Pakistan’s education fiasco Quantum note - Dr Muzaffar Iqbal - Friday, April 22, 2011

The state education system in Pakistan was already showing signs of inadequacy in the 1960s, but the pre-partition standards were rather good and were still holding, even though classrooms were becoming overcrowded. This nominally-charged education system was the most obvious choice for a vast majority of middle-class Pakistanis.

There were, in fact, ‘Model Schools’ in almost all major cities which competed with private schools. There were two types of private schools: those which charged fees that the middle-class could afford, and those which only the rich and super-rich could afford. There were not many super-rich people then; the nation’s wealth was concentrated within a small percentage of the population, the so-called 33 families – made notorious by ZA Bhutto. But then came ZAB’s nationalisation, which served a devastating blow to the entire education system: overnight all private schools were taken over by the state.

This botched, improvised, and ad hoc socialism of the ill-tempered and haughty feudal lord from Larkana was enough to send the entire system into a downward spiral from which it never recovered. Throughout the Bhutto years, primary education remained victim of experimentation and eventually there came a time when no middle-class parent wanted to send children to state-run schools. Nothing was left of the old standards; a vast number of disinterested teachers sat in broken down, ill-kept buildings with a student population which stared at a bleak future.

Necessity, however, created a solution, but it came too late and at a disastrous price: a new kind of private school emerged. These new private schools blossomed under the military dictator who sent ZA Bhutto the gallows and who allowed these new private schools to mushroom all across the country.

Pakistan’s primary education system went through a dramatic change during the Zia years, education standards improved, but more importantly, this change was accompanied by a social change which even Americans could not affected with their billions of dollars: children educated through these private schools lost all that was native to the land; even their taste buds were transformed, as my friend Dr Syed Nomanul Haq is fond of saying. These children spoke English with a twisted tongue – that impressed their parents – they disliked food which their parents and generations of their forefathers had been eating. They aspired to be like those about whom they had been taught in their schools through books imported from Britain and the United States.

As these children entered higher education system, there emerged an urgent need for similar institutions at that level and hence private universities started to emerge. Education, which had already become a hugely profitable commercial venture, became a business which attracted money makers. Thus education passed from the hands of educators to businessmen. This has been the single most important change in the social dynamics of Pakistan, which has transformed its future in a silent way. These years also produced dramatic changes in Pakistan’s economic demography, which has all but abolished the middle class. Today, out of some 176 million Pakistanis, 60 percent subsist on less than $2 per day!

This means that there are 105 million Pakistanis who cannot think of education for their children in any real sense; no wonder that the just published Education for All (EFA) Global Monitoring Report of UNESCO paints a grim picture of Pakistani children with 60 million children over the age of 10 being illiterate. One would have expected that this shocking state of affairs, precisely pinpointing where the country is heading, would have immediately stopped everyone in their footsteps and there would have been a national outrage and eventually a national plan about what to do, but all that emerged in the wake of this report was the news about the reselling of some about-to-expire politicians!

If anyone needed one more proof that those who are now ruling Pakistan have absolutely no interest in this country, this is it. Imagine 60 million boys and girls, growing up illiterate in a country of 176 million! Imagine Pakistan’s future! Just this one indicator is enough to wake up and make an emergency plan to stop the looming disaster. These children are already over the age of 10, they are soon going to be on the streets and one can only imagine what they will be doing with all the arms available in the open market.

A mega disaster is at hand. To be sure, this has not happened overnight. There is a history and there are multiple causes for it, but all that one heard was that the cause of this disaster is that “the current public expenditure on education in Pakistan is less than three percent of the GNP!”

Is this the only cause? Are there no more questions to be asked? Questions such as where does this three percent of GNP spent on education go? Who is benefiting from this public money? How much of this money is being spent on so-called higher education and what happened to the billions of rupees which went through HEC during the reign of the military dictator! Recently, the whole HEC affair became an emotional issue and the government retreated on its ill-conceived plans about it, but there has hardly been any analytical analysis of the contribution of HEC to the overall education fiasco.

No one has asked the basic questions: in a country where 60 million children cannot read and write, what does it mean to have a Higher Education Commission that was given billions of rupees by a military dictator and his foreign supporters? What does it mean to the rest of the education sector to impose foreign professors at international salaries on local staff in terms of morale, economic disparity, and psychological and professional state of the local educators? No one even asked the most obvious question: why certain foreign governments suddenly became interested in supporting Pakistan’s HEC? One hopes that no one is so naïve in Pakistan as to say: Americans and British governments are just dying to elevate Pakistan’s higher education system for the benefit of Pakistan’s future!

(To be continued)

The writer is a freelance columnist. Email:

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