Once more the government has indicated its intentions of reforming the management and education of religious schools. The need is obvious; there have been longstanding concerns that the roughly 30,000 madrasahs in Pakistan have a rigid curriculum based around religious studies that fails to prepare students for employment after they graduate. Several administrations have tried, failed, or given up halfway; it is time for the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) to give it a shot. What can it do differently?

The problems that the past governments have faced have not gone away, the various seminary boards are still extremely resistant to change are are not afraid to bring out their forces – drawn from the thousands of students across the country – out into the streets to challenge the government on it. Independently funded, exempt from most taxes and free from scrutiny, these seminary boards are not like normal educational regulation bodies; they act as quasi political parties when it comes to protecting their interests.

We saw this during the last major attempt by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government to reform the madrasah network. Even in the tense atmosphere following the APS Peshawar attack and urgent necessity felt to change the state of affairs – which was bolstered by the National Action Plan (NAP) – these seminaries resisted fiercely. They stood firm on the refusal to share their financing details and to share the names and nationalities of their teachers and students. After a tense standoff, it was the sate which was forced to back down and dial down its demands for reform

How will the PTI’s attempt differ? For one, it is not nearly as revolutionary as the PML-N’s plan had been; it simply seeks to introduce subjects like English, science and mathematics into the seminary syllabuses while guaranteeing the independence of the seminaries. The bodies would not fall under the Ministry of Education and will only have to be nominally registered with the government. Meagre as it is, this is still an important change if properly implemented. The vast swathes of seminary graduates remain unemployable in job market, and their despondence is a prime cause for many social ills. Perhaps this reduced reform project will be more amiable to the seminary boards.

The government also has a trump card up its sleeve this time around. The lead on this issue was taken by Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa himself as opposed to the Education Minister Shafqat Mehmood. The army Chief’s meeting with the seminary boards’ leadership – which was attended by the education minister – might be the key factor in their compliance.