How to manage this education emergency?

By Naveed Ahmed Shaikh
4 mins read

Pakistan’s prime minister’s declaration of an education emergency is a long-overdue recognition of the severe state of the nation’s education system.

However, while well-intentioned, the 14-point plan released by the government lacks the urgency and transformative potential that an actual emergency demands. It reiterates existing initiatives, raising concerns about its effectiveness in addressing the deep-rooted issues that are causing a crisis in the sector.

A closer look at these 14 points reveals that these plans have been tested, achieving varying levels of success. While there is no harm in revisiting these reforms, one struggles to find a single point that necessitates declaring an emergency.

These directives include initiatives to reduce the number of out-of-school children; improve the quality of teaching staff; enhance the health and nutrition of students; promote community-based teaching; establish financial support systems for students; replicate successful educational models; launch skill development programmes; develop online education resources; expand financial aid programmes; promote financial literacy; and foster innovation in education.

An education emergency is a powerful tool that allows for implementing extraordinary measures that, under normal circumstances, might face bureaucratic delays or political resistance. It serves as a beacon of hope, reminding us that the usual pace of policy implementation is woefully inadequate to address the urgency of the nation’s educational deficiencies. It underscores the immediate and effective action that is desperately needed, offering a path towards transformative change.

Pakistan lags in nearly all indicators, like literacy rate, net enrolment, and quality of education. For instance, let’s take one indicator: primary education completion rates. While many countries in the region have made significant strides in ensuring children complete their primary education, Pakistan is falling behind.

Data from Unesco shows that Pakistan’s primary school completion rate has slowly risen from 41 per cent in 2000 to 54 per cent in 2020. Despite this progress, the rate of improvement is worryingly slow, suggesting that Pakistan may not achieve universal primary education until 2083 (Article 25A of the constitution covers both primary and secondary education levels).

This consistent underperformance has positioned Pakistan as a unique country in the world. For instance, Pakistan’s primary completion rate is the lowest among countries with populations over 50 million. Pakistan’s tax-to-GDP ratio of 11 per cent severely restricts the investment potential needed to rescue the education system. As reflected in a World Bank index, the country’s public administration inefficiency places Pakistan below nations like Uganda and Nigeria. This inefficient bureaucratic structure renders Pakistan’s reform delivery arm almost ineffective. All this points to the fact that business as usual will not work.

Consensus on two broad points is essential across all political parties to move forward. First, short-term reforms are inadequate for a country as large as Pakistan. The reform horizon should be set for at least 10 years. Education reform is not akin to a road project; it requires a more-extended timeframe to implement meaningful changes. Frequent shifts in priorities every 3-5 years disrupt progress and ultimately do not benefit any political party.

Second, there needs to be a shift towards outcome-based financing. Education departments’ weak delivery mechanisms often lead to misappropriation and resource wastage, which is particularly detrimental in a sector struggling with limited resources.

There is a growing citizen-level consensus that the present trajectory is not only alarming but also poses an existential threat to the very being of the nation-state of Pakistan. As in existential wars, Pakistan must mobilize society-wide resources to rescue the nation. The prime minister’s call for action by declaring an education emergency must not be another missed opportunity for us, for we cannot afford it anymore.

A Covid-like forum must be constituted to coordinate state-wide resources. In the following paragraphs, an outline is being presented as a probable pathway:

Resource mobilization: Education should be declared a priority sector for all public and private establishments. Tax rebate incentives must be granted to private industries, banks, and goods and services providers if they enrol, retain, and provide quality education. For every 100,000 students, a 1.0 per cent tax rebate could be provided. This same incentive scheme should be extended to profit-making state-owned enterprises.

Like the carbon credit markets, these rebates should be made tradable to create a virtuous cycle connecting efficient and reputable education service providers with businesses. If implemented well, this incentive alone can bring hundreds of thousands of out-of-school children to formal schooling.

Pakistan has a robust banking and finance system. It can be fully leveraged if the education sector is legally declared an industrial/SME sector. To enrol 26 million additional children, Pakistan must make substantial investments in infrastructure and human resources. This goal cannot be achieved solely through taxpayer money. A two-pronged approach involving credit-based financing and student-based fee reimbursement from the public sector can potentially expedite the establishment of new schools.

Legal and regulatory change: The 18th Amendment has devolved the education sector to the provincial level. Before this amendment, education was on a concurrent list. However, this devolution remained incomplete. The education emergency will not achieve its goals unless education is devolved to the local government/district levels.

Institutional mechanism: In almost 25 years, education departments have raised the achievement levels to barely a few points, if not reversed. Take just one example: the primary completion rate, as discussed above. This progress barely encourages us to trust the education departments across the country to meet the targets of the education emergency.

It is probably appropriate to say that education is too serious a business to be left to Pakistan’s education departments. The country can adopt the following suggestions:

On the pattern of the Covid forum, the highest level of coordinating and implementing forum should be notified to work under the auspices of the SIFC.

A public-private authority dedicated to the education emergency should be formed to oversee Pakistan’s business sector’s contribution to education.

A consortium of public, private and development partners should be formed to monitor the outcomes of the above initiatives.

Declaring an education emergency in Pakistan is a significant step towards addressing the deep-rooted issues plaguing the sector. However, without a robust and actionable follow-up plan, this declaration risks becoming yet another missed opportunity.

The plan outlines a roadmap to mobilize resources, implement necessary legal changes, and establish robust institutional mechanisms to ensure that the education emergency leads to transformative change, setting Pakistan on a path to educational excellence.

Acknowledgement: Published by Daily News on 27 June 2024

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