GROWING DISPARITY IN EDUCATION SECTOR

SHABBIR H. KAZMI
(feedback@pgeconomist.com)
Apr 26 - May 2, 2010

Many of the reforms in the education sector have been initiated in the light of the guidelines of a commission headed by Shams Lakha of the Aga Khan University with representatives from other elitist universities in Pakistan, including the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), Ghulam Ishaq Khan Institute of Technology (GIKI), and the Institute of Business Administration (IBA).

The government says the measures are being taken after involving in the consultative process various stakeholders, including educationists.

Some of the experts question the illegitimacy of the entire process through which the package of reforms has been prepared. One of the serious objections is that he Higher Education Commission (HEC) draws its strength primarily from the representatives of private elitist universities, while those who have to bear the brunt of the changes have been excluded from this consultative process.

Another serious allegation was that the Commission is myopic, recommends ad hoc policies having hardly any relevance with the real life, even outside Pakistan. They refer to creation of a Health University having jurisdiction over all the medical colleges in Punjab, including King Edward. Recently, it was also decreed that one-third of the seats at Fatima Jinnah College would be filled on a self-finance basis, creating an exclusive domain for the rich.

The most serious allegation is about the formation of the board of governors with a mandate to make the system more efficient. According to some of the critics, "these Boards are certainly an efficient instrument in enforcing the draconian reforms while perpetuating the power of those behind them". They also say that the system will completely kill the effectiveness of the education system. Efficiency and profits are the holy grail of the new world order and the boards are probably doing this job admirably only to protect the interest of the private sector.

Notably, most of the Boards comprising of representatives of private sector corporations (some of which call themselves educational institutions) are lavishly paid. Instead of the state supporting students, the students end up supporting the elitist boards and their favorites. The most disgusting fact is that budgetary allocations for education are on the decline, further fee rises are inevitable.

Some of the education reformists insist that parents do not know the real cost of educating their children. What is truly ironic is that the private universities often considered role models have been thriving on government subsidies, international aid or simply the benevolence of their founders. The much talked about role models LUMS, AKU, GIKI and IBA represent even less than one per cent of the total educational institutes in Pakistan. The rest hardly have facilities like open spaces, libraries and the worst very limited permanent faculty. Some of the private sector institutes charge much higher fees but produce lower quality graduates as compared to the public institutions. Graduates of private institutes get good jobs and better remuneration only because they have strong placement facilities. The graduates of these institutes love to serve their Alma meters.

The main reason universities imparting professional education do not undertake research is lack and often absence of links between these institutes and trade and industry. Research primarily starts when problem arises and mostly in vibrant economies, while a stagnant economy like Pakistan has little interest in research and innovation. It is also said that local journals do not participate in the dissemination of information. However, only those say this who keeps their eyes and ears closed. Now both the print and electronic media print elaborate reports on trade and economy, letting the students know the real economy and link it with education they are getting.

The concept of hiring larger number of visiting faculty has its own pros and cons. By abolishing tenure or service in universities, in favor of contract service, the Higher Education Commission has effectively eliminated all possibilities of there being any useful research.

The government currently supports only about 30 per cent of the education sector. This caters around 60 per cent countryís population that lives on or below the poverty line and another 30 per cent that lives marginally this line. The private schools, colleges and universities cater to the upper and middle classes. There is no doubt that the public education system suffers from numerous problems. These institutions deliver quality education despite inadequate funding. It is a testament of the dedication of these institutions.

No education reforms in the country can yield sustainable change without understanding the prevailing system and then taking radical but practicable measures. According to the experts education in Pakistan is divided into five levels: 1) primary (class one to five); middle, (class six to eight); high (class nine and ten, leading to the Secondary School Certificate); intermediate (class eleven and twelve, leading to a Higher Secondary School Certificate); and university programs comprising of undergraduate and post-graduate studies. Interestingly education is the responsibility of provincial governments, which often results in gross disparity in syllabi. The federal government mostly assists in accreditation and some financing.

In the early 1970s most of Pakistan's educational institutions were nationalized by the government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto the supporter of Islamic Socialism.

For decades entire system of education was state-run. However, the growing demand for higher education fast outpaced the establishment of new public universities. The state of education prompted many wealthy Pakistanis to seek university degrees abroad in the United States, Great Britain and Australia, while others sought out private tutors at home or entered the job market without a degree. In late seventies a commission established by the government reviewed the consequences of nationalization and finally concluded that the public sector could no longer solely be the provider of education in the country.

By the mid eighties private educational institutions were allowed to operate on the condition that they comply with the standards set by the government. Until 1991, there were only two recognized private universities in Pakistan: Aga Khan University established in 1983 and Lahore University of Management Sciences established in 1985. By 2003-04 Pakistan had a total of 53 private degree granting institutions. The rapid expansion of private higher education looks even more remarkable if one looks at the number of institutions established on a year-on-year basis. Students can enter a plethora of technical institutes for technical certificates and degrees. The entrance requirements for these courses varies greatly with some requiring little education whereas others requires 12 grade equivalent required for getting admission in a college or university for undergraduate program.

Government schools in Pakistan falling short in providing quality education forced many parents to get their children enrolled at private schools. At one time private schools were seen as a luxury but have become a necessity now. Since early nineties there has been a phenomenal rise in private educational institutions.

According to research reports of Harvard University, the World Bank, and many others the extent of private school in education is exceptionally high in Pakistan. Private schooling at the primary level is large, widespread and increasing with the passage of time. It is the only low-income country that has a high quality census of all private schooling facilities.

The growth in private schooling is higher in rural compared to urban areas and is high even among the poorest segments of the population. What is equally remarkable is that these schools are overwhelmingly for profit enterprises. They have sprung up around the country without much state regulation or subsidy. Since teachers' salaries constitute the bulk of educational budgets around the world, lowering wages significantly reduces the overall cost of providing education. Private schools employ young, single, moderately educated and untrained local women. Since alternative employment opportunities for these women are limited, they are paid considerably lower wages than their male counterparts.

However, private schools do not exist everywhere; in particular they are constrained by the availability of teachers and potential demand side considerations reflecting the size of the village. Private schools are therefore not accessible to all. Since available teachers in rural areas are typically low educational qualification, these schools are also by necessity limited to the primary schooling market. Surveys had found surprisingly high levels of private school enrollment in Pakistan's urban areas.

There is a parallel education system in place in the country commonly known as the 'O' level and 'A' level system. The curricula are set by the University of Cambridge of the UK. Students studying in this system do not follow the syllabi set by the Pakistan government, but subjects such as Islamiat and Pakistan studies are still compulsory for most high school students. The Ministry of Education also keeps an eye on what is being taught in these private schools. In recent years, the number of students enrolled in these schools has increased considerably. Many of these schools charge high fees, catering to the children of elite professionals and those who can afford them.

Since the beginning of War on Terror, the attention of the world's media has been focused on the madrasahs operating in Pakistan, which are mainly attended by children living in the rural areas. The common perception is that a significant number of students in Pakistan are a part of these religious schools. This myth was debunked by a Harvard/World Bank study that examined statistical data to more precisely determine madrasahs enrollment in Pakistan. The findings were that enrollment in Pakistani madrasahs is relatively low, with less than one percent of all students enrolled in a school attending madrasahs.