Washington conference studies educational crisis in Pakistan
By Khalid Hasan
WASHINGTON: Pakistan is facing an educational crisis and urgent and far-reaching steps need to be taken to arrest the decline, was the consensus at a conference held here on Friday.
The one-day event was organised by the Woodrow Wilson Centre and captioned ‘No Child Left Behind: the crisis in Pakistan’s education system.’ It was addressed, among others, by State Bank governor Ishrat Hussain, adviser to the prime minister Salman Shah, Munawwar Noorani, chairman Fellowship Fund for Pakistan, Michelle Riboud of the World Bank, Mark Ward of USAID, Ahsan Saleem, chairman Citizens Foundation, Karachi, Grace Clark of the US Educational Foundation in Pakistan, Ambassador William B. Milam of the Woodrow Wilson Centre, Prof. Tariq Rahman who is currently at the University of California at Berkeley and former World Bank vice president Shahid Javed Burki.
Shahid Javed Burki told the conference that what was “scary” about Pakistan was its burgeoning population which had grown from 30 million in 1947 to 150 million today. If it continued to grow at that rate, in the next 25 years it would be the world’s fifth most populated states, with half of its population under the age of 18. The state would not be able to deliver the services that its large and young population would require. The state would be dysfunctional. He said when a state was unable to absorb its citizens economically, it results in enormous problems.
Turning to education, he pointed out that in Pakistan 75 percent of the students were still in state-run schools. The state machinery responsible for education was poorly endowed and was inefficient and even corrupt. He felt that devolution might be one way of grappling with the problem more effectively.
Burki said the Pakistani Diaspora could play a big role in helping the country finance the educational system and run it on the desired lines. He said the earnings of the half million Pakistanis settled abroad were equal to 30 percent of Pakistan’s GDP, but this great resource needs to be mobilised. The state, he argued, must get out of the direct management of education. He said he found the possibilities held out by the current devolution process in Pakistan “exciting”. He felt that what was required was to develop a “core curriculum” that all schools should be obligated to follow. An autonomous body should be entrusted with this important task. This body should approve a list of textbooks and schools should be obliged to choose their curriculum only from that list. The future of education lay in private-public partnership. He also recommended that the Pakistan government should set up a scholarship programme for the underprivileged.
Michelle Riboud of the World Bank in her presentation pointed out that government school teachers were often absent from their duties and parental involvement was low. The government needs to exercise a high level of monitoring and oversight of the schools it runs. Mark Ward of USAID who has been involved with education in Pakistan for a considerable period emphasised that commitment to education at the top was essential. He said US Congress had asked USAID to present a report on education in Pakistan, an indication of Congress’s concern and interest. He said some impressive developments had taken place in Pakistan in recent years, with 7,000 functioning literacy centres and an increase in the number of teacher training facilities. The ministry of education was engaged in the task of modernising syllabi. Some NGOs had done commendable work in this area. He said Japan in association with USAID was helping build schools in the South Waziristan area. He was critical of the low rate of disbursement of sanctioned funds for education by the government. He felt that devolution held great promise and the future of education lay in private-public partnership. He also had words of praise for the new minister of education, Javed Ashraf Qazi, whom he found committed to the task he had taken in hand. He found the establishment of a cell in the ministry to monitor progress in the field an important decision.
Grace Clark told the conference that only 2.9 percent of Pakistanis had access to higher education. No Pakistani university was included in the 500 top universities of the world. There was a notable shortage of PhDs at Pakistani universities. The libraries and laboratories were ill-equipped and it was her observation that Pakistani libraries kept their books locked up. Many of the departments at Pakistani universities were “basket cases.”
Ahsan Saleem of the Citizens Foundation, Karachi, made the most impressive presentation from amongst the large number of speakers who addressed the conference. He said half the children born in Pakistan would never see the inside of a school. There were 36 million children on the street. Half the schools in Pakistan had no toilettes and there was one teacher to 66 students. Only 2.9 percent of the GDP was spent on education. He informed the conference about the work of his Foundation founded in 1995 and how it was almost entirely financed through private contributions. He said no such enterprise could succeed unless it has the support of the local community. He said untrained teachers play havoc with the children in their charge. He told the meeting that the Foundation was running 250 schools and was hoping to increase their number to 1,000 by 2015. He said those in decision making positions should remember the saying, “If you think education is expensive, try illiteracy.”
Tariq Rahman pleaded for education to be imparted in the mother tongue. He said it was unfortunate that the phrase “Urdu medium” was treated as in insult in Pakistan society. He cited figures to show that the state was in fact subsidising elitist education. He also regretted that five private universities were controlled by the armed forces. There is a “militarisation of elitist education” in Pakistan, he added. He was critical of the textbooks prescribed for students that inculcated hatred for other religions, celebrated the virtues of was as state policy and projected Pakistan as a “garrison state.” He pointed out that though the government had reversed its policies after 9/11, such a reversal had yet to take place when it came to textbooks in the nation’s schools.