Higher education: The glass ceiling

Published: December 7, 2017
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The writer is a psychologist with an interest in international relations

The writer is a psychologist with an interest in international relations

“Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equaliser of the conditions of men, the balance-wheel of the social machinery.” — Horace Mann 

In metropolitan cities of this country, a seemingly large part of the population is pursuing education. Some have dreams of their own, others have to fulfill their parent’s dreams. Pakistan has often been called the society that is seeing the rise of the middle class. An average urban student undergoing higher secondary education attends a school or college in the daytime and complements it with a tuition academy in the evening for extra coaching. The person in question aspires to become something worthy, in economic terms the person would most likely wish to either maintain his socioeconomic level or preferably rise a level or two. Admission into a ‘better’ university is a priority but ‘better’ is also expensive and getting in is not easy, sometimes owing to rather expensive entrance tests or admission forms. With public-sector universities not a priority for those who have sought a private-sector education finding funds for university is hard. The results of this disappointment are many, most of these average urban students enter adolescence with a sense of failure, injustice, anger towards those who can get what they desire and not wish to excel or work hard in an unjust world.

Pakistan is a ‘like father like son society’, there exists a low level of intergenerational earning mobility. The research conducted by Pakistan Institute of Development Economics using Pakistan Panel Household Survey 2010 is a case in point. The rate of urbanisation in Pakistan is 3-4% annually, one of the factors behind urbanity is social mobility and education. The two are interlinked but the fruits are not being equally divided.

The job one lands is determined by the university one attends which depends on the school one went to or their route of education, ie, local examination or international ones at higher secondary level which in turn are predicted by the depth of the pocket of those the student banks on. This year for instance a student in Punjab should have fallen somewhere between 96% and 89% to become a doctor from a government-run medical college, otherwise he or she should attend a private-run one. For some students, either the bar is set very high or the alternative is obscenely expensive. Either way the second question they ask is, what else should we do? The subject of study is chosen according to its ‘scope’, loosely understood by the inquirer as to how much money will we make afterwards? The value of education is calculated in monetary terms, a belief reinforced by the fact that jobs are contingent upon the label of the university which needs to be paid for by money not everyone residing in the same city can afford. Some students find solace in entrepreneurship but here too the same rules apply, the source of funding depends on how many strings one can pull or the income level or savings of the father.

This situation will and can produce a lethal mix of a disenfranchised youth whose dreams are shattered so early in life, with little hope for change and lack of motivation or drive. The race is being lost by many before it has even started. The fact that the inequality which is breeding through education is bewildering, for it is education that one can look up to for it to end. For many of the average urban students, the cycle of impoverishment will continue and perhaps, even pass on to the next generation. Pakistan may be a nation of young people, but will they make satisfied and content adults? If more and more suffer disappointment at the futility of ambition then the answer is sadly, no.

China and Pakistan share a friendship based on common things. This predicament is also common between the two as pointed out by The New York Times in the article titled ‘Stuck at the bottom in China’. With burgeoning poverty and erosion in the value of money, the urban middle class might be the new lower-income class. However, it will be one which tried and failed because the system was rigged against them.

Finding a solution to this problem will be an uphill task. A few steps that can be taken are the improvement of the public-sector universities, keeping the fees to a minimum and the teaching of soft skills to students in government universities. The chances of employment are a major factor in choosing a university, and the privately-run institutes have well-established links with the industry, a privilege not offered to the alumni of state-run institutes. If the situation is not remedied the glass ceiling and economic barriers will continue to shackle those who long for better days. Rapid urbanisation is a national issue; social mobility is a right that should not be denied. Thus, if the immobility continues with it urban poverty and subsequently urban crime will too. Social inclusion will work for many so will leveling of the playing field.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 7th, 2017.

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