Published in Sep-Oct 2021
It would be wishful thinking to deny that the quality of government run schooling in Pakistan verges on the dire. Yet, these are the formative years which determine so much of a child’s future ability for further learning. According to the Pakistan Economic Survey (2020-21), the cumulative education expenditure by the federal and provincial governments in FY 2020-21 stood at 1.5% of GDP. The Survey further observed that according to the Pakistan Social and Living Standards Measurement, at district level, the literacy of the population aged 10 and above is stagnating at 60% since 2014-15. These statistics make for distressing reading. Distressing, because we have a young population that is not only eager to learn and then earn. Distressing, because we are talking about people who are as bright as any other on this planet, and endowed with grit and resilience in spades.
Yet, Pakistan is ranked at the bottom of every single education ranking index – there are a bunch of them and the only variation is whether Pakistan is third or fifth or sixth from the bottom. Apologists may base their arguments on all sorts of reasons, but the bottom line is that no Pakistani government ever, military or civilian, has spent anything near what is required to put education on a sound footing. It has been left to the private sector to bridge the chasms where they could and would. That Pakistan even has what passes for a functioning primary and secondary education system is almost miraculous, and in this regard the credit goes to the private schools – not the elite private schools (they function in an orbit of their own), but to the myriad private schools that somehow manage to take their student body to a threshold that permits them to apply for further education or vocational training.
Is this just about the same old story? The abject neglect of an education sector which despite the promises made by successive governments is never taken seriously? Perhaps. However, two factors are intervening which if not addressed, will raise the consequences of this neglect to dangerous levels. The first is the ‘youth bulge’. Pakistan’s population is not only growing at an alarming rate, it also has the world’s second highest number of out of school children – 22.8 million children between five and 16, or 40% of the population, within this age group. This translates into a massive number of young people with reduced or no prospects of employment – and if governments persist along this path of neglect – and with the rest of the country acquiescing – there are going to be some extreme societal consequences, some of which we have already experienced. Extremism and violence thrive on varied breeding grounds and none are more potent than the frustration of young people stuck in the rut of deprivation. The second is technology, which presents both an opportunity and a threat. Opportunity, because technology and digitisation are at their core new languages, largely (but not entirely) predicated on different methodologies of learning. Proficiency in English and access to quality textbooks are of lesser importance compared to other skills. A brief exposure to digital functionality makes further understanding largely intuitive – you kind of figure it out, and the pace of change is so fast, so that when, inevitably, something new comes along, you are at par with everyone else. This is what makes digital learning and literacy such a great opportunity for Pakistan’s youth to find spaces within the country’s workforce. A threat, because without access to digital learning, these young people will forego their chances of employability; not only that, with technology pervading every aspect of manufacturing, the current workforce, if deprived of the possibility to upskill, will find itself irrelevant, with all the attendant consequences to Pakistan’s economy.
So what is to be done? The present government appears to be focused on the implementation of the Single National Curriculum (SNC) – an initiative that has given rise to much controversy, although one wonders, irrespective of its merits or otherwise, how the SNC addresses any of the urgent structural fault lines embedded in public school education. What is required are substantial increases in the federal and provincial education budgets along with deep seated improvements in governance, transparency and above all teacher accountability. On the vocational training front, the government’s Kamyab Jawan initiative has greater chances of making an impact, if only because this sector is less vulnerable to the systemic afflictions that plague government schools.
This is where government institutions are at, but what of the private sector? The purposes of a good education are too many to be enumerated here, and many academics will argue that the least important one is to prepare a workforce (be it white or blue collar) for employment. But at this critical juncture, this is exactly what education must do for Pakistan. In a world driven by a knowledge economy, only intensive human capital development can assure consistent economic growth. And in this respect, private sector companies must assume a pivotal role. It is not enough to endow educational institutions with funding. Money is important but it is not enough.
The private sector needs to proactively engage in making consistent efforts to collaborate with the vocational training institutes and the business schools to design curriculums that create credible employment outcomes as well as work with these institutions on a programme aimed at providing hands-on training experience to their students. Simply repeating that Pakistan is a nation full of talented people and increased productivity is a key driver to economic growth is not going to cut it. The private sector needs to step up to the plate. They owe it to the young people of Pakistan; they owe it to their businesses; they owe it to their country.