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Pakistan’s march for education

Faryal Leghari (PAKISTAN)
Filed on March 26, 2011

Reading the statistics on education in Pakistan, one is horrified, knowing fully well the importance of this vital sector in any country’s development.

But as things stand, the education sector in Pakistan is haloed bleak and faces an even bleaker future, unless remedial measures are implemented on an immediate basis. The question is if such a will exists and whether its implementation will see the light of the day anytime soon.

While Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani gallantly declared 2011 as the “year of education”, it seems more like an “education emergency”, one that has been at least acknowledged by our political leadership. The ‘March for Education’ campaign, while highlighting the very tangible challenges enroute, must lead to proactive measures. These must be implemented at the government level under a cohesive and coordinated framework integrating the federal and provincial administration.

The fact that Pakistan spends less than 1.5 per cent of its GDP on education speaks volumes for the way the State prioritises its interests. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO, and other NGOs, 30 per cent of the population live in “extreme educational poverty” which means having received less than two years of education. Millions more are deprived altogether of what is a fundamental right as per the Constitution where every child from five to sixteen years of age is to be provided with compulsory and free education by the State. Further elaboration of this may better be left unsaid.

In order to pump in much-needed revenues to jump-start the failing education system, the World Bank recently approved a $400 million loan. Projects at university level are expected to receive at least $300 million from this loan with the remaining million being split for provincial reform projects at the primary school level in Punjab and Sindh. While state authorities do underline the need to step up efforts to obtain larger financial assistance for its education sector, there is a lot more that can be achieved by diverting existing monetary resources into this highly deprived sector.

Last year’s devastating flood that caused widespread damage to infrastructure and property countrywide has contributed further to a deteriorating economic situation. With the defence sector receiving a bigger slice of the budget, other critical sectors remain deprived. While there is no doubt that bolstering the defence sector is important given the strategic situation, there is no excuse why education must continue suffering. Without pointing fingers at any one regime, all past governments, including elected and military, are equally to blame. Apart from allocating a bigger budget for the education sector, the economic mismanagement of the financial bigwigs in the government led to a highly embarrassing situation last year, when staff of state owned educational institutions went on strike in protest against non-payment of wages and pathetic working conditions.

The poor employment conditions entailing extremely low wages and nominal benefits is the major reason for the non-caring attitude of public school teachers who in many cases allegedly do not even report for work. In addition, the poor infrastructure or lack of it — in many areas in face of absence of school buildings, classes are held in the open— logistical issues such as lack of running water, electricity or toilets and lack of even basic teaching materials have made public schools a nightmare.

The state of apathy gripping the education sector is hardly encouraging. In fact, annual resourcing to the tune of $1.17 billion in education is needed for Pakistan to reach the Millennium Development Goal of education by 2015. Unless Pakistan actually sets about setting aside the required funds for education, it is going to be left far behind.

In the absence of a healthy public education system, private schooling has grown exponentially and does provide an alternative source of credible quality education. However, this still leaves the majority of Pakistani children without access to education, given the financial disparity between private-school goers and those with no option other than public schooling.

The good thing is that with the advance in technology and greater access to audio-visual media, the awareness of the need for education is rapidly spreading across the country.

While the private sector and other organisations are doing a commendable job in this regard, it is high time the government enforces a long–term plan entailing the required amount of fixed state funds to breathe new life in this vital sector. Any successive governments must adhere to this plan for it to bear fruit and in fact work on improving it. This is the only way to help build Pakistan as a progressive state not to forget the impact this will have on discouraging recruitment by extremist groups who typically target uneducated and unemployed youth. Besides, joint efforts to integrate private sector help in collecting funds and helping rebuild the public education system with material and non material aid could be a major help, something the government should aim at.

Faryal Leghari is Assistant Editor (Opinion) of Khaleej Times and can be reached at faryal@khaleejtimes.com


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