It is criminal negligence that Pakistan does not provide education for all,” said Senator S.M. Zafar, the Chancellor of Hamdard University, at this year’s graduation ceremony in Islamabad on Tuesday. He said he was not proud of all the changes made to the Constitution of Pakistan, prepared by a committee he had been a member of. But he said that he was, indeed, proud of having formulated the text that was eventually accepted by Parliament, stating that education shall be free and compulsory from the age of five to sixteen for all children.
It is a major achievement to have formulated the state’s responsibility more precisely than before. It was already in the Constitution that education should be provided up to secondary level - as soon as possible. And then, alas, it has thus far not been possible. Senator Zafar’s more precise formulation with the insertion of Article 25(A) of the Constitution of Pakistan will take the country far. Yet, we have to ascertain follow-up, so that it does not just become a sleeping paragraph. Laws, rules and regulations must be formulated, with sanctions if the state does not fulfil its commitments, if parents do not send their children to school, and if others violate the law. Furthermore, we should note that there are many persons, groups and institutions that are against education for all, even many of those who say they are for it, because that is politically correct.
Last week, I claimed in my article that Pakistan does not have ‘education for all’ because old and stubborn rich men don’t want it (excluding Senator Zafar); they are men who are afraid of losing power to men and women from the lower classes. Sometimes rich women side with rich men because they too want status quo; they don’t want to lose being rich and idle, and have a say in seminars and meetings where they have power just because of their status, not because of the strength of their opinions or for democratic reasons.
There is much to do in the education sector in Pakistan. Let me for a while focus on one area that is often overlooked, notably literacy and other adult education. Less than 20 percent of women are literate, some recent statistics claimed. Even if that figure is too low, it is perhaps near the reality of ‘functional literacy’, because literacy is more than just knowing to write one’s name, which is a common definition. It is more accurate to say that a literate person above 10 years of age should be able to read and write a simple everyday text relatively effortlessly. The average literacy rate in Pakistan is about 50 percent. For men, it is up to 70 percent; for women about 35 to 40, in some areas, single digits only. Miniscule amounts and shares of the government budgets go to literacy and adult education in Pakistan as in other developing countries; rarely more than one percent of budgets.
In the “old days”, when I was young, some socialist-oriented countries took functional literacy seriously, such as Cuba, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Guinea-Bissau and several others. Why have we not borrowed the positive experiences from these countries? Why don’t we learn from Cuba where about 40 percent of the government budget goes to education and health? I believe it is important that Pakistan in future learn from the experiences of other countries, not least countries in the south.
In primary education, too, Pakistan performs poorly, especially for girls and older boys. The basic education cycle is short, only five or six years, with children beginning school from the tender age of five, sometimes even earlier. Many drop out before the cycle has been completed, but even if they complete, they are often too young to be able to comprehend many of the concepts taught. Very few can go on to secondary school, and indeed only the select few are given an opportunity to go to college and university.
I should hasten to add that I believe that the ‘informal apprenticeship’ that Pakistan still has in many vocations and trades, such as for electricians, carpenters, masons and so on, and for assistants in shops and businesses, is good. It is good for learning the jobs, but it is not good enough for innovation, because then more systematic training and theory should be added.
I also believe that Pakistan is doing quite well in higher education, at least in many institutions and specific departments. I believe that the Higher Education Commission, or HEC, plays an important role. Yet, I also believe that the mindset for academic work among college and university teachers lag behind, with or without PhD degrees. Students are, perhaps. often more clever than their teachers, but they too are in need of advice to unleash their creative capacity and alternative thinking. But this is a topic for another article. Let me here instead praise the HEC and the country’s Vice Chancellors, who recently met, demanding increased education budgets. They asked for 4 percent of GDP to be spent on education, a figure that is in line with Unesco’s recommendations. I was particularly glad to see that they considered the whole education sector this time, not only the sub-sector of higher education. I believe that the Vice Chancellors and Rectors made an important point, one reason being that the universities will get better students if the primary and secondary education has also been good.
But can Pakistan afford to invest more in education at this particular time?
Yes, I believe it can, and it will soon give results in growth and development. It is also possible to reduce expenditure in other fields, such as the military and related fields with the war on terror being a particular drain on the country; foreign assistance is always less than the actual expenses. Education planners claim that there is internal wastage in any education system. Hence, some savings can be made through greater internal efficiency and reallocation within the education sector. Yet, most money must be fresh.
When I worked with education in Africa earlier, in particular in Kenya, I thought that the government’s education system should be for all students, and that private schools should also have to follow a common core curriculum, and that they should have to take a certain percentage of non-fee paying students, at least one-third. The school day can be made short and learning content more limited than today. In rural areas, the school year should also be adjusted to planting and harvesting seasons so that children can help and learn in their own environment. In the cities, it is possible to have two shifts so as to utilise buildings and other facilities better. Furthermore, after school, it is possible for NGOs and CBOs, including the mosque, religious and cultural organisation, etc, to organise systematic learning sessions. It is important that education is integrated in the local community. Sometimes, the modern school, also the government school, may be seen as “an outsider”.
If the school day is relatively short in the government school, reducing unit costs, there is plenty of opportunity for NGOs, CBOs and all kinds of local groups, companies and so on to be involved in education activities. There should be some government inspection of these activities, too, but it should mainly be an invitation and offer to non-governmental and private partners. I believe that a “double system” of this kind, notably with the government running the core system and the rest being added by private stakeholders, would make education a focal and integrated activity of daily life in all local communities. It would be a continuous awareness campaign and debate about education for all. And it would mean that the government’s purse would not be overstretched. Well, the unit cost and quality in government schools must also grow to keep up with international competition and standards.
Being realistic, the Government of Pakistan will take its time to increase its education expenditure; for more than six decades, too little has been invested in education. It is not going to change overnight, although it is likely to improve, with the new Article 25(A) in the Constitution being essential. Yet, we also have to consider alternative ways of fast improvement of education, the most essential sector of Pakistan’s society, along with other social services and common infrastructure, such as electricity, water and communication.

n    The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist based in Islamabad. He has served as United Nations specialist in the United States, as well as various countries in Africa and Asia. He has also spent a decade dealing with the Afghan refugee crisis and university education in Pakistan.