Nov 27 - Dec 03, 2006

How important is education for the progress of a country? We only have to scan the global scene to discover the answer. Enough has been said about the low priority for education in Pakistan. Till recently, the entire budget allocated for education was less than the advertising budget of any major brand in the telecommunication sector!

Compounding the woes is the sad fact that unlike major developed and developing countries, we have extremely expensive primary education system and a subsidized higher secondary education system. In most countries, primary education is free, thereby ensuring that the State creates equal opportunity for the rich and the poor to get to a stage where merit would count i.e. at the college/university stage. At these levels, education becomes costly and unsubsidized, but only for those who can afford it. For those who are good (merit wise) and cannot afford it, grants and scholarships are awarded. Uniform entry tests in the form of Sat exam ensures everyone has an equal chance.

In our country, the free primary education is more of a farce than anything. Ghost schools (on paper, but not in reality) are abundant. For those handful of public schools that do exist, the quality of the teachers is dismal and hence the quality of what is passed on is poor. For the affluent, the best of education at a primary level is afforded. An average school can charge as much as Rs. 5000-6000 per month per child! Can a poor man afford this? Thus the divide between the haves and the have-nots starts at the primary level alone.

At a higher education level, only a handful of colleges and universities exist which ensure that a graduate can actually get a decent job based on his qualifications. Thus the competition is stiff as it should be. At most state run colleges and universities, conditions are deplorable. With highly subsidized fees (can run as low as Rs. 1000 per month per child), what quality of teachers would the college/university be able to get? And subsequently, what will be the quality of education being imparted here? Add to this the political affiliations, and you have the ingredients of a fine mess.

In the last year or so, we are at least hearing the mantra of ìtaleem sab kay liyayî albeit in a highly politicized way. What is needed is to seriously invest in the primary education system. This will ensure that the quality of the ingredient for the higher education system gets improved. At that level, meritocracy can then be the sole criteria for admission. Furthermore, the cost of education then can be less subsidized and only those who can afford, or those who are good and qualify for scholarship can be given admissions.

Another disturbing aspect is that we treat education as a means to an end, and not an end in itself. I suppose in a country with as much unemployment as ours, this could be pardonable. Also the primary level education is treated as something which has to be taken at face value. If someone questions for the sake of learning, he/she is snubbed and questioning thus becomes a substitute for disobedience. Thus, the fact that education has to broaden the mind and help one become open and wise gets lost.

The idea at a higher education level is rarely the quest for knowledge, or to improve the attitude and the way one thinks. Mostly, the idea is to find a job and make ends meet. In such a scenario, is it not more practical to have primary education for everyone, have higher education for those who qualify on merit and also have many poly technique colleges so that skills can be taught to the vast majority whose sole aim is to find a job that pays for the bills? Later on, when this skilled labor is financially stable, they could do special courses to help them keep abreast of the latest in their own field, as well as exploring other fields for the sake of knowledge.

Currently, there are only a handful of universities which guarantees jobs to its graduates once they are finished with their degrees. As such, not many who come out of the other universities and colleges find jobs readily, thus compounding their woes. An overhauling of the system is needed to remedy the misplaced priorities ñ education being at the forefront. May Allah Almighty guide our efforts in this endeavor and help us see the path of the righteous and enlightened (Ameen).