Issue 4, September 2008
Pakistan’s demographics contain enormous implications for the future of the nation. Whether the country’s large youth bulge can be harnessed to modernize Pakistan, or whether these youth will become increasingly radicalized, discontent, and dangerous, largely depends on the quality of the education they receive – at the primary, secondary, and tertiary levels. The stakes could not be higher, in the view of Brookings Institution Pakistan expert Stephen Cohen, who writes that Pakistan’s education system must be “of high enough caliber to help bridge the cultural and civilizational divides that already exist without producing new divisions, and in addition produce a trained cadre of future leaders able to navigate a nuclear armed Pakistan through a rapidly-changing global and regional environment.” Nearly all experts agree that the Pakistani education system is not up to this task.
It is well-known that Pakistan’s education system has been neglected historically. From partition to present day, the priorities of the struggling state have been primarily in the military-intelligence sector. It has been estimated that military to education spending in Pakistan is 16:1, and Pakistan is one of only 12 countries
in the world that spend less than 2% of GNP on education. The World Bank reports that the average Pakistani boy receives just five years of education, and the average girl only two and a half years. US Agency for International Aid (USAID) reports indicate that just two-thirds of all children age 5-9 ever enroll in school, and only one-third complete fifth grade. Overall adult literacy (the percent of the population over age 15 that can read) hovers around 40-50%, and varies widely by gender and region. Rates for males in Punjab reach 81%, while rates for females in some areas of Balochistan reach only 1%. Official UN statistics put the gender disparity in literacy at an average of 2:1. The number of illiterate people in Pakistan has doubled over the past 50 years, now comprising a full 25% of the Pakistani workforce. The UN Development Program, which conducts research on all quality of life indicators in countries throughout the world, has found that Pakistan has the lowest combined education index of any country outside Africa. Oxfam has estimated that Pakistan will soon be home to 40% of all South Asian children not attending school.
Enrollment in higher education and the quality of these institutions are particularly critical in today’s globalized, information-driven economy, yet Pakistan lags well behind its peers in this realm. Stephen Cohen presents comparative research in his 2004 book that shows the staggering disparity between Pakistan and its neighbors, many of them fellow Muslim nations. The most damning statistics are from the UNESCO education database that show the number of students enrolled in college or university. These figures are most enlightening when compared with the total population of the countries. Pakistan has only 100,000 students in higher education, while Iran and Turkey, with less than half of Pakistan’s total population, have 700,000 and 1.6 million, respectively. Even Bangladesh, with roughly the same population as Pakistan, has 878,388 students in higher education. Most strikingly, Pakistan’s rival India, with whom it shares colonial roots, has 9.4 million students in institutions of higher learning – over 90 times more students than Pakistan even though its population is only 7 times that of Pakistan. The quality of Pakistan’s institutions of higher learning is also considered highly inferior to its global counterparts, with unprepared students and teachers, and documented false credentialing. Some Pakistani students manage to study abroad, but of this small number of students, most hail from elite families and not all are able to succeed, given often inferior secondary school experiences.
Primary and Secondary Education
It is largely accepted that reform must begin with primary and secondary education, but the overriding problem is Pakistan's lack of a coherent, systematic approach to K-12 education. Enrollment procedures, teacher training, facilities, curriculum, and pedagogy vary depending on the type of school and region.
Pakistan’s government schools have long been an area of concern. They are a patchwork of rural, urban, and village schools of varying physical and pedagogical quality; they are overseen by a decentralized, often corrupt and inept administration apparatus, and lacking in any real quality assessment procedures. Donors, government and NGO-based, have tried to intervene over the years to improve both access and quality. One case study is particularly instructive.
Beginning in 1987, USAID funded a research effort headed by Harvard University, which later culminated in the Pakistan Education Development Program (PED), aimed at improving the quality of education and increasing the numbers of children, especially girls, enrolled in school. Focusing on the low literacy states of Balochistan and the Northwest Frontier Province, PED undertook a needs assessment to determine the state of education in the rural provinces. The results helped shape the innovations that PED began implementing. The team found overcrowded classrooms, high dropout rates, and programs based almost entirely on rote memorization. There was little connection among the federally mandated learning objectives, instructional materials, training, and testing. Consequently the majority of students failed promotional exams and many left the system.
Low enrollments were due in large part to parents who did not see the advantages to school or to the costs associated with lost child labor or incidentals such as materials. Also many areas had no accessible schools or the children had to walk long distances to school. In these conservative regions, the costs and distances often made parents more fearful of sending girls, especially after they reached puberty around third grade. Attendance was poor and teachers were frequently absent. There was little supervision of rural teachers. Facilities were often in poor repair and inadequate for the numbers of children who enrolled at the lowest grades. Perhaps what was most disturbing was the poor quality of the academic program. The emphasis was almost exclusively on rote learning and memorization, often of material that was not systematically geared to teaching basic academic skills. Little attention was given to creative learning or the development of critical thinking skills. There was little or no English instruction — a skill important for gaining better employment opportunities. Teachers with the requisite preservice training had students who performed no better than teachers with no training. An enormous amount of graft and corruption further complicated matters. Large numbers of schools and teachers appeared in budgets but existed only on paper and not in reality. Supervisors visited urban schools but lacked the money to visit rural schools. Many simply stayed at home or showed up in district offices to drink tea.
The PED team worked with Pakistani educators for four years developing curriculum and materials for schools in Pakistan’s rural hinterlands. They worked to produce quality instructional materials in the form of textbooks, step by step pedagogically sound lesson formats for teachers, and Radio English equipment and programming so that spoken English could be taught and practiced in the classrooms.
Designed as a 10 year program, in its first two years, the PED was on its way to compiling valuable statistical information, developing quality curriculum and classroom materials, engaging local leaders in problem-solving on the ground, building the capacity of Pakistani officials and teachers to make reforms, and garnering the participation of parents in sustaining and deepening structural and pedagogical reforms. Their efforts were a drop in the bucket, to be sure, but put PED on its way to developing replicable models for expansion. However, when the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan and there seemed no further need for supporting the US ally Pakistan, Congress applied the Pressler Amendment which prohibited aid to countries with nuclear weapons capacities and the program was shut down. It is ironic and tragic that the Pashtun areas where PED attempted critical reforms in the 1990s are now the very areas of Pakistan that have become the most radicalized and dangerous. Those children whose school reform was abandoned have now come of age.
Nearly 20 years later, the situation is not much improved. Most of the same issues encountered by the PED team remain in government schools. Other types of schools have sprung up and flourished in the educational vacuum. These include informal schools started by parents in isolated rural areas (that are often not recognized by the state system), private schools, and schools created by NGOs such as Greg Mortenson’s Central Asia Institute. Curriculum standardization and quality remains a problem, and little effort is made to monitor or evaluate what children are learning. Moreover, the unequal quality among these different types of schools only serves to reinforce larger class, ethnic, and regional divisions in Pakistani society.
Madrassa Schools (Madaris)
Besides government, missionary, informal, private, and NGO-funded schools, the other main sector of Pakistan’s fragmented education system are the madrassas or madaris schools run by Islamist clerics. Pakistan expert Owen Bennett Jones has reported that there were about 250 madrassas in the country upon independence in 1947. Their numbers swelled considerably over the following decades, especially as these schools played a key role in educating and training the Mujahideen who were engaged by the CIA and others to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. By 1989, they had increased ten-fold and were turning out 30,000 graduates a year. By 2001, they numbered up to 8000, and graduated between 600,000 and 700,000 students per year. Madrassas are primarily run by proponents of the Deobandi sect of radical Islam and their syllabi are often exclusively religious in nature. Ancient texts are used, including the Koran. The emphasis is on memorization and indoctrination into radical ideologies and interpretations of Islam. Many madrassa schools are innocuous, serving the function of Sunday School in the West, but others have more radical aims.
The growth of radical-style madrassas is of great concern not only to the West, but also to many secularists and moderate Muslims in Pakistan and around the world. They are seen as a driving force behind the growth of radical Islam in and outside of Pakistan, and are the recipients of funding from Islamic charities globally (especially from Saudi Arabia). See the ‘Islamists’ section in Internal Players and ‘Global Terror Networks’ section in External Players for a detailed explanation of the role these schools serve as training grounds for Mujahideen in nearby Afghanistan and beyond. Most believe the danger of radical madrassas is several-fold. First, they serve as acceleration chambers for radical ideologies, capitalizing on and feeding the discontent of Pakistan’s large youth population. Second, they appeal to those who might not, given other choices, be attracted to their message. Many madrassa schools are full-service operations, providing housing, meals, and community when it is often not otherwise available to large portions of the population. Finally, by failing to educate for a secular existence or employment in the globalized economy, they limit Pakistan’s development potential. They are often seen as inherently anti-modern in a world that increasingly requires that students have a modern education to be successful.
Prospects for the Future
The prospects for the future of Pakistan’s education system and, by extension, for the future of the nation are fairly bleak. Massive amounts of money are needed; equally important is how this money is spent, as the experience of the PED in the 1990s demonstrated. Pakistani education officials and local leaders have a history of taking even the best-intentioned outside funding from countries and NGOs and making poor use of it. Most believe that the focus must be on outcomes for the students, not merely on the construction of schools or the enhancing of education budgets. There is currently little capacity in Pakistan to rigorously monitor such outcomes; what testing does exist often has little relation to the objectives of the Pakistani government or to any recognizable standards for primary skill development.
A particularly critical issue concerns the prevailing gender disparity in education. Not only is education for girls less valued in society than education for boys, but growing radical influences are often also hostile to girls’ education on religious and cultural grounds. This means that a large portion of the population in some areas is not being educated, or educated in unequal and substandard ways. The world is becoming aware of the importance of girls’ education in contributing to improvements in social and economic indicators in a country. Most development experts feel investment in girls’ education has higher payoffs than boys’ education. Educated women are more likely to send their own children to school, to demonstrate knowledge of better health practices, and to contribute to the economic well-being of their families and communities. The results of microfinance programs in places like nearby Bangladesh that focus on empowering women have borne this out. Similarly, education for women generally has the effect of lowering birthrates, another positive human development indicator. Pakistan currently has one of the highest fertility rates in the world, a distinction that does not bode well for its already high poverty levels. The education of women in parity with that of men would bring unquestionable positive benefits for Pakistani society on many fronts. Yet the nation presently ranks 152 out of 156 countries on the UN Gender Disparity Index when compared with their overall Human Development score; it ranks 82 out of 93 countries in the world on the UN Gender Empowerment Measure, which seeks to capture the level of women’s involvement in community and society.