Debating education policy

Current PTI policy seems to be focused on what European nations were doing 40 years ago, not what they are doing now.

Muhammad Hamid Zaman March 01, 2013
The writer is associate professor in the departments of Biomedical Engineering and Medicine at Boston University

Recently, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) came out with its education policy to emphasise its commitment to a better, prosperous Pakistan. First, I have to admit that this is a great first step. I am absolutely thrilled that someone has decided to put forth their plan for improving our failing education system and I hope that other major and smaller parties will follow suit. For far too long, we have been given empty slogans and political rhetoric as our education policy and it’s time that we talk about substance and concrete steps to change the status quo. For that, the PTI deserves plenty of credit. The party also gets a lot of credit for bringing up issues of access, girls’ education and vocational training. Those are things we certainly need to focus on and kudos to the PTI for making them a part of the policy.

That said, the policy, however, has some serious issues that I hope are debated in the political and public sphere. First is the issue of medium of instruction. I strongly believe that we need to have a stronger presence for Urdu in our curriculum, but I also reject the notion that every school should be forced to teach in Urdu, regardless of whether it is public or private. First, the legality of forcing “all public and private schools” to teach in Urdu is highly questionable.

Second, giving them an option to create all curriculum in Urdu or a regional language is a huge undertaking, given that we do not have the required books of high quality and merit. While this may be a long-term goal, in the short term, this would lead to tremendous problems in quality and logistics.

Finally, at the core, the essence of this “one medium-one curriculum” is unclear to me. The PTI seems to suggest that English and Urdu medium institutions create a class conflict. This may be true, but only in part. Class conflicts also arise due to poverty and our hierarchical and feudal society amongst other factors, and forcing everyone from classes one to nine to study in an Urdu medium school is not going to take that away.

Looked another way, the issue of transition to higher classes, from Urdu to English medium, is also not going to be easy or even pragmatic. As many of us who went to Pakistani high schools know, the brilliant students who came to English medium FSc from Urdu medium systems found it very difficult to adjust and were often unable to compete with their English medium peers, despite being equally, if not more, talented. The PTI itself agrees that “English is an international language of importance and gives an advantage to those who are proficient”.

The argument given for a local medium of instruction is often rooted in examples from China, European countries, etc. That argument is well taken, but anyone who has been to primary and junior schools in China, Norway, Germany, South Korea, etc. recently would agree that while local languages play an important role in instruction, English has made a strong comeback in the last 10 to 15 years due to the realisation that in a global economy, students need to learn both English and their local languages. In these countries, sciences and mathematics are now often taught in both English and the local languages, and an integrated system where students are comfortable in both English and Urdu is probably where we need to go.

The current PTI policy seems to be focused on what these nations were doing 40 years ago, not what they are doing or want to do in the next 40 years. Forcing every single school to teach the same material in the same language is also not seen anywhere else in the industrialised world. I hope that the party will go back and think hard about both the impact and the delivery logistics of their one medium for all policy.

Finally, my other major concern comes from lack of any substance or detail on higher education. The higher education component of the education policy provides no information on what would be different about the universities under a PTI administration. The policy argues that universities will be made a hub for research, but how? Who will pay for it? Even in the US, research at universities is an expensive undertaking and national funding agencies are fighting non-stop battles to save their funds from the chopping block.

Creating new universities sounds great but it is unclear who will pay for them. Should all universities do research? Should research only be done in the sciences as the policy seems to suggest? What about humanities research? The elephant in this room is, who is going to pay for all this? Even countries that have a far better and more efficient taxation system find it challenging to pay for research, so how would we do that? I am all for research and consider higher education to be a backbone of any country’s economy and growth potential, but like many, I also want to know, how will we pay for this.

In the end, I just want to go back to my first point. I am thrilled that education is now a part of the political debate and that we are seeing major political parties put some substantial ideas out in the public sphere. This trend needs to continue. We need to see real plans from all political groups. These ideas need to be debated (in a civilised manner), analysed and polished to create long-lasting impact. We have a very long way to go but a rigorous discussion on our education policy is certainly the right first step.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 2nd, 2013.


ayeshak | 8 years ago | Reply

No one is saying that we shoud ignore our mother tongue, the sooner we figure which one that is the better, having said that we all agree that Urdu is important however we are a 3rd world country and we have 3rd world problems, Let's TRY to be realistic and figure out a road map for success. let's talk about povery eliviation by way of land reform and the end of feudalism, let's talk about the poverty line; why do we need to bring down the quality of education,which mind you less than 1% getting to raise the level.Those 1% right now are the game changers, the leaders. That is not the way to move forward, we need to come together as a nation and give all our children a chance to succeed in the global world we live in today.

Gp65 | 8 years ago | Reply

@Ali: So by your own logic a kid whose mother tongue is Hindko or Pushto should have the option of going to a school which has those languages as medium of instruction , instead of being forced to learn Urdu - right?

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