Talking about reforms in education sometimes feels like playing a broken record. You keep on repeating the same issues, raising the same alarms and screaming about the educational disaster that we are so strongly on the path of, but little to nothing changes. Sadly, we still have not made education the national priority as we ought to have long ago. Education is equally important as defence and finance when it comes to building a country. Yet, we relegate it to the status of a problem we can somehow imagine living with.
For starters, why does education not seem like the most important issue? Part of the reason is that for everyone in the country who matters, they had an escape in private education which they give, and are able to provide, to their kids. The elite and upper middle class thus aren’t facing an education crisis. They can give their kids quality education at expensive private schools across the country. But, for the majority of the population there is an apparent education crisis.
A lack of focus on public sector education has meant the system became outdated and we couldn’t compete with the rest of the world. If you look at even the most basic of things such as textbooks filled with errors and out of date curriculums which have not seen updates in decades, it is a gloomy sight indeed. You can point to many culprits for this situation, but at its essence is the lack of will to take this national priority seriously and ensure provision of good quality education to all.
Interestingly, the importance of education is ingrained within our societal and cultural values. We are all taught at home about how important it is to study. Most families would like their children to study and succeed. Anecdotally speaking, many families will sacrifice a better lifestyle in the hope that their children can get a better education and move up the social mobility ladder in life.
This prioritization of education at the social level, however, has never translated into prioritization at the government and political level. One argument is that politically education is a hard sell, you can’t show you have improved education in the same way as you have built a bridge. On the other hand, voters also don’t demand education with the same gusto and zeal as they demand other things from their political representatives: assistance in police and legal matters.
Thus, there is a great disconnect between our belief, “Education is vital and important,” and the implementation of this belief. We would like to believe it a priority, we support it being a priority, but when it comes to putting our money where our mouth is, we fail.
The principal challenge in bringing about reforms lies in the massive divide between education systems across the country. It is divided via the different boards that conduct examinations, the language of instruction, by public and private, the local and international qualifications, religious education versus secular education, by province, by the textbook board, and by geography.
We don’t have a one-size-fits-all approach to education in Pakistan, which arguably can be a positive given the flexibility it provides to the masses. However, in Pakistan’s case it has become a roadblock in the way of equal access to standardized quality of education for all citizens. The core issue is of education system variance and a lack of quality control, resulting in students of the same level producing different qualities of work. If you were to start reform you would have to bring everyone on the same page and make the reforms universal so that no child is left behind.
One affordable curriculum and accessible exam system will go a long way in providing equal opportunities to all our children in exploring their potential.
This divide is caused in part due to bad government policies. Where so many boards were created by so many governments, both provincial and federal. The Education Act needs to change to minimize this impact. Another issue is that as our own education system was dwindling in quality, the elite and movers and shakers of society were given an alternative in the form of private education with “imported” education. O-level, A-level, International Baccalaureate (IB) and Senior Cambridge and Junior Cambridge examinations became status symbols for the elite.
This further reduced the pressure on the government to improve its system or to implement reform. There is an argument to be made to ensure that all students receive the same level of education or be tested through a uniform examination system. However, the real issue will still be of quality. Only when examination quality is guaranteed will we be enabled to say goodbye to foreign boards, which also contributes to the outflow of money to foreign countries.
We also need to start thinking about what education really means. In addition to simple high school degree, we need to focus on technical skills and vocational training, too. Countries that have recognized that traditional education is not the only way have produced great results. This is particularly true in Germany’s case where traditional and technical education is seen as equally good in the eyes of the public.
A large part of our technical workforce is informally trained and uncertified. This lack of formal training means that a majority of our workforce can’t avail opportunities abroad in countries that pay well.
Technical training offers fast-track employment with opportunities for entrepreneurship and is an absolutely vital way of helping the country and people move forward. It is important to let go of traditional ways of looking at the job sectors with less prestige. Many in the Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) sector can now make more money than people who have had more traditional degrees in subjects which either don’t have demand or employability. Thus investment in the TVET sector can be an immediate stopgap measure to mitigate the effects of our education crisis.
We need to make education a national priority and start working on it day and night. The way the current government has prioritized fighting corruption and improving foreign relations, it would be a huge relief to see the same being done for education. Prime Minister Imran Khan is yet to prioritize or talk about education in any address he has given. Maybe that can be a great place to start, and if this government can educationally put this country on the right track it will be the biggest contribution to the safety, security and development of Pakistan.
The writer is a columnist, educationist and entrepreneur. He also works on youth issues in Pakistan.
E-mail: [email protected]
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