By Zubeida Mustafa
LAST week it was decided at a high level meeting in which both the president and the prime minister were present that the education sector would receive four per cent of the GDP in the fiscal year 2006-07. It has not been reported in the media what stirred the government to suddenly turn its attention to this very important sector of national life which has conventionally not been deemed worthy of our leaders’ attention and precious time.
This is not something new. The trend has always been there. The story from a very reliable source goes that in the good old days of yore when the late governor general of Pakistan, Mr Ghulam Mohammad, was swearing in the umpteenth cabinet he forgot to assign the education portfolio to any of the worthies present.
He was reminded of this lapse of memory by his secretary — probably a caring father — who was promptly dispatched to bring back one of the already sworn in ministers. The last to be leaving — perhaps with a chauffeur who had fallen asleep in the car — was dragged back and sworn in as the education minister as well.
In those days one minister held a number of portfolios unlike today when one portfolio is split up between a number of ministers, ministers of state and advisers.
Since Pakistan has the reputation of being measly in its education spending and has been under pressure from donors to enhance its education budget, it is likely that the government was under compulsion to do something about it.
To be fair to the present rulers, they have begun to allocate more funds for education in the last two years and the spending on this sector has gone up somewhat. It was 2.7 per cent of GDP in 2003-04.
Although this is a far cry from the five per cent recommended by Unesco for developing countries, it seems a miracle for Pakistan where the amount budgeted for education as a percentage of GDP had been on the slide for several years. From 2.5 per cent of GDP in 1996-97 it fell to 1.7 per cent in 2002-03. It was then that the government decided to reverse the trend.
But this is only one aspect — though a very important one — of education. The availability of resources makes it possible to address the various problems and resolve them, that is if the political will exists. But simply having cash in hand does not by any means ensure that all the problems will actually be addressed logically and the policies which might be perfect on paper will really be implemented.
There are two issues among many others which need to be looked into if the benefits of this big boost in the education budget are to be optimized. The first is the need to create awareness of the importance of primary education in our policymakers. The second is the urgency of curbing corruption in the education sector if the billions assigned to it are to make any difference.
The fact is that our policymakers as well as the many intellectuals attached to the universities do not really understand what the problem is and how it can be resolved. Thus a lot of fuss has been made about higher education, the academic level of the universities, the quality of PhDs being produced under the patronage of the Higher Education Commission and so on. It is strange that the root of the problem has still not been recognized, let above tackled.
The fact is that the neglect of primary education, the base on which the structures of universities and technical teaching institutions are built, has caused the very foundation to crumble. We are trying to build grandiose castles on sand.
And our high brow intellectuals and scholars find it too mundane an issue to even talk about. If your maasi’s children are dropouts or cannot even count till 100 when they leave primary school it is no one’s concern. They are not expected to do any better in life, after all.
The children of the policymakers and the so-called elites of society, who influence policy making, study in the elite private schools (as distinct from the “common man’s” private institutions, some of which are no better than government schools in quality but worse in respect of their fees).
Hence the powers that be are not worried about what is happening to primary education in the country.
Those who write so eloquently and prolifically about higher education, as they take aim at one another, never identify the decay of the primary education sector as being the fundamental cause of the failure of our universities to achieve their goals.
By splitting up the education portfolio between the higher education sector and the rest, and placing a dynamic go-getter in charge of the first and any left behind (using the Ghulam Mohammad analogy) to head the second, the government has done a major disservice to society. The focus of attention, debate and funds has shifted to higher education.
This has pushed the primary sector down even further. The elite private schools that are doing a fine job for a small segment of society cannot compensate for the failure of public sector primary education. Their products who do so well in life do not take admission in the universities the intellectuals are arguing about.
They go to the elite private universities and professional colleges that are mushrooming in the country. Those who are more affluent simply go abroad to MIT, Cambridge, Harvard and so on.
It is ironical that more than half a century later, one has to plead the case of primary education in Pakistan because its importance is still not recognized. We have failed to enroll all our children in school and provide them with a decent education.
At present, the net primary school enrolment ratio is only 59 per cent when according to the millennium development goals all of them should be enrolled by the year 2015. Can we ever reach that goal?
Even countries like Bangladesh, Nepal, Togo, Tanzania and Lesotho that started much after us have 84,71, 91, 82 and 86 per cent of their five to nine old children in school respectively.
If the government is serious about boosting primary education in the country, it should also look into the issue of corruption in the education departments on an emergency footing. It is now widely known that school education has suffered because it is the most corrupt sector in Pakistan.
This may not be so visible because the rampant corruption in primary education is widely dispersed.
Small amounts are misappropriated in scattered sites all over the country where the monitoring and accountability mechanism is weak. But given the large number of people involved — education is the largest public sector employer — spread out over a vast area, the corruption does not show up as a major scandal.
Nevertheless it exists and is damaging. We have been hearing about teachers’ absenteeism, ghost schools, fictitious consultants posing as teacher trainers who gobble up funds, textbook boards handing out shoddy books for printing to their favourites who make a mess of these publications, contracts for building schools being handed out to dishonest builders who make substandard structures and teachers who don’t teach in class and ask their pupils to come to the coaching centres they have set up under a relative’s name.
But the impact of this corruption is serious, as pointed out by David Chapman, professor of comparative education at the University of Minnesota, in his essay in Fighting Corruption in Developing Countries. He writes, “The most serious consequences arise from the pervasive, petty corruption that permeates the day-to-day transactions at the classroom, school and district levels.
The real damage to a society occurs when entire generations of youth are miseducated — by example — to believe that personal success comes not through merit and hard work but through favouritism, bribery and fraud. Widespread petty corruption breaks the link between personal effort and anticipation of reward. This, in turn, limits economic and social development well beyond the immediate corruption . Such lessons have the potential to undermine civil society well into the future.”