COMMENT: Pakistan’s predicament: education in crisis —Saima Raza - Monday, April 25, 2011

A failure to equip the next generation with the necessary tools to thrive means we are short-changing them and putting the future of Pakistan’s prosperity into jeopardy. The spectre of terrorism that haunts Pakistan could potentially be banished by implementing formal education programmes

Despite being continually harangued in the international press, Pakistan is a state of overt strategic importance. The paradox: it is equal parts problems and possibilities. Debates on education have dominated the press in the past; it is imperative the issue remains at the forefront of government priorities. It is by first focusing on the socio-economic struggles overwhelming Pakistan that some truce can eventually be reached with the political dilemmas. The centrality of education to development cannot be overestimated; knowledge is the foundation upon which success is built. The prevailing and influential states in the modern age all operate knowledge economies; they harness potential from across the globe to fuel their economies and cultivate development. The subject of education does not exist in a vacuum, it must be analysed in a larger regional context. Whilst surrounding states are looking to surpass Pakistan socially and economically, we are resigning ourselves to a realm of indigence. For too long the issue of education has remained on the fringes of the development agenda. The UN affirms the right to education is indispensable for the achievement of all other human rights, bestowing upon it a fundamental status in the catalogue of rights. Education is a potent tool; it can lend Pakistan the means to combat terrorism, address gender inequalities and tackle destitution, thereby furnishing a population which is empowered, possessing individual freedom and having the chance to flourish on their own merits.

According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, the population of Pakistan has overtaken the 176 million mark, with 54 percent of the adult population being considered literate, whilst 69 percent youth (up to the age of 15) are literate. There is clearly room for improvement as well as the need to address the gender disparities that exist within the education system (especially in rural regions). Pakistan still lags behind Bangladesh as well as the heavyweight in the region, India, whose population surpasses that of Pakistan by quite a margin, with 63 percent of the adult Indian population literate, and a staggering 81 percent rate of literacy in youth — indicating India has clearly invested in education for the upcoming generations.

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (Pakistan Report 2009) noted less than 5 percent (the benchmark for adequate education for all) of GDP is spent on education. Furthermore, compulsory education laws are not enforced, there remain sub-standard/non-existent facilities, the quality of education is dire, primarily due to lack of sufficient teacher training with a high number of non-functional public schools. This report paints a dismal picture of the state of education in Pakistan. Articles 37 (b) and (c) of the Pakistan Constitution (1973) stipulate the state’s promise to combat illiteracy and offer non-discriminatory and accessible education for the population. Furthermore, in 2008 (having been a signatory since 1976), Pakistan belatedly ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), avowing full realisation of the rights contained therein (including the right to education) by employing all available resources. The right to education is enshrined as a human right in Articles 13 and 14 of the ICESCR, which entitles all humanity to free primary education and opportunities for progressive secondary and higher education, a provision that Pakistan must fulfil as a signatory.

Yet, despite the constitutional guarantees and prolific literacy campaigns in recent years (such as the National Plan of Action on Education for All and Education Sector Reforms Action Plan), little has come to pass by way of developing the education system in a manner that is conducive to the learning and progression of the population, be they urban or rural, Muslim or non-Muslim. Furthermore, human capital is fleeing, making Pakistan a victim of the ‘brain drain’ phenomenon. The professional and educated are leaving their home country in disturbing numbers to search for pastures new, primarily in the developed world, whilst Pakistan is left bereft of its most gifted and brightest. Opportunities beyond education need to be put in place so as to ensure there are clear routes to career advancement, based on equality and aptitude rather than nepotism. There are too many excuses for inaction. A whole host of barriers need to be dismantled ranging from conceptual impediments, normative actions to practical arrangements. An array of actors from the social mobility sector to grassroots organisations to government need to come together in order to make education the cornerstone for opportunity and development.

A failure to equip the next generation with the necessary tools to thrive means we are short-changing them and putting the future of Pakistan’s prosperity into jeopardy. The spectre of terrorism that haunts Pakistan could potentially be banished by implementing formal education programmes and routes for success that engage with the jaded youth. By being offered an alternative via education, they can be lured from absorbing hardline Islamist ideologies shaped by the Taliban. Prime Minister Gilani himself has declared illiteracy the root cause of extremism.

To waste the wealth of potential in Pakistan would indeed be foolhardy and it will prove to be exceptionally detrimental to Pakistan’s economic development. Due to Pakistan’s status in the international arena, it will prove to be exceedingly problematic if not impossible in coming years to attract a steady pool of talented persons that could facilitate Pakistan’s evolution to a developed state. In reality, international political interference in Pakistan has rendered it a pawn of imperial ambitions. The language of power has crippled Pakistan, trapping it in a web of political deceit and regression.

The advancement of the neighbouring states of India and China has been nothing short of phenomenal. Nevertheless, in 2005 the investment bank Goldman Sachs published the ‘Next Eleven’ Report lauding Pakistan as exhibiting the potential to become one of the largest economies in the 21st century. And yet ‘The Failed State Index’ (2010) by Foreign Policy Magazine places Pakistan as number 10 (out of 177 States) on its initial category of ‘Alert’; the indices are based on a 12-point criterion including ineffectual government, lack of public services and pervasive corruption amongst others. Pakistan’s dismal position has overtaken the neighbouring states of Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, India and Nepal.

The chasm between potential and performance needs to be bridged — and there is much work to be done in terms of re-hauling the socio-economic infrastructure and political tidying if Pakistan is to live up to its more promising expectations. The government needs to harness the positive aspects of Pakistan to make it a nation of renown as opposed to the terrorist notoriety it is now famed for. Judicious investment in education is a stepping stone towards this end and for elevating Pakistan out of the spiraling vortex of poverty and underdevelopment. Much of what has been dispensed in this article has been said before, but the point about education bears reiterating time and time again. Allama Muhammed Iqbal aptly stated: “Nations are born in the hearts of poets, they prosper and die in the hands of politicians.” How true this is of Pakistan.

The writer is a DPhil research student at the University of Sussex, UK. She can be reached at

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