June 20 - 26, 20

Under the devolution plan in the 18th amendment to the constitution of Pakistan, education ministry has been devolved to the provinces from the federal government. As the process of transference of other ministries to the federating units is catching speed, there are emerging on the scene assumptions about the impact both positive and negative that devolution of education ministry will exert on the education sector, which does not produce equal literacy outcomes nationwide, and is affected visibly by gender discrimination and rural-urban divides in its outcomes.

Will uneven progress of education sector across the provinces be levelled or further skewed when the provinces would assume the full responsibility of handling education affairs in their boundaries?

No current data are available, but old official data validate the argument of uneven progress of education sector across the provinces. Unlike Punjab and Sindh where literacy rates were recorded at 59 per cent apiece, Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa had 45 per cent and 50 per cent literacy rates. Literacy rate is a broad terminology that does not cover quality of education. On this front too, provinces reap variable results despite centralisation of policymaking, curriculum designing, budget allocations, and overall planning.

Critics say devolution will give rise to disparity in the education sector, as provinces would be entitled to chalk out individual education plans, design curricula, and device policies, which are not necessarily in line with the national agenda. Regional languages would replace the national language as various means of education. For them, different curricula develop wide differences in learning within the national boundary. On the other hand, there are people who welcome the decentralization saying it does not weaken federation at all instead empowered provincial administration can get the education sector rid of straitjacket ideology that promotes jingoism and crammed memories in present form. They opine the devolution may prove a best solution to the rotten education system. It is however expected that federal government will withhold the rights of curriculum designing and transfer only noncore powers to the provinces as happened in case of higher education.

Opposition was witnessed against the proposed devolution of higher education commission to the provinces raising questions over the apparent dichotomized views of the proponents of provincialism. Devolution of higher education if exercised was to be a step ahead in the direction of provincial autonomy that is an undisputed demand of all provinces. Yet, proponents of provincial autonomy refused to accept the federal government's abdication of power from higher education on the ground that it would grow higher education sector weaker for want of funds. Most importantly, any such move was said to disturb the financials of the students on scholarships in the international universities. Pressurised by public protest compounded by blocks on release of funds from international financial institutions, the government had to withdraw its decision of HEC devolution. Reports said international loaners were against the distribution of higher learning funds to different provinces.

Fund-constraint is a major hindrance in the progress of education sector in Pakistan. Public sector spending on education sector is poor that reflects in the dilapidated infrastructure of the government-run schools and colleges around the country. Most of the government-run educational institutes are devoid of basic amenities. Pakistan's spending on education sector is lowest in Asia. Almost all regional countries spend more on the education sector than Pakistan does. That can be gauged from the statistics compiled by the economic survey 2010-11. Pakistan's public sector spending as percentage of gross domestic product is 2.1 per cent, Bangladesh (2.6 per cent), India (3.3 per cent), Indonesia (3.5 per cent), Iran (5.2 per cent), Malaysia (4.7 per cent), Nepal (3.2 per cent), Thailand (4.5 per cent), and Vietnam (5.3 per cent).

It should also be noted that education experts blame abuse of budgetary allocations as the prime factor behind the abysmal state of education sector. Transparent use of funds is important to improve educational standards of public sector schools and colleges.

Though utilization of funds is imperative to get desirable outcomes from the education sector, yet one cannot overlook the scarcity of funds that primarily makes public sector education radically nonconformist to the international standards. Generally, private sector institutes do not compromise on quality because of paucity of money while quality issues frequently arise in the government-administered education system because of unavailability of funds.

Resource-constraints will pose serious problem during the implementation of the articles in the 18th amendment. An Article 25-A clearly states: "The state shall provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age of five to 16 years in such manner as may be determined by law."

Provinces will not be able to comply with the law unless they have resources. They need to rely majorly on their own resources to feed the education sector, as devolution may require. In present scenario when federal government gets hold on cash cows of the provinces for generating taxes, provinces receive money from the divisible pool of taxes. Complete financial autonomy can minimise the reliance of federating units on the federal budget and make them self-sufficient in managing socioeconomic affairs efficiently.

Provinces can handle all the core aspects of the education sector from curricula designing to planning with adequate resources including expertise needed to realise real education for all. Curricula designing at provincial level will involve local academicians and other education experts, a practice that is followed superficially in the centralized structure.

It is yet to be seen how provincial governments discharge their duties under the newfound mandate. Federating units got opportunities to extend the devolution benefits further to local communities. Local community participation can play an important role in revamping the education sector and in bringing it at par with the need of the time.