Is Education A Priority?

Faisal Bari

EVERY year we celebrate the fact that the allocation for education by federal as well as provincial governments goes up by 10 to 15 per cent. This has been happening for quite a few years now. All provinces feel the pressure to raise their education budgets, and they do.

Indeed, some of the increases are substantial — this year, the Higher Education Commission is going to get about Rs5 billion more, while for Punjab the 10pc to 15pc increase means an additional Rs30bn for the education sector.

Even allowing for the fact that the increases mentioned above are in nominal terms, the educational budgets of the provinces have increased by 50pc to 80pc over the last five to seven years. Though we are still only spending about 2.3pc of GDP on education, it is a significant percentage of the provincial budgets.

The government’s own statistics acknowledge that some 21 million-plus five- to 16-year-olds are still out of school.

We have not achieved universal enrolment even at the primary level. In fact, if it were not for the increase in enrolment of children in private-sector schools, the overall enrolment rates would be showing a declining trend. Our high dropout rates mean that out of 100 children enrolling in grade 1 in Pakistan, only five to six make it to college level. Our transition rates, from primary to middle and high school are pathetic.

But, despite these increases in the private sector, there are too many two-room primary schools where basic infrastructure facilities are missing, and we do not have enough middle and high schools to offer a higher transition rate from primary to middle schools.

We do not have enough teachers to ensure that every primary school has as many teachers as classes: multi-grade teaching is quite common. Punjab is promising to recruit some 77,000 teachers this year to ensure that there are at least four in every school. The situation in other provinces is no better.

Meanwhile, examination results at all levels — grade 5 or the civil service exams — show that the quality of education that most of our children, barring the minority that go to high-fee private or elite government schools or universities, receive is quite poor.

Grade 5 children, on average, are one or two grades behind where they should be, and only 2pc or so of the candidates who take the civil service examinations even pass the written test.

Given this situation, what will an increase of 10pc to 15pc in the budgets achieve on the education front? What is there to celebrate in such increases? Will these increases allow us to fulfil our constitutional obligation of providing every child in Pakistan with 10 years of quality education?

Will these allow us to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals that we are a signatory to? Will these increases be able to address the tremendous inequities in our education system and allow every child to explore his or her potential fully?

It is not just about the money. All provinces have, consistently, shown a low use of development funds within the education sector: of the money that is budgeted for the sector at the beginning of the year, only 50pc to 70pc is actually spent. The rest of it lapses.

Non-development expenditures are usually utilised well: these are mostly spent on salary budgets. Teachers’ salaries are indeed the main expense in the education sector so it is not a surprise that most of the money is spent on these. But the poor utilisation of funds for non-salary heads tells us about the kind of priority we attach to development or quality-enhancing expenditures.

It is also about how the money that we actually spend is utilised.

In Punjab, laptop distributions come out of the education budget. Where is the evidence that giving laptops will improve the quality of education in the country? It might be a popular move and an attempt to get votes, but how is it about educational quality or outcomes? Daanish school expenditures are also educational expenses. The spending of billions on a few schools when 50,000-plus schools are still lacking teachers as well as some basic infrastructure facilities needs to be justified.

We have never seen any sound evaluation of the contribution that the Daanish schools are making. All provinces are moving towards distributing laptops, tablets and LED televisions to teachers and schools: do we have any evidence that these are going to enhance quality and improve learning among children?

Do provincial governments see public education as a priority? If we go by the increases in the provincial budgets, we might say yes and this is how many have been interpreting the increases over the last few years.

But there is another way of thinking. The increased expenditures are definitely not going to address the issues in education as a) the increases are small and the problems very large, b) a significant portion of the increased budget is not going to be spent, c) and even if it is, spending priorities have not been thought through and are not going to address the access or quality issues that we face.

Clearly, governments are according low priority to education issues: the increased funding is just for the political appeasement of concerned lobbies. If education was indeed an area of high priority and governments wanted to accomplish something, there would be a lot more debate on educational issues in political parties and government circles — the best of political leaders would be made education ministers, there would be a lot more innovative thinking on how to achieve our educational goals and there would be political consequences for not delivering. We do not see any of the above.

From the Dawn, Pakistan, published Friday June 16th, 2017.

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