Written By: Dr. Shahnaz Khan
Most people will agree that the quality of education offered in public institutions has deteriorated in the past few decades. This is not only a failure of the state but also a reason for mushrooming of private schools, academies, tutors as well as madrassas. To add insult to injury, due to complete lack of state's supervisory role the quality of education/instruction offered by these various outfits is vastly different. Parents and students are seen and treated as consumers rather than seekers of knowledge where institutions sell knowledge catering to different segments of society based on their financial situation.
The state of education in Pakistan has become increasingly incoherent, disjointed and disorganized over the past few decades. However before any further discussion can take place about education, we have to clarify some concepts based on which we can form opinions and offer solutions.
One of the most important concepts to grasp is that education and literacy are two different things. Literacy is simply an ability to perform certain tasks acquired through formal or informal schooling or instructions, which facilitate our efficient functioning in the modern society and may help us get jobs and accomplish certain technical tasks. It is definitely much better to be literate than illiterate but it should not be confused with education, which leads to broadening of mind, cultivation of learning and analytical skills, a search for truth, and becoming intellectually, emotionally and socially connected with one's environment and being able to influence it. If not wisdom, it is the road to achieving wisdom. It leads to deliberate and thoughtful living and not just making a living. Being literate adds tremendously to becoming educated as it opens the doors to many sources of knowledge which may not be otherwise accessible to us. Seen from this angle education is the essence of a human mind, as without it, it won't be much different from other living beings.
So, if it is the essence of human mind then it is also a human right as without it one will not be fully human. Since the advent of modern methods of teaching, acquiring knowledge and explosive expansion of knowledge base, the difference between being literate and illiterate has become critical. This raises the question of how one can become literate which is a very important step towards being educated. In today's society where human beings have been divided into nation states rather than free flowing communities where one was free to move as one wished and where this responsibility to acquire literacy and thus to be educated was primarily shouldered by the parents or at times benevolent rulers, we argue that this should be under the domain of social contract between the state and citizens.
Democracy is considered the most desirable arrangement between the state and citizens. In democracy all citizens have equal rights. Thus to ensure the right and access to acquire quality education for all citizens becomes the state's responsibility. But we have seen state after state fail in achieving this goal. Even in the most developed countries this remains an elusive goal. In fact in the past few decades the situation has gotten worse. The main reason for this is the unchecked and unhindered promotion of neoliberal economy by imperialist powers. Neoliberal philosophy promotes free market economy where state has no role and supposedly free competition and market forces are the deciding factor for the outcome. A detailed discussion about neoliberalism is outside the scope of this article, but we know that state's regulatory powers have always been used to manipulate market. The use of free market is a facade and competition is non-existent as all big players try to monopolize the market. Under neoliberal economy there is commodification of every thing. And thus education has also become a victim of this as have healthcare, other social services and necessities of life. A commodity is always for sale at the maximum profit that can be extracted. According to a report by the Institute of Social and Policy Sciences (I-SAPS) in 2010 supported by Department For International Development (DFID), there is “considerable size of investment and expenditure by the private sector and a high rate of return.” According to the Census 1999-2000, the private sector's net return was 52% of investment plus expenditure in the year covered in the Census. This figure might well be understated because an accurate picture could not have been captured in the Census due to sensitivity of financial information. Despite this probability, this rate of return indicates that the incentive to invest in private education is high for profit-oriented entrepreneurs that would eventually lead to rapid expansion of the sector. This implies that education system has become a means to earn money rather than imparting knowledge.
This is the motive behind such a rapid increase in private educational institutions. And as a commodity it is offered to various segments of population according to their buying power, which essentially means that poor, various levels of middle classes and elite, each have specific schools where they send their children, just like the kind of houses they live in, clothes they wear, food they eat etc. Since the quality of education, type of teachers, methods of instruction, extra curricular activities and other means to expand knowledge like access to internet, art, culture, sports and entertainment etc. are the determining factors in the kind of educated young men and women coming out in practical life after graduation, these young people go back to their respective social and economic class with little or no chance of ever crossing that barrier. Thus poor school graduates become menial workers, clerks, drivers etc.; middle class students aspire for mid level management positions or corporate jobs; and elite class maintains its hold on the wealth and politics. Education instead of becoming an equalizer actually strengthens the class difference.
Most people will agree that the quality of education offered in public institutions has deteriorated in the past few decades. This is not only a failure of the state but also a reason for mushrooming of private schools, academies, tutors as well as madrassas. To add insult to injury, due to complete lack of state's supervisory role the quality of education/instruction offered by these various outfits is vastly different. Parents and students are seen and treated as consumers rather than seekers of knowledge where institutions sell knowledge catering to different segments of society based on their financial situation. Private schools, though much more expensive than public ones, are favored by parents because of the perceived better quality of education but there is no source to help them in making this choice. Since majority of private schools' primary goal is to make profit, naturally they try to minimize the amount spent per student and teacher.
The difference in the quality of education offered to various layers of socio-economic classes has a far reaching impact on the nation. Those who can afford superior quality education will always be ahead of those who went to poor schools. The future generations of elite class will continue to maintain their hold on country's affairs in all aspects of national life, and all policies well be made to their benefit. On the other hand, deprived of these opportunities, working class children will have to follow their parents' foot steps. And since being poor is not just inability to buy stuff but more importantly, also exclusion from decision making process of the nation, and even more importantly the ability to analyze and make sound decisions. Even if they make an effort, their voice does not carry weight, the poor are always on the sidelines of national life. This is not only contrary to democratic values but violation of human rights. In order to create a level playing field for all, the educational system has to be radically restructured.
The writer is a regular contributer in national print media.