Education problem has deep roots

Published: February 3, 2013
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and served as vice-president at the World Bank

The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and served as vice-president at the World Bank

Statistics don’t paint a very pretty picture of the state of education in Pakistan. It is now recognised that most of the Millennium Development Goals to which Pakistan subscribed will not be met. It spends only 2.7 per cent of its gross domestic product on education, with the sector claiming only 11.2 per cent of government expenditure.

The education sector suffered not only because of the low level of funding it received from governments but also because of the wilful politicisation of educational institutions. The trend started with the administration of prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto when he encouraged the formation of student unions on university and college campuses. These bodies were founded to help Bhutto and his political party to expand their constituencies. Students, particularly from the left of the political spectrum, responded with enthusiasm to these initiatives. However, what did great damage to public-sector institutions was the decision by General Ziaul Haq to promote the creation of rival student bodies affiliated with such Islamic organisations as the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Jamiatul Ulema-e-Islam. This led to the arrival of violence on campuses. The third shock to the system was delivered in Karachi when students belonging to the city’s Muhajir community organised themselves first on the campuses and then turned their organisation into a political party, the Muhajir Qaumi moment.

Lack of public sector attention to education has left Pakistan with a serious problem that could affect long-term economic growth, slow down attempts to reduce the incidence of poverty and make it difficult to narrow income disparities. Private initiatives have filled some of the gaps left by the public sector’s poor performance. However, in order to make a real difference, policymakers may have to do some ‘out of the box’ thinking. It may be necessary to help the private sector play an even greater role in the education sector and it may also pay to focus on some of the newer technologies that have become available.

As Thomas L Friedman wrote in an article recently, “nothing has more potential to lift more people out of poverty — by providing them an affordable education to get a job or improve in the job they have. And nothing has more potential to enable us to reimage higher education than the massive open online course, MOOC, platforms that are being developed by the likes of Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and companies like Coursera and Udacity.” Within one year, the coverage provided by Coursera has increased from 300,000 students taking 38 courses taught by Stanford professors and a few other elite universities to 2.4 million taking 214 courses from 33 universities, including eight international ones.

There were reports that Pakistan was already one of the beneficiaries of the exponential development of the MOOC. A story on the 2013 Davos World Economic Forum singled out for special mention the presentation given by Khadija Niazi, a 12-year girl from Lahore, who may not have been the youngest speaker ever at the forum but was certainly captivating. According to this account, “hundreds of the conference’s well-healed attendees listened intently as Ms Niazi described her experience with massive online courses known as MOOC that are spreading around the globe … Her latest enthusiasm is for astrobiology because she is fascinated by UFOs and wants to become a physicist.”

According to another assessment, “enterprising academic institutions have taken the lead in online learning. Harvard and MIT, for instance, worked together to introduce EdX, which offers free online courses from each university. About 753,000 students have enrolled, with India, Brazil, Pakistan and Russia among the top 10 countries from which people are benefitting.” What seems to be happening is that while the government continues to neglect education, a variety of private initiatives are helping to fill some of the gaps that have been left.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 4th, 2013.

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Reader Comments (11)

  • Muhammad Hashim
    Feb 3, 2013 - 11:26PM

    As an Indian Muslim I worry that Pakistan will export this brand of student politics to India.


  • John B
    Feb 3, 2013 - 11:46PM

    Access to Internet and means of accessing it through cheap computer derivatives-key essentials.

    Otherwise, only those who have these means will benefit (urban populace and elites) and the unreached rural poor will be further left behind. Let us not lose this side of the equation.

    In developing countries, government should insist at least two hours of free Internet services for educational purposes to rural areas as part of the contract when they lease their air space to the telecom companies or government should spend for free wifi, which of course is resource constraining.

    Access to internet and means of accessing it are as important as text books and should be considered as part of educational budget.


  • gp65
    Feb 3, 2013 - 11:53PM

    In speaking of education in Pakistan you restricted the discussion to higher education. The bigger crisis is however at the primary level. Key issues are
    1. Large number of out of school.children.
    2. Large gender gap in literacy which refuses to narrow.
    3. Girls education under attack in KP with 100s of schools being blown up.
    4. A syllabus that celebrates shahadat and encourages hatred for ‘others’ which contributes to the radicalization of society
    5. Lack of balance between money allocated to higher education and primary education.


  • Feb 4, 2013 - 1:08AM

    We Pakistanis need to get away from Mullahism and embrace education as a tool of personal evolvement – this is the only way if we care about Pakistan we can develop Pakistan


  • haroon
    Feb 4, 2013 - 4:05AM

    “Statistics don’t paint a very pretty picture of the state of education in Pakistan.”
    What sector of Pakistan does statistics paint a “remotely” pretty picture of?


  • Feb 4, 2013 - 3:45PM

    I agree with the points you raised which ought to be of deep concern for everyone who wishes the betterment of the society. However, for an ex-Official of the World Bank, it is plight of the elite that matters. With such policies, the gulf between the haves and have nots will go on increasing,


  • Observer
    Feb 5, 2013 - 12:55AM


    Some of the points you mentioned also applies to India. In India too, the politicians and the government has been putting all the resources and emphasis on college education totally neglecting primary and secondary school education. The dirty politicians have been using reservations and quotas for higher education based on caste, religions etc. enabling only generations after generations of the same well-to-do families to enjoy these benefits, all part of vote bank politics.

    No one seems to give a damn about the poor children who can’t get any quality primary and secondary education. The rich send their kids to private schools paying exorbitantly high costs for even kindergarten classes. Why hasn’t the Indian government, in the past 60 years, given priority to primary/secondary education for the poor by establishing high-quality schools?


  • The Economist
    Feb 5, 2013 - 9:08AM

    As per the study by independent body on percentage of students who enrol for higher education in india on the basis of religion are.
    7) Muslim-11%
    6) Buddhist-18%
    5) Hindus-20%
    4) Sikh-22%
    3) Christain-31%
    2) Jain-53%
    1) Zorastrain-61%


  • Feb 5, 2013 - 1:59PM

    @The Economist:
    “As per the study by independent body on percentage of students who enrol for higher education in india on the basis of religion are…”

    And the name of that independent body is?


  • Khurram The Muhajir
    Feb 6, 2013 - 11:21AM

    @Muhammad Hashim

    Well, why don’t you go to an indian website to express your “fear”?


  • Concerned
    Feb 25, 2013 - 7:49AM

    @Muhammad Hashim:
    Well that’s just ridiculous. The circumstances and politics that caused such student unions to arise in Pakistani universities do not exist in India. Your statement is as ridiculous as suggesting that the actions of Shiv Sena and other right-wing Hindu nationalist movements will ‘radicalize’ our Hindu population. Do Indians spend all their time fearing Pakistan?


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