Eradicating illiteracy

Sep 10 - 16, 2007

Distinguished educationists and independent analysts have been identifying poor quality of Pakistan's education system since long. For various reasons, education sector is still getting least importance when it comes to the allocation of development expenditures from both the Government of Pakistan (GOP) and its Provincial governments. Situation further aggravate when allocated resources are distributed to districts which in turns cause variations in the literacy levels among various districts countrywide. It is prudently said that there should be a reasonable correlation between economic growth and the development budget of education sector.

Obviously one of the goals of any government of any country is to achieve high economic growth but that doesn't mean sufficient improvement of human development. Pakistan can be a good example of a country which is presently enjoying a respectable GDP growth rate yet failed to translate this growth into a reasonable level of human development. Since independence, development policies are primarily focused on achieving high economic growth but hardly anything concrete done for the social development. However, it has now a growing realization that Pakistan could have done much better in almost all walks of life. The Education For All (EFA) movement started worldwide in 1990 with the objective to accelerate the process of human resource development and to ensure that all children complete primary education of good quality. An aggressive target was set to complete a course of primary education of all children by 2015 in Millennium Declaration. Pakistan, like other developing countries, responded positively to that declaration. Measures like the Education Sector Reforms (ESR) Action Plan for 2001- 04 and National Plan of Action (NPA) for education, a long-term framework (2001- 15), indicate its commitment with EFA goals. In the recent years, the literacy level has improved from 45% in 2001 to 54% in 2005-06, indicating a 9.0% increase over a period of only five years. The literacy rate for non-poor went up from 51% in 2001 to 59% in 2005 whereas for poor it has improved from 30% to 40% in the same period.

Despite above, according to United Nation Development Program (UNDP), in terms of Human Development Index and literacy rate, Pakistan comes at 134th and 153rd position out of 177 countries just above Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Yemen, only notable countries to mention. Thus Pakistan falls in the last few countries in terms of "education index" outside Africa. The World Bank also reports that the average Pakistani boy receives only five years of schooling whereas average girl just 2.5 years, which is not an encouraging observation.


GOP has allocated Rs. 24.1 billion for the affairs of education ministry for the fiscal year 2007-08, which is 28.59% more than the allocation of Rs 18.8 billion for the fiscal year 2006-07. Like previous governments, present regime is trying to increase literacy rate, in order to achieve this goal it has increased share of education to 4% of GDP for the first time in fiscal budget 2007-08. Till last fiscal year that ended in June 30, 2007, Pakistan was one of only 12 countries that spend less than 2% of its GNP on education. GOP has increased education budget by 36% during last two years though most of the allocation goes to administration of schools and salaries of teachers and staff. In order to conduct root cause analyses, it must be kept in mind that bulk of the education infrastructure is situated in the Provinces and under their control therefore additional measures and allocation of additional funds should be expected from the provincial governments. Present government is taking various steps in improving literacy rate in the country, embarked on the Education Sector Reform Action Plan and established the National Commission for Human Development (NCHD) which took over responsibility for education. The Education for All targets included 86% literacy by 2015 and 100% enrollment for children aged between five and seven years. A lavishly advertised mass literacy campaign as part of the education sector reforms was launched by the Provincial government of Punjab, which claimed an increase in enrolment, however there is no corresponding evidence that the drop-out rate has fallen with this program. On one side, government announces aggressive plans while on the other hand, based on the progress, one gets the perception that policy makers don't seem to realize the immense importance of investing in the people. It must be understood that if Pakistan wants to compete in world markets then they have to modify their existing system of education and also add more skilled workers in its society.

According to the report issued by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Pakistan is among the world's 12 highest recipients of external aid under Education for All program in South Asia, and at least three-quarters of this aid is intended for basic education. The gross enrolment ratio (GER) or the level of participation in pre-primary education in Pakistan remained between 35 to 50 per cent whereas pre-primary pupil-to-teacher ratio was one teacher per 40 students in last year.

A political appointment in the education sector is not new in Pakistan and has been a major source of state employment though this damage public educational institution. Besides this, there is a widespread phenomenon of non-functional, even non-existent "ghost" schools and teachers that exist only on paper but take budget is an indication of the level of corruption in this sector. Provincial education departments have insufficient resources and personnel to monitor all these schools effectively. On can't eliminate the fact that educational funds are also used to oblige party workers and supports. Experts believe that all these funds are not given through a proper channel so that a false audit report is submitted that the utilization of funds has been spent on requisite purposes. Reforms such as the Devolution of Power Plan have done little to decentralize authority over the public education sector. Like in other areas, it has created confusion while roles were overlap thus no one is willing to take ownership and responsibility.


Curriculum in Pakistan has always been a controversial issue. Ironically almost every government took it seriously and ended up with a hotch potch syllabus. With the passage of time, it got significance even few foreign countries started advising on this as well. US government showed keen interest in it since September 11, 2001. One can view the importance from the fact that the Bush Administration, Congress, and the 9/11 Commission each identified this issue as relevant to US interests in South Asia. Legislation passed by the 108th Congress called for US support to "improve and expand access to education for all Pakistani citizens" and required the Secretary of State to report on Pakistan's education reform strategy and the US strategy to provide relevant assistance. The purpose of this report was to review education reform efforts in Pakistan. There are few problems associated with the existing curriculum in Pakistan few of them are; inaccuracies in fact and omissions that distort the nature and significance of actual events in history whereas there is no reason in adding controversial issues in syllabus; insensitivity to religious diversity; incitement to militancy and violence, including encouraging Jihad and Shahadat (martyrdom) especially in religious schools; perspectives that encourage prejudice, bigotry and discrimination toward fellow citizens, especially women and religious minorities, and toward other nations; a glorification of war and the use of force, omission of concepts, events and material that might encourage critical-self awareness among students; outdated and illogical tutorial practices that hinder the development of interest and insight among students.


Pakistan's education system is clearly sub classified among three broad segments, i) Public sector, ii) Private sector and iii) Madras. By virtue of these categories, Pakistani society has split among various segments and class. In each of these three categories, education system is obviously divided in various stages like primary, secondary, higher, and technical etc... However, only 33% of all school going children in Pakistan attends private schools including madrassa and rest in public schools. Therefore the responsibility for educating the poor still lies heavily with the government. The challenge is two-fold; improving the quality of existing schools, and to increase the number of schools. Though each system and class has its own strengths and weaknesses but the real problem as well as the corrective action remains more or less same.


Unfortunately government institutions no longer enjoy the reputation they used to 30 years ago. These institutions are not perceived as institutions of high academic standards anymore. Besides many other factors, examination system is considered to be one of the reasons of deterioration. On various levels one hear about the mal practice in the examination system and on top of that students are required to re-appear for entrance exam if they intend to get admission in any professional college or go for masters. This system has been in place for sometime but one seriously wonders the purpose behind these exams test. One of the reasons can be that the policy makers believe that existing examination system is not accurate or transparent that's why they have to re-check the competency of the students. In all fairness, if the examination system is fool proof then there is no logic to reassess already passed students. And if one agrees with the assumption that existing examination system provides opportunities of cheating then instead of correcting those loop holes policy makers have "invented" additional exam that is given in front of their eyes.

Besides many frustrations in the society, one of the single most significant is that securing degrees from the government universities doesn't mean securing good job. Students of government institutions are confined to an outdated syllabus and are unable to compete in an increasingly competitive job market against the products of elite private schools that teach in English. With this, it has become our mindset that students from few universities only have potential and the rest of the graduates are not up to the mark. This thinking has been developed mostly by the professors of the private universities in order to promote their institutions. There are lot of problems in the public sector institutions ranging from the syllabus and medium (Urdu/English) they teach to the infrastructure they have. The system's deteriorating infrastructure, falling educational standards and distorted educational content is impacting poor people in particular which onward widens the social and economic divisions between the privileged and underprivileged. It may be due to the fact that government teachers are not only overworked but also under-trained and underpaid. .


The inadequate supply of public schools, sub-standard teaching, along with an ill-planned syllabus, has given rise to private schools in last ten years or so. Interestingly three types of private schools exist in urban areas, first those catering to the elite, secondly for middle and upper classes, and lastly schools of a much lower quality, charging low fees, catering to the poor. Middle and lower class families in urban areas spend a substantial part of their budget towards educating their children in private schools because they perceive that their children will have bright future only if they get education in certain private schools. These schools charge heavily and are mostly run by the people who always remain in power thus have less probability to answer to anyone unlike ordinary person. One of the most neglected aspects is that they also ask parent for "security deposit" for their children and use that millions sometime billions of rupees for their own interest and secondary businesses. There is no proper legislation on this as they should be bared from using children money for their personal businesses. Conceptually speaking, hardly any event can ever occur where all the parents demand refund of their security deposit thus school owners have leverage to use those funds for their other business ventures which is fairly unfair.


In Pakistan, unfortunately people are now being familiarized with multiple standard of education. One of the significant yet neglected systems of education is the madrassa system. This system has been around since centuries but during the Soviet Afghan war it got importance and thereafter no looking back. These madrassas are run on charity money where they not only provide religious education but also provide logistical support. Funding resources have been diversified, although traditional sources are zakat, sadakas and donations raise locally and around the globe. A great deal has been written on these madrassas in the West in the wake of the September eleventh and the U.S. war on terrorism. The issue of government and/or foreign interference in the operations of madrassas is an extremely sensitive one in Pakistan these days. Most of these religious schools are providing quality services but there are few black sheep who perceive things rather differently and interpret Islam according to their own sense which onward disturbs whole society.


Undoubtedly standard of education in Pakistan has dropped over the period of time despite emergence of a few private institutions. There are various reasons for this deterioration out of which few are as follows, (not in order of importance);

•Since independence, politics and legislation has been dominated by the feudal lords, especially in early years, which inherited colonial thinking of restricting people from getting education. By virtue of their status they were in a policy making position thus in order to further strengthen their authority they deliberately neglected education sector. With the continuous negligence, substantial gap emerged in public and private education thus made Pakistan's education sector miserable.

•Rapid growth in poverty is another reason of illiteracy in Pakistan. Instead of getting education, kids of poor families start supporting their families. The continuous increase in food inflation is further worsening the situation. Despite the fact that today Pakistan's economy is considered the best of all times and has foreign currency reserves of over US$16 billions but how can one forget to mention at the same time that food inflation has also crossed double digit which directly affects whole nation.

•It is a dilemma of our educational system that irrelevant people have been inducted in the education system that either hardly knows anything about system or have no interest at all and are posted to accommodate them or are on deputation. There is no transparent and accountable way of recruiting vice-chancellors and senior administrators of universities. Presently patronage system is in place where unqualified and unsuitable bureaucrats or retired generals are appointed as vice-chancellors.

•The curriculum and related teaching methodology is inappropriate or at least inadequate for the goals set by many disciplines. Most of the teachers in public and private (specifically catering lower middle and poor class) sector institutions don't have trained staff even they hire non-qualified teachers in order to increase either profitability or have lack of funds to survive.

•There are multiple systems working presently in Pakistan, resulting in no synergy but social division and conflicts. For example there are English medium schools, Urdu medium schools, and religious schools. Students coming out of English medium schools, especially good private sector schools, have little or no awareness of their religion and culture whereas those passing out from Urdu medium schools are usually intended to work in clerical and lower level positions. Religious schools bring yet another class that are usually unaware of the world outside their own and, their limited knowledge is creating significant conflicts among various circles these days while they sometimes interpret Islam as per their ideology which is dangerous.

•It is rightly believed that compensation of public sector teachers is significantly less then the teachers of same qualification and experience but working in private sector. Lack of interest in teaching and motivation due to less monetary incentives is one of the underlying causes of poor condition of education system of Pakistan.

•Lack of libraries and lack of interest in research is another reason for poor condition of education sector. There are only a few large libraries but those are full of out dated or worldwide discarded books. In the absence of libraries and research material it is difficult for students and professionals to groom themselves. It wouldn't be wrong to say that more than 95% of teacher especially from public sector never dare to write any book or research paper for any newspaper or magazine. It is interesting to note that in US and European countries, a teacher doesn't get promotion or recognition if he doesn't write any book or research paper.

•Low investment in girls" education also imposes a high cost on society. There are few areas in Pakistan where girls have been prohibited from getting education in the name of Islam without realizing that educated women can participate in the labor force but their children will be better nourished and educated.


Education is the essence of development of any society, without literacy even democracy can't work. Therefore, in order to survive in the competitive world, it is required that highest priority should be given to education by the government. There are various corrective measures that can be taken to improve the quality of education out of which few are as follows, (not in order of importance);

•It is important that identical syllabus should be implemented country wide. Educational reforms can be started from changing the structure and contents of the syllabus, without indulging in any controversies. It's nothing but sheer misfortune that Pakistan got independence in the name of religion and down the road due to self created circumstance; people and government are now been forced to call themselves a moderate (secular) country. It is indeed required that religious topics which are even not fully understood by so called religious scholars themselves should be eliminated like concept of Jihad , treatment with Non-Muslims and few others from the syllabus.

•A uniform system of education should be introduced gradually to eradicate the problems which multiple systems are creating. Important thing which the government should attempt in this regard is to introduce one medium of instruction. While living in the competitive environment, English has got unprecedented importance. There is no harm in putting English as compulsory language for education while keeping Urdu as national language. It is imperative to come out of this debate and stop giving examples of Japan, Germany, France and China. These countries have different means of resources, history and economic environment. It even gets more significance when numerous students want to get higher education abroad and fail only because of lack of competency of English language, this is also true for skilled and semi skilled labor where they don't get jobs worldwide while unsuccessful in communicating their expertise to their job hunters and clients.

•NGO plays an important role in society building and providing quality services to the needy. On one hand these organizations should be involved more aggressively in the process while on the other hand it should be made mandatory for every student of higher class to spend certain period of his/her time in any village or rural areas for spreading awareness about literacy. Though considerable progress has been observed during the past decade in the participation of NGO and private sectors in the field of education, especially primary and university education, but more involvement of NGOs and private organizations would benefit the delivery of educational services.

•In order to improve the quality of education and final products, it should be made mandatory requirement for various master programs that the candidates, after taking their exams, shall spend a specified period of time (certain number of hours) in teaching in assigned institutions. By doing this, they will research and a thinking process will emerge which will ultimately end up in refinement of society and will also positively impact economy.

•There are thousands of madrassas around the country where they are not only giving millions of poor girls and boys" religious education but also providing them shelter and food. Keeping in view the work they are doing and due to Islamic society, people, in general, donate a lot to these religious institutions. As a matter of fact people trust these institutions blindly and in response to this these institutions must spend hard earned money of people of Pakistan on productive activities instead of using that for the procurement of arms and ammunition. There are a few religious institutions which are involved in spreading militancy but unfortunately those institutions are creating wrong perception about other institutions. Brining such institutions in main steam is indeed one of the biggest challenges Pakistan is facing these days. The sooner it is done the better it is.

•Educational institutions are usually called non-profitable organizations but these days it has become biggest earners with minimum pay back period and maximum IRR. Such attitude of private school owners should be discouraged. A lot many government school buildings can be converted into commercial schools of good level. The government should offer those schools to private sector with the condition that they will not make them profit making organization rather they will operate them on breakeven basis with quality education.

•As it is required under various laws and regulations that any textile or sugar mill has to deposit certain amount in government treasury usually called cess. Likewise it should be made mandatory for each industrial unit of an area above a specified limit to provide area and certain resources for a school within its premises/area. Alternatively, the owner can also be asked to share costs with the government for setting up such school.

•Low public sector investment is another major issue. Although education enjoys highest priority on the social sector agenda, yet funds allocations are relatively modest due to various reasons. In the federal and provincial budgets, public sector allocations to education have been swinging up and down; percentage of GDP was 2.7% in 1995-97, 1.8% in 2001-02, stuck up at around 2% from 2002-2006 and now for the first time its 4%. It is, therefore, recommended that all efforts should be made to enhance the budgetary allocation. In addition, innovative approaches should be designed to generate additional resources for increased funds for the education sector, especially to primary education, adult literacy and early childhood education. Demonstrate a commitment to improving the public school system by raising public expenditure on education with particular emphasis on upgrading public school infrastructure, including water, electricity and other facilities, buildings and boundary walls.

•Efficiency in financial management and revision of outdated procedures should be made. Similar to other social services in the public sector, education, too, suffers from inefficient financial management and outdated procedures which have adversely affected the implementation of education programs and projects. The development projects are prepared by the Ministry / Departments of Education which are approved by the Planning and Development Division / Department but funds are allocated by the Finance Division. It is not unusual to observe that funds particularly for higher cost projects are seldom allocated according to the approved phasing due to thin funding. This is mainly due to low budgetary allocation to education, which entails repeated revision of projects based on escalated costs, hampering their implementation. Such obstacles in management and procedural systems hindering the efficient utilization of allocated resources should be removed through an overhaul of the financial procedures governing release of funds.

Summing up, Pakistan's education system ranks among the world's least effective systems. Pakistan has to realize the importance of literacy and should aggressively spend considerable amount of money on the improvement of this sector so as to meet the EFA goals. Civil society should also play in spreading literacy and realizing people the benefits of education which ranges from development of political culture to personal growth and from improvement in economic conditions to changes in social behaviors. Time has come to take decision whether Pakistan's policy makers are serious about education being something more than merely giving out certificates. It is equally important that new institutions of world class and education city should be established for creating knowledge and helping students to be informed, critical, active citizens.