The year 2019 was another year of overall disappointment for the education sector, as little of the perennially promised reforms came to light, writes Ammar Sheikh.

he year 2019 began with renewed hopes of change. Four months into the government, the PTI-led federation had begun to get into its stride and people from all walks of life began looking up to it to start delivering on its pre-election promises. The case was the same with stakeholders associated with the education sector. They were hopeful that PTI, who had made education a centerpiece of its election manifesto, would go all guns blazing towards manifesting the reforms it had rallied the masses around and educational matters would, finally, start some of the much needed change. But contrary to what students, academics and other observers had hoped to see, the year remained quite an unfavorable one for education sector, with budget, rather the lack of it, taking center stage of the discussion around education and educational matters in Pakistan.

Financial Woes

The public higher education sector got a major financial shock in 2019 when the PTI-led government slashed the Higher Education Commission of Pakistan (HEC’s) budget, and subsequently, suddenly leaving universities with little options to sustain their existence.HEC was allocated Rs 59 billion for the fiscal year 2019-20, of which Rs 28.646 billion was earmarked for development. To put it into perspective, HEC had demanded Rs 103.5 billion for the year. With this cut, HEC had to cut its funding for public universities, leading to a crisis where many government-run universities were unable to pay salaries to their staff and teachers.Left with limited solutions, universities had no other option but to increase fees and other charges for students across the board, leading to an overall increased burden of about 20-30 percent on each student.

Teachers remained angry with HEC, claiming the commission did not play the role it should have to demand the required budget from government

This, was not the only bad financial news for students, as budgetary cuts meant discontinuation of several scholarships and other fee concession mechanisms. According to the Economic Survey of Pakistan 2018-19, Pakistan had a higher education enrollment of 1.6 million in 2017-18. The growth in enrolment was projected to decline by 0.2 percent in 2018-19. This decline was predicted for the previous year without taking the then unforeseen budgetary cuts into account. This year, the decline in number could be much higher and more students are likely to miss out on higher education given the severity of the financial constraints.

 

Teachers’ Outcry

The financial cuts did not go well with the teachers of public sector universities in the country and academics took several rallies and protests throughout the year against the government’s move. These movements, however, had no effect on the government in 2019 and the crisis continues. Teachers also showed their anger towards HEC, claiming that the commission did not play the role it should have to demand the required budget from the government. The teachers also claimed that the HEC failed to fight their case with the federal government and thus failed the higher education community.

 

The Case Of Universities Act

Another cause for concern for university teachers in Punjab was the Punjab government’s intention to replace the Acts of all universities with a single Act. The teachers did not oppose a singular Act for all universities of the province, but remain wary of the idea of getting their representation removed from the statute and executive bodies of varsities.Teachers believe that the government wanted to fully take over public universities through the new law and end the elected representation of teachers from public universities of Punjab.

 

Student Uprising

With the financial consequences of budget cuts taking a toll on students in the higher education sector as well as several cases of abuse of power or recklessness on the part of administrations coming to light, the year 2019 saw student activism gaining a renewed momentum, encouraging the youth take to the streets to press for their rights, especially that of restoration of student unions.The Student Solidarity March was held across the country on November 29, where thousands of students and their supporters took to the streets to demand rights and raise the call for revival of student representation on campus in the form of student unions.

Higher education budget cuts remained at the center of discussions around education throughout the year

Thought the march was organized by the left-leaning student political activists, the right-wing Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba (IJT) also weighed in their support later for the demands.Surprisingly, the federal and the provincial governments, one after the other, announced lifting the ban on student unions. However, the mechanism and in what form and with what powers the student unions will operate is something that might become clearer in 2020.

 

Trends In Schools

Though the latest numbers are yet to come in, the public schooling in the country has not improved much. This has a lot to do with an overall falling percentage of budgetary allocation to the education sector by the federal and provincial governments.According to the Pakistan Education Statistics 2016-17, the last overall survey available, a total of 29,360 primary schools in the country are without a toilet, and 27,181 or 93 percent among these are in the rural areas. Punjab was reported to have 326 such schools in rural areas, Sindh 13,994, Khyber Pakhtunkhawa 796, Balochistan 7,180, Azad Jammu & Kashmir 2,136 schools,

 

Gilgit Baltistan had 423 and FATA had 2,320 schools without the availability of a toilet. Security, another major concern for parents, especially girls, is also reported to be missing in many primary schools as a large number of schools remain without a boundary wall. A total of 28,703 primary schools were reported to be without a boundary wall and 26,781 or 93 percent of the total were in rural parts of the country. In Punjab, 1,064 public primary schools in rural parts of the province had a boundary wall missing; Sindh had 14,969 such schools, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa 783, Balochistan 6,032 schools, Azad Jammu & Kashmir 2,396 schools, Gilgit Baltistan had 428 and FATA had 1,104 schools that did not have a boundary wall.

 

Changing Schools In Punjab

Punjab, being the most populous province in the country, has the most out-of-school children as well as the most government-run schools and schoolteachers. Thus, structural changes in Punjab can change the overall dynamic of schooling in the country. Many changes promised by the PTI government, for the sector, were not implemented in 2019 and thus remain merely slogans.What the PTI government in Punjab did manage in 2019 was that it decided to make schooling and various responsibilities attached with it part of the local government system through the Punjab Local Government Act 2019

   The Punjab government also managed to put in place an effective digital system of transfers of school teachers

and the Punjab Village Panchayats and Neighbourhood Councils Act 2019.Schoolteachers, however, have serious objections to the law but are unclear of its implications, as the law is vague and does not answer many of the concerns pertaining to the status of schools. Still, teachers are critical of the new law given that the previous such attempt ended in a disaster. The main concern of schoolteachers is the effect it might have on their employment status. This too, like many other things, the PTI government was unable to implement in 2019.The Punjab government also managed to put in place an effective digital system of transfers of school teachers, something that Punjab School Education Minister Murad Raas said would end corruption worth millions of rupees involved in the transfers and posting mechanism of the province.Other notable incidents in the year included conviction and sentencing of the killers of Abdul Wali Khan University student Mashal Khan, who was killed in an incident of campus violence in April 2017, as well as the Punjab government’s decision to revert to Urdu as the primary medium of instructions in schools.Here’s to hoping the year 2020 brings in much needed relief to this crucial sector of Pakistan, for without the uplift of education sector, the country and its people can hardly hope of improvement in their fortunes in any foreseeable future.

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