COMMENT: Education in Pakistan — killing it softly! Dr Haider Shah
A country where a great majority firmly believes that Zakir Naik is the brightest scientist of the Muslim world and where murderers are garlanded by lawyers in the court, spending money on higher education would hardly change anything. The source of the problem is in the early education
The devolution of HEC has resulted in a fierce debate over the future of higher education in Pakistan. Replying to the emerging chorus of criticism Mr Raza Rabbani declared in a recent press conference that those who were opposing dismemberment of HEC were the agents of a strong Centre. As a neutral observer, I find substance in the arguments of both advocates and opponents of HEC devolution. To begin with, even though research is my bread and butter, ironically I do not cherish the idea of spending billions on research in Pakistan when millions of children do not have a decent school to go to. Arguably ‘research’ is an expensive luxury which better be left to the countries that really understand what research is and how to benefit from it. In a poppy field you should not expect daffodils growing. A country where a great majority firmly believes that Zakir Naik is the brightest scientist of the Muslim world and where murderers are garlanded by lawyers in the court, spending money on higher education would hardly change anything. The source of the problem is in the early education which can never be remedied by higher education at a later stage as early brain injuries are the most difficult to heal. The counter-argument to my thinking is also persuasive though. If billions can be spent first on raising irregular armies of jihadis and then on dismantling them, what is wrong if a few billions are spent on higher education? Potentially, it is a much more productive use of our taxpayers’ hard earned money.
Mr Raza Rabbani was very eloquent and fiery in his speech. His glittering eyes exuded defiance of a revolutionary and face radiated zeal of a determined warrior. I was naturally impressed. Then I heard in the news that the defence committee had approved 18 percent hike in the already whopping defence budget for the next year. The news almost coincided with the leaked story via WikiLeaks that the army chief had vetoed the likely agreement reached between the governments of India and Pakistan on Kashmir in the recent past. Cynics can say that our politicians are good in showing their valour to people like vice chancellors, as they do not carry any guns. Where their chivalry is most needed, they simply cave in under the soothing beat of the ‘reconciliation’ song.
The debate over HEC devolution has two sides of the story. Those who support the decision are persuaded by the devolution scheme of the 18th Amendment. This opinion, led by Mr Raza Rabbani, contends that since education is a provincial subject, the devolution of HEC was a natural consequence of the 18th Amendment. It is argued that standards setting will be overseen at the national level by another body that would replace HEC while syllabus and other micro-level issues will be devolved to the provinces. Sceptics point to the international practices in this regard. They cite the example of the Bologna process launched by 30 European countries in 1999, which aimed at establishing a central authority for regulation of higher education at the European level, ultimately culminating in establishment of European Higher Education Authority (EHEA) by 2012. The sceptics point out that instead of working towards the establishment of a Higher Education Commission at the SAARC level to ensure common standards with India and Bangladesh, our policy makers have taken a giant leap in the backward direction.
At a broader level, if the government is keen on transferring authority from the Centre to provinces, it should then first regain authority from a central organisation which happens to be the biggest consumer of budgetary resources and to whom government has almost outsourced real public policy making. Pakistan’s defence spending amounts to 20 percent of its internally generated resources, one of the highest in the world. On the contrary, education spending is less than two percent. The alarming disparity between defence and education spending has been rightly highlighted by UNESCO’s recently released EFA (Education for All) Global Monitoring Report 2011 titled The hidden crisis: Armed conflict and education, which states that “just one-fifth of Pakistan’s military spending would be sufficient to finance the universal primary education”. The war on terror is a convenient excuse for not rationalising our military spending. The UK’s military is also not only engaged in war on terror but is in the forefront in other NATO-led operations as well. Still, the UK government has not spared military spending from its austerity drive. Mr Raza Rabbani and his government should show similar valour when dealing with the budgetary requests originating from the biggest consumer of monetary resources at the Centre.
Unlike many other commentators, I do not have any personal attachment with the HEC. I would have been more welcoming to the devolution plan if it was a part of a more coherent national strategy on education. If the government had announced that it had reduced defence spending by rationalising its ambitions in the region and consequently education would be made the major consumer of budgetary resources in the near future, we all would have welcomed the new strategy. If the government is genuinely serious in vindicating its stand, it should do so by increasing expenditure on the education sector in a big way. It also needs to modernise the primary level syllabus and improve teaching quality at the foundation stages.
Plato’s ideal state was built around education system in his Republic. No ideal of a prosperous and progressive country can be achieved unless the education sector is adequately financed by the policy makers and a forward looking education policy is implemented. If the public policy makers are reluctant to match words with money, then they better bury the education sector forthwith. This will be an act of mercy, as the education sector will be saved from its slow and agonising death.