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Fixing education

By focusing their attack on privatisation of education instead of fixing the regulators of the educational market, such as the Board of Intermediate and Secondary Education (BISE) and the HEC, our policy analysts commit at least three serious errors.

First, they miss the real target. The ground reality of a mass education system is that what happens in the classroom and the library is largely dictated by what the examiner rewards or punishes.

Rote learning flourishes in our schools at the cost of creative thinking, primarily because for decades our examiners have rewarded one and punished the other. If most students are unable to eloquently articulate their views, be it in any language, it is also because the examination system never really judged them for it.

One does not intend to denigrate the role played by teachers and textbooks. But realistically speaking, they are not setting the rules of the game. If the examiners begin to demand the right standard of excellence, the state does not necessarily need to worry about the rest: teachers, parents and students will find out some way to prepare accordingly.

Even if one conceded that public provision of all education and demolition of private, privileged education is a worthy goal, it still amounts to setting us up for the impossible, while ignoring the achievable.

Post-colonial Pakistan is not Scandinavia; and I do not see it going in that direction. Clamour as much as you will, the private enclaves of elite education are not suddenly going to vanish. Not in five years. Not in a generation. The quality bar of the local degrees can, however, be pushed up significantly by a willing government in a five-year term. And in another five years, foreign-degree mafias can also be effectively expelled and the legal monopoly of our regulators be reasserted.

Let no one forget that the BISEs already have the statutory mandate to “control and regulate…the examinations held at the Intermediate Education and Secondary Education levels in Pakistan by foreign agencies, professional institutions or bodies or universities.” (Section 8(d), FBISE Act, 1975).

Once the BISEs get their act together, these powers should be exercised rigorously and possibly increased through legislation. Similarly, much of the current charm of foreign degrees comes from the fact that the likes of HEC-affiliated universities and professional bodies like the Pakistan Bar Council fully endorse, sometimes even privilege, them. With the appropriate political will, this can change, and it should. Unlike nationalisation, this is achievable.

Finally, by attacking privatisation, we risk throwing the baby out with the bath water. The wounds inflicted by nationalisation to some of our finest educational institutions are still fresh in our collective memory.

One has to admit that if the withering flame of technical prowess and cultural finesse is still alive, it is kept so by the independent, largely private, enclaves of educational excellence. For all their unfortunate exclusivity, it was the private institutions I attended which taught me that books are fun, professors are inspirational and that the intellectual and artistic gifts of the human race are worth cultivating regardless of their financial dividends.

At least in the Pakistani context, privatisation seems the most viable means to create institutional platforms capable of promoting a culture of educational excellence. The massive resurgence of private schools in every part of the country, despite their nationalisation in the 1970s, is a testament to their greater viability as a basic model. The message that even the poorest parents and students seem to be sending is clear: an education that dumbs us down, albeit equally so, serves nobody.

What reform proponents often ignore in their egalitarian fervour is that education lies at the locus of two parental urges: the desire to pass on to one’s children whatever privileges one has enjoyed; and the equally strong desire to see one’s children thrive in a competitive playing field. Repress any one of these two impulses and your model, no matter how earnestly conceived, is doomed for failure.

The likes of kings and ministers will not suffer their children being schooled alongside the children of paupers; if you are sufficiently authoritarian, you can try this, but they will wriggle their way out. At the same time, however, the elite too takes a certain degree of pride in knowing that its children sit for the same exams as all their peers and compete in the same content.

A largely privately-managed education system coupled with generous public subsidy for the poor, and regulated through a series of fair and universal examinations, can cater effectively to both these human urges. This is why it is a policy mix worth considering.


The writer is a lawyer and researcher based in Islamabad. Email: umer.gilani@gmail.com

Umer Gilani, "Fixing education," The News. 2013-02-12.