Education: data first - Ahsan Iqbal - Monday, March 21, 2011

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The wording of Article 25a of the Constitution of Pakistan is clear as day. Education is a fundamental right – “The State shall provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age of five to sixteen years in such manner as may be determined by law.”

The ground realities in Pakistan are also clear, stark and frightening. Pakistan is in the throes of an education crisis that threatens the future of the country in the wake of the new “Knowledge Revolution” paradigm for development, under which the quality of human resource of any nation will define its destiny.

More than 25 million children are denied the right to be in school. The children that are in schools, study in broken buildings, often with no teachers, or poorly skilled ones. The system fails not only those children who are not in school. It also fails those children who are in school as they study a curriculum that is outdated and irrelevant to the demands of a new knowledge-based economy. Rich and poor parents alike are choosing to pay for education, with one-third of all enrolled children now being educated in private schools.

We have a moral obligation to fix this problem. Globalisation is bringing down national boundaries. Nations today need to compete on global benchmarks which means we owe to our people an education system that is world class. The devolution process, triggered by the 18th Amendment, is changing the way public policy is formulated in Pakistan. We need to ask ourselves if we are prepared to fulfill the moral obligation to fix education, and to do so in a manner consistent with the 18th Amendment.

I fear that at the present time, we are unprepared. The truth is that Pakistani policy makers have little handle on what is currently being spent on education. The picture is becoming even more fragmented in light of the 18th Amendment as now we are left with no mechanism at the national level to set, monitor, and evaluate national standards.

We urgently need to gain greater clarity over the current situation and also to analyse what needs to be spent if governments are to meet their constitutional obligations on education. This cannot be done by the provinces acting on their own. Both federal and provincial governments need to work together, assisted if necessary by Pakistan’s top economists, to discover what we know about financing, and – just as importantly – what we don’t know.

According to the Pakistan Economic Survey 2009-10, Pakistan spends 2.1 percent of GDP on education, which is less than Bangladesh (2.6 percent) and India (3.3 percent), and much below levels of expenditure seen in countries such as Malaysia (4.7 percent) and Vietnam (5.2 percent).

Figures for how much of this money is spent on schools (as opposed to universities and colleges) are not readily available. However, a rough estimate suggests that school-level expenditure accounts for around 65 percent of total expenditure, or somewhere in the region of 1.4 percent of GDP.

Of course, the problem is not just that allocations are low. It is that they are based on the wrong things. Budget allocations are not determined by any clear analysis of need. If they were, the lion’s share of the budget may be spent on development, for fixing existing schools and possibly upgrading, or even building new ones.

Yet more than 80 percent of education budgets at the district level are routinely spent on recurring costs, especially salaries. The number of teachers on payroll and their place on the pay scale are largely responsible for determining how much is spent on school-level education. This irrational way of allocating money is actively hurting Pakistan’s future.

One of the only sources for reasonable quality data on education expenditure is available from PIFRA, the government’s computerised accounting system. However, no one sees it as their job to submit it to the robust financial analysis that would enable proper planning for the future.

What is spent on the school system as a whole? We can make a reasonable estimate, but this figure is rarely cited and, seemingly, never used. What is spent per pupil in primary, middle, and secondary schools? How does expenditure vary from province to province, and between rural and urban areas? How does value for money compare with that provided in the private sector? What is the marginal cost for each new student added to the existing system? To these questions, and many others, at the moment we can provide little better than a guess.

One striking problem is the lack of data on the school-age population. In the absence of a population census since 1998, we simply do not know how many children there are between the ages of five and 16, much less how this number, and its distribution between age groups, will change over time. The estimates that are available project forward from the census and are therefore only valid at a population level (even then they will be inaccurate if birth rates have fallen at a different rate than expected).

Disaggregated estimates at district level are not possible as internal migration cannot be calculated with the given information sets. This seriously impedes decentralised decision making. As a result, we are over-reliant on household surveys, such as the Pakistan Social and Living Measurement Survey or the Annual Status of Education Report for rural areas. These provide some alternative to an up-to-date census, but are not a replacement for one.

We are also faced with the problem that there is extremely poor information about the functioning of the private sector, which has grown explosively and probably educates around a third of Pakistan’s children. Only one province includes private schools in its Education Management Information System (EMIS). The Ministry of Education figures for private schools are therefore estimates and may underestimate the growth of the sector.

We certainly lack any figures regarding how much parents are spending on private education, although the amounts are substantial and growing. It is an extraordinary situation. An alternative school system has emerged that caters to as many as 12 million children and it has barely been factored into our education planning.

With this kind of a baseline of data and information about schooling in general, one has to ask: If we can’t measure the problem, how will we possibly fix it? The March for Education campaign has brought to light several big picture challenges to education reformers. It has helped underscore the obvious education emergency in Pakistan.

If we are to be successful in addressing this paramount challenge, we will need to do so with a vastly improved baseline of data. This is not an impossible task. The amount of talent at Pakistan’s disposal is enormous. With the right set of instructions and a broad ownership, a small group could fix the data problem rather quickly. That would be a bold and important first step in the long march toward an educated Pakistan, a better Pakistan, and a Pakistan that can live up to the aspirations of its founders.

The writer is PML-N MNA, a former federal minister for education and a former deputy chairman, planning commission. A detailed paper by Mr Iqbal on the state of education financing and the problem of data is available at

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