With the continued fluctuating dynamics of our political system, the non-stop media pundits are constantly analysing the positions of various politicians vying for power in the next administration. Some positions seem to remain unchanged, others are changing by the minute. Yet, despite all the musical chairs within parties, new political marriages and juicy break-ups, focus on some of the substantial issues remains, at best, cursory. Chief among the white elephants in this room is the education policy, at all levels, in all provinces, for all people.
Given the youth of our population, the financial burdens of our society, the inequalities in access and lack of a robust policy, it has never been more important or urgent to put education front and centre of all political debates, and more importantly, of our future development agenda. It is unfortunate that either education is not something our leaders are interested in talking about, or if they do venture into that territory, the discussion is shallow, devoid of details and is full of hyperbole. I believe that the people of Pakistan deserve better. It is time that we insist on a concrete policy and a clear vision.
I propose that we insist on a serious discussion on this topic and I suggest we do it soon. While I am interested in a healthy debate, there are two things I am not interested in. I do not care either about ‘gotcha’ moments or live-TV shouting matches. Given the lack of civility among our politicians in public forums, any live debate is going to derail from civility and have plenty of both the ‘gotcha’ moments and comedic shouting matches. To have a serious discussion on a serious topic, I propose that we give each leader a full and exclusive moderated platform and a clear opportunity to explain his or her policy. That said, the discourse still has to have clear and firm rules of engagement. I propose two basic rules to keep our focus on the issue that has taken the back seat for way too long. First, the party leader must not invoke stories of personal sacrifices, of years spent in jail and of martyrdom of party leaders and family members. While stories of sacrifice cannot be belittled, they are not an education policy. Secondly, blaming the opposition also cannot be offered in lieu of a plan to educate the society. We, the people, must demand details of the plan, not old rants or new insights about devious ways of previous governments to rob the country.
To lay out a level playing field for all, I say that we even give the questions ahead of time. Education policy should not, and cannot be crafted instantaneously. After all, it is a matter of our survival, not a quiz competition. So here are three simple questions that I would ask our leaders vying for power and claiming to offer the best Pakistan of tomorrow. Question 1: How will you ensure universal access to primary and secondary education to all Pakistanis, particularly to under-represented groups, including; girls, minorities and those living in low-income rural areas? Question 2: What is your vision of higher education and research in the country? How will you strengthen the university system and create a culture of research and innovation? What areas will you give preference? Question 3: And how exactly will you pay for all this?
Let us, for a change, insist on substance this time around on all matters pertaining to the education policy. Let us insist that blanket statements with buzz words like free education for all, one system from now on, Asian tiger in research, envy of the world etc., are backed up by concrete plans. Let us see the vision for our future and laud those who really care about education and call the bluff of all others who have nothing to offer.
This time around, let us insist on details. Since the devil, as we all know, may very well be lying there.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 2nd, 2012.