Each year International Literacy Day is celebrated on the 8th of September, which provides an opportunity for governments, civil society and stakeholders to highlight and review improvements in literacy rates and devise strategies on the world‘s remaining literacy challenges. The issue of literacy is also considered a significant component of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the UN’s 2030 agenda for sustainable development.
This year’s theme is ‘Literacy and skills development’, which explores combined approaches that instantaneously support the development of literacy and skills, to ultimately improve people’s lives and contribute to equitable and sustainable societies. The day focuses on skills and competencies required for employment, careers, and livelihoods, particularly technical and vocational skills, along with transferable skills and digital skills.
In Pakistan this year, International Literacy Day carries special significance as new governments have been formed both at federal and provincial levels and all the newly elected heads of governments in their maiden formal speeches vowed to prioritize education through fulfilling their commitments made in their respective party election manifestos. It is hoped that the newly elected political leadership would ensure tangible measures for equipping the youth with modern knowledge and skills. The national and international reports/reviews have also urged for practical steps in this regard.
World Economic Forum’s Global Human Capital Report 2017 had ranked Pakistan among the bottom five countries in the areas of education and skills development. According to the report, Pakistan is at the 125th spot out of a total of 130 countries in a list that ranks countries on the basis of how well they perform in the education and skills development and infrastructure. Pakistan is far behind from other South Asian countries including Sri Lanka (70), Nepal(98), India (103) and Bangladesh (111). As per Global Competiveness Report 2017-18, Pakistan was ranked at 115 position and in higher education and training, Pakistan gained 120 position as compared to Sri Lanka (85), Nepal (88), India (40), Bangladesh (99), Iran (69), Bhutan (82) and Malaysia (23).
According to the latest National Human Development Report launched by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Pakistan currently has the largest percentage of young people ever recorded in its history; 64% of the total population is below the age of 30 while 29% is between the ages of 15 and 29 years. Pakistan has become one of the youngest countries in the world and the second youngest in the South Asian region after Afghanistan. This youth bulge will critically impact Pakistan as a country if not dealt with appropriately, depending on how the country invests in the youth by providing them with quality education, professional training, employment and meaningful engagement opportunities. The report suggests that Pakistan needs to create 4.5 million new jobs over the next five years and enroll millions of its out of school children in coming years to properly utilize 64% of the youth bulge.
The countries in Asia and the Pacific Region are recognizing the critical role played by skill-based professional education in economic development. According to the Economic Survey of Pakistan 2017-18, a total of 3.8 thousand technical & vocational institutes with 18.2 thousand teachers were functional in 2016-17. A rise of 9.4 percent in enrollment was witnessed as it increased to 344.8 thousand in 2016-17 against 315.2 thousand in 2015-16. It is projected to increase by 3.9 percent i.e. from 344.8 thousand to 358.3 thousand during 2017-18.
The main issue, which serves as the largest hindrance for literacy levels in Pakistan, is low budget allocations for the education sector. Pakistan is annually allocating 2.2% of total Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for education sector. Despite having 192 universities with more than 114 regional campuses, only 0.26% is being allocated for higher education sector. With these allocations, it seems quite difficult to get desired results and fulfill commitments made during elections. As per recommendations made by the concerned stakeholders during countrywide consultations organized by Inter University Consortium for Promotion of Social Sciences Pakistan, there is a dire need to make it obligatory through a constitutional amendment both for federal and provincial governments to allocate 4% of total GDP for overall education sector and 1%, out of that, for higher education sector. The establishment of community colleges and issuance of two years associate degrees should be encouraged at divisional level.
The federal and provincial governments, as recently announced by the Balochistan government, should declare education emergency and ensure effective implementation of Article 25-A, of the constitution of Pakistan which provides for free and compulsory education to all children of the age of five to sixteen years. The merit based appointments, formulation of supportive policies, end of external interference in education sector, effective monitoring system, education and special attention towards out of school children can also be greatly helpful in addressing key education challenges being faced by Pakistan.
It is hoped that PTI government would implement its youth policy based on three Es: education, employment, and engagement both at federal and provincial levels.
The writer is a freelance columnist associated with the development and education sector.