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Abdication as policy
By: Dr Maleeha Lodhi

Pakistan has a
national crisis in education in dire need of a national response. But
the responsibility to deal with this rests with the provinces after the
18th Constitutional Amendment.

To urge a national response is not
to argue for rollback of the amendment – a political impossibility. It
is to emphasise the need for the federal government to a) show
leadership on this critical policy front; b) evolve a mechanism, like
all good federal systems do, to address key issues nationally; and c) to
mobilise consent and coordination from provincial authorities to act
urgently on education.

No issue is more consequential to
Pakistan’s fate and fortunes than a transformation in the coverage and
quality of education offered to our children. Yet the present abysmal
state of play in education holds a bleak future for the country.

The
facts are grim. Pakistan has the world’s second largest number of
children out of school. Twenty-five million children or almost half of
children from 5 to 16 years of age do not go to school. Two thirds of
them are girls.

Among those who attend school, 46 percent drop
out before completing primary education. The net enrolment rate at
primary school is 57 percent, but this falls dramatically to 22 percent
in middle school. Just 50 percent of girls have ever attended any
school. In rural Pakistan only 39 percent have been to school.

All
this is an inevitable consequence of the neglect of education over
decades and chronic under spending by successive governments on
education. At less than two percent of GDP today, this is the lowest in
South Asia. Pakistan is fifth among countries that spend the least on
education.

Unless this situation can be reversed Pakistan will,
among other challenges, confront a demographic disaster. The country’s
working age population is expected to double in the next twenty years.
Young people are pouring into the job market at a rapid pace, but many
lack education or the skills to be gainfully employed.

Without
expanding the scale and quality of education, these young people will
face a jobless and hopeless future. A failed demographic transition will
have serious social and economic repercussions for the country.

This
should be reason enough to spur the country’s leaders into treating
education as a national emergency. But past governments have given
little priority to education – except in conversations with donors.
Official rhetoric about ‘educating Pakistan’ has never translated into
commitment to allocate adequate financial resources to invest in
education, much less execute a comprehensive plan to give every
Pakistani child the right to an education.

No champions of
education reform have emerged. Worse, education became a victim of
patronage politics. For several decades the bar for qualification of
teachers in state schools was lowered to accommodate their hiring on
political grounds.

This was accompanied by a brick and mortar
approach, which saw the construction of schools that were barely
functional as they lacked basics including teachers. Many became
famously known as ‘ghost schools’. A culture of unaccountability
aggravated the situation as education standards continued to slide in
state-run institutions.

And while impressive private sector
initiatives emerged as a response to this situation, they mostly served
the well to do rather than the majority of children denied schooling by
the state. In any case, these initiatives could not have filled the gap
between rising public demands for education and official slack in this
sector.

Against this backdrop of state neglect and deteriorating
state schools, the 18th Amendment transferred, carte blanche, all the
centre’s remaining education functions to provinces, even if
jurisdiction over running schools and colleges and recruitment and
training of teachers had long rested with provincial governments.

The
immediate and deleterious consequence of this was to enable the federal
government to wash its hands off this issue and use the amendment as an
alibi to claim it had no responsibility in this area, other than for
higher education.

No federation in the world abdicates its
responsibility in such a crucial area. And no federal government
absolves itself of the need to play an overarching coordinating role to
ensure balanced education development, maintain quality and provide
oversight to establish clearly articulated national standards.

The
federal government’s effort to wash its hands off education is at odds
with the constitutional obligation set out by the 18th Amendment: the
right of every child to education. Article 25A calls on “the state” to
“provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age of
five to sixteen years”.

If there are 25 million instances of
violation of this article every day, whose responsibility is it to
prevent or stop this? Surely it is the federal government’s
responsibility by taking the lead and getting provinces to comply, even
as both should become co-guarantors to provide every child an education.

Other
than increase financial allocations for education, the federal
government has a role to play on several big picture issues. They
include framing a national curriculum, data collection and monitoring
for national benchmarking and evolving common standards to assure
quality across the country. Donor coordination too has to be streamlined
at the federal level to avoid confusion and mispriorities in
international development assistance.

The most compelling case
for a robust federal role is the prevailing disparity both in provincial
governance capacity and income/education levels between regions. One of
the unintended consequences of the 18th Amendment has been to reinforce
provincial disparities in education. A recent survey of district
education rankings by Alif Ailaan and SDPI offers a stark perspective in
this regard.

The survey shows wide variations in the quality of
education between provinces and districts. The majority of top ranking
districts are from Punjab. Significantly, no district from Khyber
Pakhtunkhwa or Sindh ranked among the country’s top 20.

Northern
Punjab districts dominate the education rankings, followed by central
districts, but with the south performing poorly. Sindh, other than
Karachi, also does poorly as do districts in Balochistan. Some districts
of KP show improvement but overall the education picture shows a
decline in achievement scores and gender parity.

These findings
are, of course, consistent with and mirror the variation in levels of
social-economic development between provinces. But this only strengthens
the point that given provincial disparities in education levels, the
central government has an obligation to act vigorously to reduce or
remove inequities, and correct unequal access and gender imbalances.

So
what should the federal government do? First and foremost, come up with
a mechanism, or use an existing institution, such as the Council of
Common Interests, to evolve agreement on national policy goals including
measures to address regional disparities. A common curriculum should be
framed and arrangements put in place to establish national standards.

As
provinces spend the money they get from the federal government (they
barely raise any resources themselves), the centre should leverage this
fiscal reality to ensure that provincial authorities devote a larger
proportion of these resources to education.

Negotiations for the
next National Finance Commission award, to determine federal transfers
to the provinces, are due to commence in the not too distant future.
This is an important vehicle by which the centre can secure increased
education expenditure by provinces by conditioning enhanced transfers on
such spending.

There are many ways and avenues available to the
federal government to evolve a national response to Pakistan’s education
emergency provided it is motivated or inspired to play such a role, and
can summon the political will to do this.

It is, after all,
investment in education that can change the destiny of the country, not
the distribution of laptops and similar actions by the government, which
trivialise the challenge at hand rather than address it.

The writer is special adviser to the Jang Group/Geo and a former envoy to the US and the UK.

Source: http://www.thenews.com.pk/Todays-News-9-261823-Abdication-as-policy

This article was originally published at:

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint or stance of SDPI.