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No Child Left Behind? The Crisis in Pakistan's Education System

Pakistan's education system is regularly cited as one of the most serious impediments preventing Pakistan from achieving its potential. This day-long forward-looking conference will explore various options for improving Pakistani education, and discuss the role the international donor community might play. Sponsored by the Asia Program.

Date & Time

Apr. 15, 2005
10:00am – 4:30pm

No Child Left Behind? The Crisis in Pakistan's Education System

Shahid Javed Burki, former vice president, World Bank, and former Pakistan Minister of Finance
Grace Clark, executive director, U.S. Educational Foundation in Pakistan
Ishrat Husain, governor, State Bank of Pakistan
Kathleen Ann McNeil, co-editor, Women Living Under Muslim Laws Dossier
Jonathan Mitchell, manager, Education Sector Reform Assistance, Research Triangle Institute
Tariq Rahman, Quaid-i-Azam Scholar on Pakistan Studies, University of California,Berkeley
Michelle Riboud, education sector manager for South Asia, World Bank
Ahsan Saleem, chairman, The Citizens Foundation, Karachi
Salman Shah, Ministry of Finance, Islamabad
Mark Ward, deputy assistant administrator, US Agency for International Development, and former mission director, USAID/Pakistan

Pakistan's education system is regularly cited as one of the most serious impediments preventing Pakistan from achieving its potential. The UN Development Programme's Human Development Report gives Pakistan the lowest "education index" score of any country outside Africa. Pakistan is one of only 12 countries in the world that spends less than two percent of its GNP on education. The adult literacy rate in Pakistan is under 50 percent, while less than one-third of adult women have a functional reading ability. Among the problems Pakistan's education system faces today are inadequate government investment, a shortage of qualified teachers and poor teacher training, outdated curricula, insufficient number and poor quality of textbooks and other teaching materials, and weak institutional capacity at both the central and local levels. This grim picture provided the backdrop for a daylong April 15 conference, hosted by the Asia Program, on the crisis in Pakistan's education system.

Economists have only recently recognized the importance of education in promoting economic growth, observed Ishrat Husain, governor of the State Bank of Pakistan, in the conference's opening address. (Read Governor's Husain's speech.) Now, however, most economists accept the linkage between education and economic development. Unfortunately, Pakistan continues to lag behind its neighbors in providing quality education for its youth. Net primary-age enrollment rates in Pakistan are 50 percent; in Bangladesh, 75 percent; in India, 77 percent; and in Sri Lanka, 100 percent. And because government-run schools have failed so miserably in producing an educated citizenry, the last two decades have seen an explosion of private schools – some for profit, others organized by non-profit groups. Today more than one primary student in four attends a non-government school. But contrary to Western myths, Husain insisted, relatively few primary students – less than one percent – attend madrassas. Moreover, he added, the majority of madrassas in Pakistan are not affiliated with religious extremists, do not promote jihad, and offer a balanced curriculum.

The following panel featured four speakers offering alternative strategies to educational reform in Pakistan. Michelle Riboud of the World Bank discussed why earlier efforts at reform failed and provided details on the Punjab Education Sector Reform Program, a promising initiative being implemented by the province of Punjab, with support from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. Mark Ward of the US Agency for International Development outlined USAID efforts, past and future, to help the government of Pakistan advance its reform agenda. Ward gave conference attendees a news scoop by providing copies of a congressionally mandated USAID report that had been delivered to Congress only hours earlier.

Grace Clark emphasized the inter-relatedness between reform of Pakistan's system of higher education and reform at the primary and secondary levels. Because of the failure to upgrade Pakistan's institutions of higher learning, she declared, Pakistan remains "stuck in a pattern of intellectual colonialism." The final speaker on this panel – Ahsan Saleem, founder and chairman of the nonprofit Citizens Foundation -- detailed the efforts of one of Pakistan's most prominent private educational organizations to provide quality schools to the country's youth, and particularly its underprivileged children. (Seventy percent of the 34,000 Citizens Foundation students are on full scholarships.) Notwithstanding the important aid provided by the international community, Saleem declared, the answer to Pakistan's ills in the education sector must come from within Pakistan.

The luncheon speaker was Salman Shah, a senior official in Pakistan's Ministry of Finance and a close adviser to the prime minister. Shah placed Pakistan's education reform agenda into the broader context of development. Human resources, he asserted, are the number one input for development. This translates into a need for basic literacy and vocational skills; engineering, innovation, and technical skills; management and marketing skills; and information technology skills. Public-private partnerships are essential if Pakistan is to provide its citizenry with these prerequisites for development, Shah declared; the government cannot do it alone. Illustrating the magnitude of the challenge, Shah noted, Pakistan, a country of 150 million people, has one "decent" university, and provides "almost negligible" opportunities for vocational and technical education.

Tariq Rahman focused on English-language instruction in Pakistan's schools in the lead-off presentation in the afternoon panel, and linked English-language instruction with the diffusion of liberal values that might provide an antidote to the rising tide of intolerance and violence in Pakistani society. Kathleen McNeil looked at efforts by UNICEF to promote female education and gender parity in Pakistani schools. For such efforts to succeed, she contended, the initiative must come from the community, rather than as a top-down directive. But Bangladesh's accomplishments in this area, she continued, demonstrate that such efforts can succeed. Jonathan Mitchell also emphasized the importance of demand-driven strategies – that is, initiatives arising from within the local community. Pakistan's new experiments with devolution, he asserted, have had a positive impact by linking the average person with governmental authorities and giving common citizens a vehicle for demanding better schools. Constant pressure on the government, he insisted, will be necessary if Pakistan's education system is to be revitalized.

In the conference's concluding session, Shahid Javed Burki sought to summarize the day's discussions, identify areas of consensus, and offer suggestions for the way forward. Pakistan's real problem, he declared, is that it is a "dysfunctional state" whose "cynical politicians" have produced a "dysfunctional education system," which in turn churns out large numbers of unemployable males whose bleak economic prospects make them prime targets for purveyors of extremism. Madrassas, Burki added (in agreement with Governor Husain), are a "marginal issue" in Pakistan today. Three-quarters of Pakistani students attend government-run schools; this is where reform efforts should concentrate. But public schools should be run by local governments; the central government should exercise primarily a regulatory role.

There was widespread agreement among conference speakers and participants as to both the nature of Pakistan's education problem and the broad solutions. Whether the Musharraf government possesses the vision and political will to provide the necessary resources, enforce controversial decisions, and above all, follow through on its declared commitment to genuine reform remains to be seen, and was the subject of some disagreement during the day's proceedings. Only after the answer to this question becomes clear will we begin to know whether current education reform efforts in Pakistan will fare any better than their numerous failed predecessors. And in the resolution of that matter lies Pakistan's future.

Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program

Hosted By

Asia Program

The Asia Program promotes policy debate and intellectual discussions on U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific as well as political, economic, security, and social issues relating to the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region.   Read more


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