In a message to All-Pakistan

Educational Conference at Karachi on November 27, 1947,

Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali

Jinnah said: ““There is no doubt that the future of our State will and must greatly depend upon the type of

education and the way in which we bring up our children as the future citizens of Pakistan. Education does not merely mean academic education, and even that appears to be of a very poor type. What we have to do is to mobilize our people and build up the character of our future generations.”

This was indeed a message of prophetic relevance to our nation’s future. The Quaid correctly emphasized the critical role education plays in the over-all health and well-being of a modern nation-state. Unfortunately, with misplaced priorities, we never focused on developing education as a pillar of our nation-building and as an asset for a modern, progressive and prosperous Pakistan.

Historically, as a public sector responsibility, education in Pakistan has remained a most neglected sector both in terms of budgetary allocation and systemic development. It has been among the lowest of our national priorities with scant attention paid to the need for systemic reform and redressal. Besides low ratio of budgetary allocations, we suffered an attitudinal complacence inherent in governmental as well as societal inertia towards our educational system.

With general disdain for knowledge and scholarship, we could not give education the place that it deserved as a major “building-block” in the future of our nation. Corrupt bureaucratic hold over the country’s education system only aggravated the situation. The ill-conceived nationalization in the 1970s destroyed not only the industrial and banking sectors of the country but also radically changed the complexion of our educational system both in quality and output. Instead of allocating a major share of our own resources to this primary need, we left education to be funded mostly through external “donations.”

Seventy-six percent of government’s educational expenditure is met through foreign grants and assistance and Pakistan still ranks among the 15 worst countries as far as education is concerned. What is even worse is that access to good education in Pakistan is a privilege available only to the very few with affluent feudal and elitist ancestry.

The increasing disillusionment with the public sector educational system led to a phenomenal shift towards private education with mushroom growth of commercially motivated institutions at all levels. There are, however, conspicuous exceptions in the private sector, providing high-quality education though with limited affordability.

Regrettably, like every other sector, education in Pakistan has suffered governmental neglect and mismanagement. Over the decades under almost all successive governments, numerous studies have been undertaken at the national as well as international levels to identify the long-standing problems in our education system and to recommend remedial measures. And yet, our rulers have been looking for others to come and help them. The last government invited Britain’s world-renowned educationist, Sir Michael Barber to co-chair a task force on revamping of our education system. No one even bothered to know that we already have umpteen red-ribboned reports of several such task forces lying in our archives without any follow-up or implementation.

We already have an elaborate 'menu' of creative options available to delineate a pragmatic reform strategy, closely tailored to our country's problems and needs, backed by requisite resources and political will. But we remain backward in education only because of our misdirected sense of priorities and governance miscarriages. Our rulers do need collective “soul-searching” in order to put education and knowledge at the top of our national priorities. In fact, education must be made a high strategic priority with its GDP allocation raised from the current less than two percent to at least five percent to start with.

We also need structural and curricular reforms in our education system to make it more productive, equitable and coherent. For a successful education system in our country, we must do away with multiple systems and evolve countrywide uniform syllabi and curricula. At least this aspect of our education system must remain a federal responsibility. We can’t afford any devolutionary escapades at the cost of national unity and integration. This was the first recommendation made by Sir Michael Barber in 2011. He cited the example of many education systems that had made the needed transition successfully.

These included Korea and Malaysia from the 1960s, Minas Gerais a large province in Brazil and a number of Indian states more recently. Some provinces of China, such as Shanghai, which topped a recent survey of 60 education systems, have also shown what is possible. Why not Pakistan? We must be focusing on genuine structural reform in our education system. But till now, we have not gone beyond lip service to our neglected education sector. Pakistan’s population is expected to increase to 350 million by the middle of this century, and without good education, there is no future for this country.

The basic parameters for improving our education system include universal coverage at the schooling level and quality not quantity at the higher education level with adequate resources and efficient management. The foremost benchmark must be the constitutional provision that every child in our country is entitled to a good education A determined effort is needed to overcome the barriers to this goal that include “lack of resources, governmental ineptitude and corruption, political patronage of inefficient and unqualified teachers who don’t turn up to work, poor quality facilities and poor quality teaching.”

In Punjab, one did see new passion and zeal as a ray of hope. Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, from the very beginning of his first tenure has been focusing on providing quality education facilities to those who could not otherwise afford it. His intention was well-meaning and his priority attention to the educational needs of backward Southern Punjab was also understandable. But he should have also understood that the very concept of Danish Schools is privilege-based with no relevance to the needed systemic reform in our country.

We don’t need any more elite schools (even for the poor) to expand the “islands of privilege” that only symbolize the anachronistic culture of elitism in our society. It is against the principle of Islamic justice and equality. The resources allocated to elitist schools would be best utilized for improving the entire network of government-owned schools by equipping them with basic facilities that most of them now lack.

Instead of wasting government money on distribution of laptops, we need to provide the basic modern student support services in public sector schools such as qualified teachers, well-furnished and well-maintained classrooms, libraries, laboratories and playgrounds.

As is the practice in most countries, our schools at every level must have latest computers in their libraries for use by students to ensure compulsory computer literacy as part of IT training with professional support and maintenance from a non-burearocratic but professionalized IT Directorate to be established in each province for this purpose.

The writer is a former foreign secretary.