Apr 27 - May 10, 2009

There are growing fears of the west that Pakistan could dare a nightmare of ethnic conflict, sectarian violence, and humanitarian disaster. Under such conditions, religious extremists could ally with sympathetic military officers, seize political power, and thus control nuclear weapons. For those who are struggling to retain sovereignty of the country and also warding off external pressures the real jihad is against illiteracy, poverty, and hunger which demand reshaping of country's crumbling educational system.

It must be kept in mind that 9/11 event and the ensuing war in Afghanistan have compounded the country's social and economic problems. The increasing number of people living below the poverty line is not only worsening the marred economy but also forcing the government to spend more on maintaining law and order than developing its human resource.

According to those who extend financial support to the country, despite historically high rates of overall growth an environment predominated by various policy failures has, in large part, created the poverty and income disparities considered to be the main cause of the current instability. To rectify this, they suggest the government must revamp its whole approach to the country's economy and its educational system. Progress is being made in this direction but given country's high indebtedness and rising defense/security expenditures it does not help in achieving significant success in either of the areas.

One of the unique characteristics of the Pakistanís educational system has been the reliance on religious schools commonly known as Madrassahs. Historically these schools were founded as centers of learning. However, during the 1980s the Madrassah system changed significantly. First, as part of its Islamization policy the Zia regime stepped up funding for the schools. Funds dispersed at the local level to institutions deemed worthy of support by religious leaders, creating new incentives for opening religious schools. At the same time, the war in Afghanistan produced millions of refugees which could not become part of the existing educational system swarmed these Madrassahs.

One of the reasons for the popularity of the Madrassahs is country's public school system which has been in shambles over the years. Madrassahs offer an attractive alternative: free education, free meals, free schoolbooks and even in some cases a stipend. While the exact numbers cannot be compiled it is estimated that over a million and a half students study at more than 10,000 of these schools.

Though, these schools have been part of country's education system it is also a concern that because of their non-technical, non-scientific curriculum many of them are producing a generation of students unlikely to play a productive role in creating the type of modern dynamic economy necessary to reduce the country's grinding poverty.

Educational reforms are one of Pakistan's most important challenges. Fortunately, the country has a number of viable options for moving away from the current dysfunctional system. Pakistan's progress in this area may be the most critical determinant of whether the country becomes a moderate, progressive nation or it falls into spiral of poverty, isolation, and instability.

Before taking the corrective measures it is necessary to identify the weaknesses. Lack of access to basic education is the foremost of all issues. Statistics clearly indicate that not only primary rates are generally low, but wide disparities exist in enrolments across provinces, genders and locations (urban versus rural). Besides these, the tribal, ethnic and social taboos and minorities are hurdles in providing education to the people.

Apart from access, the quality of education is very poor, especially in the public sector and rural areas. A dilapidated infrastructure, lack of proper facilities, irrelevant curricula, etc., along with untrained teaching staff, staff absenteeism, paucity of books and teaching aids adversely affect the quality of education. This results in low levels of learning achievement, and wastage of resources and high drop-out rates.

Majority of boys and girls could not be enrolled in the schools because of expensive education, limited availability of schools, remote locations, fewer opportunities for further education, hardly any help available at homes and teachers' harsh behaviour. The real reasons for leaving school during the academic year have been expensive education, lack of parents' interest because they believe that the education being imparted could hardly improve capabilities of their children to earn more.

Many of the experts believe that successive governments have not only been unable to make curriculum updated but, unusually low amounts are spent on primary education as compared to higher allocations for the universities and professional colleges. It has also been found that "ghost schools", which only exist on paper, are heavy burden on the national exchequer.

Some of the experts are of the view that it is not possible to substantially increase the allocation to education, or other social services. However, they believe that it would be practical to curtail investments in mortar and bricks and instead use the available infrastructure and reallocate funds by increasing user charges in tertiary education (university and professional colleges), and cross-subsidize primary education.

Hence in the wake of financial constraints, the public sector can not tackle the issue alone. There is a need for community involvement and participation of the non-government sectors to strengthen the education system, especially in the rural and deprived areas. According to a report the private sector is participating in providing the basic education, yet most of its investments are concentrated in the urban areas. The data show that nearly one-third of private schools are located in urban areas.

There is a need to bring radical change in the thinking of policy planners who are not willing to allocate more than a minuscule amount on education, particularly on basic education. Poverty cannot be alleviated without focusing on education, helping the youth through vocational training to enable them to do the job in a better way.