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Published Date: Jan 1, 1999

Universal Basic Education in Pakistan:A Commentary on Strategy and Results of a Survey (W-39)

Haris Gazdar, SDPI


The aims of this paper are two-fold.  Firstly, it develops a critique of the existing debate on the failure of basic education in Pakistan (section 2).  Some of the influential recent contributions to this debate, in particular those that are based on formal analysis of the arguments and the evidence, have come from quarters such as the World Bank, the Multi-Donor Support Unit, and the United Nations Inter-Agency Mission.

These contributions, particularly those emanating from the World Bank, are based upon a large body of empirical work using nationally representative survey data, as well as sectoral and regional studies in various parts of the country.  These contributions go some distance towards testing, confirming or dispelling commonly held and influential notions about the status of basic education, as well as possible solutions.  To the extent that the recent and growing interest in the subject has fuelled serious study, it is extremely valuable that long-held notions that have been based upon guesses and anecdotal evidence are being questioned.

It is argued here that there are many other such myths to be tested, not least some, which find themselves reasserted even in the otherwise careful and thorough studies that have been forthcoming of late.  More crucially, however, while these recent studies and situation analyses provide very rich baseline material for further research, and while they have attempted to go beyond received wisdom to a great extent, it is argued here that there is scope for a much greater and more radical rethink of the conceptual approach to basic education in a largely illiterate society.  In particular, it will be argued, that it is important to ask whether the commonly adopted framework in the “economics of education” that addresses education as an input might not be too limiting a characterization of what basic education represents in a country such as Pakistan.  Recognition of the limitations of the prevalent economics of education framework opens the possibility of an economic analysis of education which pays greater attention to institutions and societal conditions.

A second aim of this paper is to report the findings of a primary field survey conducted in various parts of the country (section 3).  The key questions addressed by this survey relate to the functioning of government schools, the school administration particularly in rural areas, age profile of school participation , the special problems of female schooling, lessons from the experience of private sector, the possibility of compulsory education, and the role of NGOs in overcoming the constraints faced by the government schooling system.
Section 4 summarizes the main findings and the implications of these findings for policy and for public discussion on basic education in Pakistan.  Also appended (Annex 1) is a set of research questions that have been identified from the literature review and the fieldwork.  While some of these research questions require further conceptual and theoretical work, others can be framed in the form of testable propositions about various aspects of basic education in Pakistan.  A discussion of survey methods and strategies for gaining further empirical insight into these questions is also offered.