be based on hard and accurate data. That unfortunately has not been forthcoming. This apathy, indifference and actual opposition to some sensible recommendations has ensured that the education policy will be nipped in the bud.

What will this effectively mean? The masses in Pakistan will continue to be denied good education. The elites who benefit from the current approach will continue to become more and more educated, more and more privileged, and as a result richer and richer. Thus the class divide will continue to grow. This will ensure the failure of democracy, the growth of autocracy, the enhancement of socio-economic injustice and an increase in instability in the country.