WHAT IS AGA KHAN UNIVERSITY EXAMINATION BOARD
For quite sometime certain pressure groups including political quarters have been carrying on a campaign against the Aga Khan University Examination Board (AKU-EB), based on assumptions and inaccurate statements. Apparently the target of this campaign has been the AKU-EB, unfortunately the Ismaili community, while a distinctly separate entity from the University and over whose governance it has no control, has faced threats which have been reported in the press. In order to set the record straight and dispel misunderstandings, PAGE contacted the AKU-EB to provide a factual picture of the purpose and characteristics of the board. Following is a comprehensive background of the AKU-EB, for the benefit of our readers.
— AMANULLAH BASHAR
Dec 26 - Jan 01, 2006
In 1995, i.e. a decade ago, 16 private schools in Pakistan wrote to the Aga Khan University (AKU) expressing their concern about the deteriorating standard of secondary education and identified the current examination system as a major cause behind it. They further requested AKU, being "an established educational institution of high repute in the country... to set up an examination board for holding the matric examination and awarding the SSC certificates."
At first the University was reluctant to undertake such a school-based activity, preferring to concentrate on higher education. However, following persistent requests of this type from several quarters, consultations with schools, students, educationists and policymakers confirmed that a critical weakness of Pakistan's education system was its examination methodology which is designed primarily as a test of memory based on a single textbook. Combined with the need for high scores to pursue advanced education, this mode of examinations promotes rote learning in schools at the expense of comprehension of concepts and application of knowledge.
The poor quality of examinations has been documented in at least 35 government reports between 1959 and 1993. One such report stated that rote learning is reinforced by the "pattern of question papers" which in turn "defeats the basic targets of education which are acquisition, understanding and application of knowledge". These reports also highlight the erosion of the credibility of examination results due to "large scale and unhampered cheating".
Within Pakistan good public and private universities are increasingly using their own entrance tests to supplement or replace results from the current examination boards, while Pakistani school qualifications bear very little international recognition or repute. The result, as is well known, has been the rapid growth of the Cambridge 'O' and 'A' level system run from the UK. Although these examinations are generally reliable, they are very expensive and are based on a foreign curriculum.
In response to the concerns outlined above, the University's Board of Trustees in 1998 - that is seven years ago - appointed a task force to assess the feasibility of an alternative examination system. The membership of the task force included representation from schools using existing public Board examinations as well as national consultants who provided insight into the government policies and national curricula. In 1999 the group recommended to the Board of Trustees the creation of an examination service as a function of the University, with its main objective being to improve the quality of education in schools throughout Pakistan.
In 2000, the Board of Trustees approved the recommendation of the task force, subject to approval of the Government of Pakistan, and emphasized the principal aim as being to offer high quality public examinations using modern methods of assessment to test achievement within the national curriculum so as to "have a significant impact on the quality of education". Thereafter, with the encouragement of the Government of Pakistan, the University applied for recognition of AKU-EB and was granted the same in November 2002 through Ordinance CXIV of 2002. A copy of this Ordinance is attached to this note.
The AKU-EB from the beginning was envisaged as a small undertaking which would be able to serve as a role model. In this respect it would play the same role as the University's School of Nursing and Medical College, both of which, while remaining small, are generally recognized to have had a major and wholly positive impact in their respective fields.
The concept of an examination board under the auspices of AKU was developed at least four years before funding sources of $7.3million for the programme were identified. With the approval of the Board of Trustees in 1999, the University committed to invest a portion of these funds from its own resources. With the assistance of the Government, funding possibilities were then explored with various international development agencies, including the Asian Development Bank, the UK's DfID, the EU and Germany's DEG, but without success. USAID was considered as a potential funding source at the point when the Government of Pakistan was entering into an agreement with the USA in 2002 by which the latter would provide support for the Government's Educational Sector Reforms throughout Pakistan. Following extensive dialogue with the Government, USAID, with the concurrence of the Government, granted Rs.270M (US$4.5M) in August 2003 toward the initial operational cost of AKU-EB. This is two thirds of the total project cost of Rs.438M (US$7.3M), with the remaining cost of Rs.168M ($2.8M) being borne by the University. After the initial start-up period of five years, the University expects to become solely responsible for the AKU-EB's financial affairs.
Implementation of the project began in 2003 with the appointment of the first Director and staff of AKU-EB. It was not, however, until early 2004 that statements appeared in the press claimed that all public examination boards were to come under the control of AKU-EB. The University's stance has always been clear in that it neither had any interest in, nor the capacity to pursue such an endeavour, and furthermore for which it did not in any event, have the authority. Its objectives, as mentioned above, would be fully served by the establishment of an examination board in the private sector. The establishment of another private board, the Askari Board, has already been announced. This and other points of concern were explained to leaders of certain political parties in June 2004 when they were also assured of AKU's objectives.
Inaccurate comments have continued in the media over the past few months, directed not only at the University but more recently also at the Ismaili community. This is disconcerting since the University was formed as a statutory body by Charter granted by the Government of Pakistan and is therefore distinct from the Ismaili community, whose members have no control over its affairs. The University is governed by its Board of Trustees and has increasingly become a national institution with intellectual and financial support for its programmes coming from many diverse communities and quarters across the country.
GOALS AND CHARACTERISTICS OF AKU-EB
Overall objective: The general objective of the AKU-EB is to design and offer high quality public examinations in English and Urdu based on the national curriculum for secondary and higher secondary education. It will also arrange for training of teachers, and for appropriate learning materials to prepare teachers and students for the new examination system. It is intended to serve as a model of internationally recognized good practice in order to enhance the country's capacity for educational assessment and tests, and therefore to improve the quality of education in schools, and through them, the quality of education in the national universities.
WIDER RANGE AND ACCEPTABILITY OF SKILLS TESTED:
The assessment methods to be used by AKUEB will evaluate higher intellectual abilities of comprehension, logical thinking and problem solving. As a result of a secure, valid and reliable process for national and international comparability of academic achievement, Pakistani students will become increasingly able to compete on equal terms for entrance to leading academic institutions nationally and worldwide without having to opt for the 'O' and 'A' level system. Consequently, the country will evolve a more competitive position in the global knowledge-based economy. As stated by two leading Pakistani economists in 1998, "Individuals and societies that acquire constructive learning skills grow in knowledge and progress further, realizing economic and other social benefits, while those who do not, become increasingly marginal and dependent".
Scope and voluntary nature of AKU-EB: The AKU-EB Ordinance provides for full credit and recognition of the certificates awarded for achievement up to the level of higher secondary education. Affiliation with AKU-EB is voluntary and its creation provides an additional option to students of schools controlled by the Federal Government, and also students of non-government schools throughout Pakistan and abroad. The Ordinance provides for services to provincial government schools, but subject to approval by the provincial governments.
GOVERNANCE OF AKU-EB:
The AKU-EB has a Board of Directors which includes representation from many different stakeholders, including schools, the public examination boards and the Higher Education Commission. Several senior serving and retired civil servants and educationists have accepted invitations to join the Board. The Chairman of the IBCC (Inter-Board Committee of Chairmen of the Provincial and Federal Examination Boards) is an ex officio member of the Board of Directors of AKU-EB to facilitate sharing of information on performance with other examination boards and for transparency of AKU-EB operations, while the Director of AKU-EB in turn is a member of the IBCC.
REASONABLE AND GRADED FEE STRUCTURE:
AKU-EB examinations, which will be given in Urdu and English, will be made accessible to schools serving individuals from all walks of life through a graded fee system. The fee for SSC candidates from not-for-profit schools will be Rs.1500 and Rs.3000 for others. This is more than the Rs.350-750 currently being charged by public boards (although it is unclear whether these fees will remain the same when the two-stage examination is introduced in place of the single-stage one now in use). However, it is much less than the fee for a comprehensive Cambridge 'O' Level certificate in Pakistan, which is about Rs.26,000. Consequently, students who do not wish to follow a foreign curriculum or who cannot currently afford 'O' and 'A' level examinations will be able to access similar standards through the AKU-EB system.
Many unjustified and inaccurate statements about the programme and the University have been published in numerous papers as of late. The purpose of this section is to demonstrate that they are based on misapprehensions and misunderstandings of the basis on which AKU-EB has been established and will operate.
It has been stated that AKU-EB will change the national curriculum. However, the Ordinance under which AKU-EB was established clearly states that it will "follow the national curriculum and syllabi". The procedure by which detailed syllabi is developed begins with the text of the national curriculum, and an extensive review process involving experts and specialists ensures that all aspects of the national curriculum are covered. The text of each syllabus document is deposited with the Curriculum Wing of the Federal Ministry of Education.
It has been stated that AKU-EB's objective is to take over government examination boards. However, AKU has neither the intention nor the capacity to assume control over any other board. The government has also made it clear many times that it has no plans to hand over any examination board to AKU-EB. In 1998, the government boards served 1.2 million candidates for the SSC. At the growth rate of 2.9% annually, projected from the preceding 5 years, this figure would be about 1.4 million candidates today. Therefore, AKU-EB's targeted number of 27,000 candidates in 5 years is only 2% of the countrywide total. Therefore, the issue of taking over another Board is completely unfounded. As stated above, the Government expects AKU-EB to develop a model of high quality examinations at the secondary and higher secondary levels of education and to enhance the country's capacity for educational assessment and tests through demonstration and sharing of experience with other examination boards, in order to facilitate the improvement of education in schools.
Statements have appeared in the press that associate AKU-EB with a US agenda to secularize Pakistan via infiltration of its education system. Some of these statements have made reference to funding of AKU-EB by USAID. However, as already stated, AKU-EB was conceived and developed without any prior reference to funding sources, and will abide by the national curriculum. AKU-EB will examine students in all subjects, including Islamiyat and Pakistan Studies, according to the national curriculum and syllabi. The notion of 'secularisation' is therefore unfounded. Furthermore, for over twenty years Aga Khan Development Network agencies have utilized grants from many national and international developmental organizations for social development in Pakistan, with the full knowledge, support and approval of every Government, and have never misused such funds. Independent evaluations have confirmed the effective use of such funds for national development purposes. The notion of AKU-EB working against Pakistan's national interest is thus unthinkable.
Some media have reported claims that AKU-EB or the government will coerce schools into applying for affiliation with AKU-EB. However, the Ordinance clearly established AKUEB in order to provide an option to the current systems in place for schools, educators and students. It lays down that affiliation to AKU-EB will be entirely voluntary. These points have been repeatedly stated by the Federal Government.
It has been claimed that AKU itself is an extraordinarily expensive institution that caters to financially upper class students and bears a favorable disposition to the Ismaili community. It is important to recall that an essential attribute of AKU's Charter is its fundamental concern for providing quality education for all persons regardless of gender, creed, religion, race, class, colour or domicile. Admission of all AKU students is based entirely on merit. This is facilitated by the University's financial assistance policy which ensures that no student admitted on merit is denied education for inability to pay the fee. Last year AKU provided financial support to 40% of its student body. It is also noteworthy that as a consequence of its merit-based admissions policy, far from being Ismaili focused, the overwhelming majority of the University's students in the Medical College as well as its faculty members are from non-Ismaili communities. The patients treated at the Aga Khan University Hospital are also predominantly non-Ismaili, and some 74 per cent of them are from lower and middle income groups, who benefit significantly from the generous patient welfare programme. Furthermore, AKU's governance according to its Charter from the Government of Pakistan is the responsibility of its 12-member Board of Trustees, a statutory body of diverse public representation, including from the PMDC, the HEC and the High Court of Sindh; only three of its members are from the Ismaili community.
Statements have been published in the print media by some quarters charging that AKU-EB or AKU issued a health questionnaire targeted at young students. The University categorically denies this ill-informed allegation. According to the Government, the survey in question was part of an international initiative by the Global Fund for AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, a United Nations initiative, which works in close partnership with WHO. The survey was undertaken by Pakistan's National AIDS Control Programme, who sought the assistance of seven non-governmental organisations to conduct it in various parts of the country. At no point, however, was AKU or, specifically, AKU-EB ever involved in developing or conducting this survey.
The AKU-EB was created in response to appeals from schools, students and educationists throughout Pakistan, and after careful thought and analysis by AKU's Board of Trustees and the encouragement of the Government. Its sole purpose is to improve the quality of education by making examinations of reputable standard more accessible to Pakistani students. Its assessment methods will be based on the evaluation of higher comprehension capabilities and successful candidates will be increasingly recognized by leading higher education institutions in and outside the country. The AKU-EB is a national institution and will follow in all respects, as required by law, the national curriculum. The governance of AKU, including that of its Examination Board, is predicated on wide representation from many sectors including the Government, as well as on transparency and best practices. The Ismaili community does not determine the policies of the University. The Government intends the AKU-EB to be a national resource and one which will provide a role model for other examination boards. AKU has been working, and will continue to work, in that spirit.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS:
Q. Is Aga Khan University Examination Board (AKU-EB) changing the national curriculum?
A. AKU-EB is not authorised by the Government of Pakistan to change the national curriculum. It is one of the 27 examination boards in the country. AKU-EB's Secondary School Certificate (SSC) and Higher Secondary Certificate (HSC) examinations, like those of the other examination boards, will be based on the government-approved national curriculum and syllabi for all subjects, including Islamiyat and Pakistan Studies. The structure of the SSC examinations, a composite examination in each subject at the end of grade X is in accordance with the recommendations of the 8th Inter Provincial Education Ministers' meeting held on July 25, 2005 at Lahore.
Q. What are the attributes of AKU-EB?
A. AKU-EB will offer high quality examinations in English and Urdu; conform to international standards for examinations, such as the Code of Practice that governs the procedures of all British examination boards; evaluate the higher intellectual abilities of comprehension, logical thinking and problem solving; provide secure, valid and reliable assessments of educational achievement; and serve the purposes of certification of competences for school leavers and preparation for higher levels of education.
AKU-EB will utilise state-of-the-art public examination practices. New technology will provide the written answer of each question separately to several evaluators for marking, thereby ensuring that the evaluators cannot identify the candidate and enabling correlation of the marks for consistency. The technology will assist the elimination of bias, curb dishonest practices, and greatly speed up the processes of verification and compilation of scores so that the results can be announced in six weeks.
Q. Will AKU-EB, or the Government, coerce schools into applying for affiliation?
A. Affiliation of schools with AKU-EB is purely voluntary and no school, public or private, is under any compulsion in this regard. AKU-EB was established by the Government of Pakistan in the private sector in order to provide choice for schools and candidates. AKUEB is affiliating only interested non-government schools and has so far received inquiries from over 200 schools. These include 'O' and 'A' level schools which will offer SSC for the first time now that there is an SSC examination which places a proper value on comprehension and application of knowledge.
Q. Will AKU-EB gradually take over government education boards?
A. AKU-EB has no intention of taking over any board nor does it have the capacity to do so.
The government has also made it clear on a number of occasions that it has no plans to hand over any examination board to AKU-EB. In 1998, the government boards served 1.2 million candidates for the SSC and this number increased at the rate of 2.9% per annum during the following five years. AKU-EB does not have the capacity to do the work undertaken by the existing examination boards. The purpose of the AKU-EB is to provide a national model of high quality examinations at the secondary and higher secondary levels of education in order to facilitate the improvement of education in schools and colleges. It will also enable development of capacity for educational assessment and tests in the country, which will benefit the functioning of the other examination boards and thus of teachers in all schools.
Q. Is AKU-EB going to 'secularise' the education system in Pakistan?
A. Abiding by its Ordinance granted by the Government of Pakistan, AKU-EB will follow the national curriculum in which Islamiyat and Pakistan Studies are compulsory subjects. The notion of 'secularisation' is unfounded.
Q. Has USAID created AKU-EB in order to change the education system of Pakistan?
A. The creation of AKU-EB was in response to a group of schools in Karachi, which appealed to AKU as far back as 1995 for an alternate examination board that encouraged the development of reasoning and critical skills rather than rote learning in its examinations. The Board of Trustees of the University considered this proposal and approved it formally in 200O, following extensive consultations with educationists, policy makers and successive government administrations. Thereafter, on the encouragement of the government of Pakistan, it applied for recognition of AKU-EB and was granted the same through an Ordinance in November 2002.
The cost of implementing AKU-EB over the first five years amounts to Rs.438 million or US$7.3 million. The University has already allocated Rs.168 million ($2.8 million) from its own resources to support this initiative. USAID agreed to provide the balance of Rs.270 million or US$4.5 million, in 2003, under its agreement with the Government of Pakistan to support the Government's education sector reforms.
Claims of a hidden American agenda behind this additional funding do not reflect the reality on the ground. AKU-EB's efforts to make the National Curriculum accessible to teachers are carried forward by nineteen subject panels numbering 180 teachers, educators and subject experts. Every single one is a Pakistani national. There is just one expatriate on the Board's staff, the Director who is ex- Dean of the Faculty of Education, University of Manchester. He has advised on public examination development in the UK, Caribbean, China, Mongolia and Vietnam, the Middle East and throughout English speaking Africa. Finally, the governing body of the Board has no USAID or any other American representation. AKU-EB is grateful for the selfless gift of the American people, which comes with no strings attached. Since the creation of Pakistan and over the past decades, it is well recognised that AKDN including AKU have worked relentlessly to improve the quality of life of Pakistanis. They have done this regardless of religion, gender, and economic standing, relying primarily on the attributes of merit and access for all.
Q. Will AKU-EB cater only to the privileged classes?
A. No. As with all AKU related initiatives, access will be provided to all socio-economic strata of society. AKU-EB is made accessible to individuals with different income levels through a graduated fee system. The examination fee for students in schools with tuition tees of less than Rs. 800 is Rs. 1,500 per candidate and Rs.3,000 in other schools. By comparison, the fee for a reasonably comprehensive set of subjects at the 'O' level of the British boards is about Rs. 26,000. Moreover, unlike the British boards, AKU-EB will be a national resource working through the national examination system and established for the benefit of the country.
Q. Why duplicate the existing examination board provision?
A. There is no duplication. The system adopted by public examination boards has encouraged memorisation and rote learning. The option provided by AKU-EB, on the other hand, emphasises comprehension and application of knowledge. Although both systems are based on the national curriculum and offer the same qualification, the nature of the examinations and the methods of education required to prepare students for the examinations will be different. Preparation of the students for the examinations of AKUEB will require re-orientation of teachers and schools to this modern method which is used by most examinations systems including 'O' and 'A' levels. AKU-EB will be able to analyse the candidates' responses to questions and pass on what it learns to schools and teachers. This feedback will facilitate the strengthening of our education system.
Q. Will AKU-EB students gain acceptance from the wider academic community. Will they get admission in the local universities like Karachi University?
A. Yes. By law the certification of students by AKU-EB will be accepted by all academic institutions. Section 7 of the AKU-EB Ordinance states: "All certification by the Examination Board shall be evidence of the successful completion by the holder thereof of the appropriate level of education and shall be accorded full credit and recognition."
Q. Why did the Government create examination boards in the private sector?
A. At present the Secondary School Certificates of the public sector examination boards are neither accepted overseas nor by many Pakistani universities. In order to make Pakistani education competitive, it is imperative that its school graduates gain acceptance into reputed universities at home and abroad. The setting up of AKU-EB and the Askari Board, the other examination board in the private sector, is thus a logical response by the Government of Pakistan as part and parcel of addressing quality in the Education Sector Reforms. AKU has a track record of being a role model in setting high standards in nursing, medical and teacher education that have been emulated in Pakistan and other Muslim and developing countries. Consequently, the Government of Pakistan encouraged AKU to establish an examination board that would act as a role model for others.
Q. Did AKU or AKU-EB design or distribute a health survey targeted at young students?
A. No. Aga Khan University (AKU) and its Examination Board (AKU-EB) were in no way associated with the distribution, or subsequent retraction, of a controversial health survey. The University categorically denies this ill-informed allegation. According to the Government, the survey in question was part of an international initiative by the Global Fund for AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, a United Nations initiative, which works in close partnership with WHO. The survey was undertaken by Pakistan's National AIDS Control Programme, which sought the assistance of seven non-governmental organisations to conduct the survey of AIDS related behaviour in various parts of the country. At no point, however, was AKU or, specifically, AKU-EB ever involved in developing or conducting this survey.
Q. Will AKU-EB set more difficult examinations?
A. AKU-EB is operating within the national scheme of studies. It would be unfair to its candidates if their efforts after higher quality of thought were rewarded with fewer marks, putting them at a disadvantage in the competition for college places. AKU-EB will monitor the rate of return on effort very closely. Candidates are being asked to redirect their efforts towards more worthwhile learning. They will not be penalised thereby and in the longer term it is expected that their greater understanding will give them a competitive edge. It is unfortunate that there are no explicit educational standards in Pakistan to support parity of outcome. Identifying and publishing what candidates know, understand and can do at each grade in each subject is the motive force for AKU-EB's adoption of the latest public examining technology, e-marking.
Q. How can AKU-EB claim that its results will be fairer and less open to corruption than those of the other boards?
A. AKU-EB is introducing e-marking to Pakistan, indeed the whole of South Asia. E-marking depends on very high speed scanners. The candidate's written answer paper is copied into a large computer where it is split up into segments relating to each question. These segments are then sent out to different desktop computers. The marker sitting at the screen sees the candidate's handwriting but no identification of the candidate. The electronic image cannot be tampered with. The marker assigns a mark for knowledge, an understanding and an application mark and passes on to the next candidate's answer to the same question. The marker does not know if what is presented is being marked for the first, second or third time but by presenting answers for re-evaluation the chief examiner is able to monitor each marker's work and call a halt if fatigue sets in. At the end, the computer adds up the marks assigned by several different markers to the same paper. There are no arithmetic errors and relatively little risk of an unfair outcome from a tired, depressed or angry examiner.
The system is very transparent. A candidate who feels unfairly treated can ask his/her school to have his script made available along with its marks. A school will get a blow by blow account of the strengths and weaknesses of its classes, an essential first step towards rectifying deficiencies and improving quality. Finally AKU-EB will be able to see where more thought needs to be given to the teaching syllabus to make it more accessible to all.