Education Today: In Crisis, Heading For Catastrophe

The education sector in Pakistan has seen a rapid expansion over the last two decades. There has been a rapid rise in the number of educational institutes of all cadres and at all levels in almost every nook and corner of the country. The number of universities has gone up to over 190 from a meagre 34, while English medium schools have now become part and parcel of almost every neighborhood in every town across Pakistan.

Given the rise in numbers, education appears to be doing well in Pakistan. But the situation of education in Pakistan is far from ideal and in some cases become worse than what it used to be once. You see, a clear majority of institutions that emerged out this growth spurt were private sector initiatives, focused on commercial gains in return for their offer of education services. Resultantly, education – that serves as an engine for economic and social growth and progress – has not produced the results for Pakistan that it should have. The situation is such that despite all the progress and growth in this crucial sector, Pakistan is home to the world’s second highest number of out-of-school children. Basic facilities like drinking water, toilets and electricity are still not available in a large number of public schools all over Pakistan and the situation is especially adverse in rural parts of the country.

Out Of Luck

UNICEF reports that almost 22.8 million children aged 5-16 are not attending school in Pakistan. These deprived children represent 44 percent of the total population in this age group. To drive the point home further, just absorb the fact that Pakistan ranks lower than countries like Sudan, Niger and Nigeria, and only fares better than Afghanistan in terms of out-of-school-children.The issue is, Afghanistan has been at war for a majority of the last 40 years. On the other hand, Pakistan has become a nuclear power in that time and claims to be on its way to becoming a developed country. But with almost half of our future generation being out of schools, is the claim really believable? The UNICEF report further reveals that 5 million children in the 5-9 age group were not enrolled in schools. That is 5 million children not even getting primary education. But things are not pretty for those who do receive primary education, for the post primary (10-14) number of out-of-school children simple shoots up to twice at the primary level. That means 11.4 million children aged 10-14 not in schools. In Sindh, 58 percent of girls are out of schools, while the percentage goes up to 78 for out-of-school girls in Balochistan.

While the children missing out on schools altogether present a sad case of lost potential, the situation is not very hopeful even for those who manage to stick around in schools for longer, thanks to the state’s apathy and neglect. The recent ASER Report 2018 revealed that Pakistani schooling system ranked poorly for educational outcomes and was comparable to only Afghanistan with respect to actual learning provided to children. It is really alarming that ASER reported a Pakistani child’s expected years of learning against an expected 9 years of schooling to be only 5 years. But what is more worrying is the fact that an Afghan child was expected to achieve a similar 5 years of learning in only 8 years of schooling. This makes Pakistani schooling system worse than Afghanistan’s and worst in South Asia. So much for being the Asian Tiger.

Madrassas Model

Besides the shambolic state of our schooling system, another issue that has remained unaddressed for long is that of the madrassa system of education. Millions of students have been enrolled each year in these religious seminaries for years, yet no government seriously paid attention to what was being taught here in the name of religion. As a result, domestic and foreign elements with vested interests exploited these seminaries at will, turning impressionable young minds into radicalised monsters with not a care for themselves or their fellow human beings. But even seminaries that do offer religious education and stay away from promoting radicalisation can offer little to its students. With such a large number of students enrolled in madrassas, estimated at close to 3 million, there are only limited work opportunities available for these madrassa graduates in mosques as hifz trainers, prayer leaders and caller to prayers etc. With no modern or mainstream education received at madrassas, these graduates are rendered useless for any other work except some related to religious education. Which itself is becoming harder to come by as more and more schools opt for incorporating religious education into mainstream curriculum.

Higher Ground

The higher education sector has its own set of problems. Just like the expansion of school education sector, there has been a mushroom growth of higher education institutes (HEIs) across Pakistan as well, with the private sector again leading the charge. The number of universities in Pakistan now stands close to 200, however, only an estimated 1% of the population has access to higher education. The task of overseeing the promotion of higher education in the country has been with the Higher Education Commission since 2002, with dozens of billions of rupees already having been spent for promotion of research, infrastructural improvement and faculty trainings etc. The HEC has also spent generously on sponsoring Pakistan scholars to pursue PhD studies abroad, and to return home and add to the economic progress of the country. Sadly, that has not been the case. HEC has consistently being criticised for its quantity over quality approach and for being focused on the number of papers and citations instead of the value of these parameters. Apart from this, there are currently more than 400 scholars who have absconded after completing their PhDs abroad, reneging on their bond of returning home and working for the country once they completed the HEC-funded doctorate.

More than 22.8 million children aged 5-16 are not attending school in Pakistan. To drive the point home further, just absorb the fact that Pakistan ranks lower than countries like Sudan, Niger and Nigeria, and only fares better than Afghanistan in terms of out-of-school-children

The HEC has also drawn flak from critics for ignoring the needs of industry, not building industry-academia linkages and just pushing for producing more and more PhD degree holders without taking into account if such professionals and in what number were relevant or needed in the Pakistani academia or marketplace. Resultantly, scholars who were promised confirmed jobs at universities across Pakistan upon their return to the country have faced quite a disappointment. According to PhD Doctors Association of Pakistan, there are close to 800 doctorate degree holders who are without jobs at the moment. Others, the organization says, are forced to work odd jobs that are a wastage of the large amount of national resources spent on hundreds of scholars. .Apart from its ill-planned focus on PhD numbers, the HEC has also left loopholes in management of universities across Pakistan. Cases of fraudulent degree programs offered by illegal campuses of universities have become quite commonplace, with the blame for letting these outlets perform without a care of consequence squarely resting on HEC and the state’s shoulders. The HEC has also paid little attention to the issue of the cost of higher education. To date, there is no mechanism in place that regulates fees charged by private universities. Also, while there is some basis and criteria available for getting admission into a university, there is really no way to gauge what kind of graduates our universities are producing. A recent report on graduate employability based on an employers’ perception survey revealed that a staggering 78% of employers were not satisfied with the quality of fresh graduates coming out of universities, while 82% of employers said they did not hire fresh graduates on the basis of ‘high grades’ .But is it really justified to blame HEC for its lukewarm performance? For those who come to its defense, HEC was declawed by the 18th Constitutional Amendment that made education a domain of the provinces. Ever since 2010 HEC has been engaged in a constant fight for its own survival and justifying its place on the national higher education grid. While Punjab and Sindh have formed its own higher education bodies, HEC still exercises authority in KP and Balochistan. However, no one seems to know who gets to do what. It’s a constant push and pull that hampering education to the max. Provinces often give NOCs to institutions that the HEC then annuls, while directives passed by HEC are routinely ignored by provincial bodies. It’s a constant cat and mouse battle that does not seem to be ending anytime soon.

Take Away

No matter what angle you look at it, the situation of the education sector of Pakistan is nothing short of a crisis on its way to becoming a national catastrophe. Each successive government promises to raise education spending to 4% of the GDP, yet the figure has rarely gone beyond the 2% mark. At least 64% of the total population is below the age of 30, while 29pc is between the ages of 15 and 29 years. Now imagine half of this celebrated youth bulge of ours having little or no education. What kind of a future would they be looking at in a world that is being defined by Artificial intelligence, augmented reality and robotics? What the Pakistani government needs to do is take steps on war footing to slow down the rapid rot of its education system and implement corrective measures across the length and breadth of the sector. Even after 70 years of independence, some parts of Sindh and Balochistan still remain without schools. Girls everywhere continue to face various barriers to their right to get an education, ghost schools are still a reality, and ghost teachers are still sitting at home drawing wages for duties never performed.

The learning outcomes speak volumes of the overall incompetency of the system as well as the teachers hired to educate young Pakistanis. The state not only needs to overhaul the system of inducting public teachers based on the highest of merit, but also offer these teachers benchmark trainings over the course of their careers to keep the pedagogy in verse with time. Administrative issues like governance and monitoring of the private sector players also needs the state’s attention, and the courts cannot be expected to come to the government’s savior each time things get out of control. Cue fee hikes. Unless the Pakistani government realizes that the future of Pakistan is dependent on the future of its people, the country cannot expect to go far into the 21st century. And the best way to ensure a good future for the people is making good educational opportunities available to them by investing diligently in the sector and making it work.