Uzair Younus on why education reform in Pakistan is critical to improving economy

National education emergency

By: Uzair Younus

TO say that the global economy is undergoing a seismic shift would be an understatement. Advances in fields such as artificial intelligence, robotics, and renewable energy are set to transform the economic structure of modern economies. Societies with intellectual and human capital capable of competing in a future knowledge economy will prosper, while those with large pools of unskilled manpower will be left behind.

To assess the capabilities of human capital across the world, the World Economic Forum releases a yearly report titled The Human Capital Report. In its 2016 edition, Pakistan is ranked 118 out of 130 countries, falling five places from its ranking of 113 in 2015. The country ranks bottom in South Asia, and is behind countries like Rwanda, Haiti and Benin. According to the report, Pakistan’s low ranking is “due to poor performances on educational outcomes throughout all the Age Group pillars”. With a youth illiteracy rate of 75pc, Pakistan is “held back by insufficient educational enrolment rates and poor-quality primary schools”.

According to the World Bank, 35pc of Pakistan’s population is under the age of 14. This could be an opportunity, but right now it represents a ticking time bomb for a nation that is failing its children. Many would point to the lack of investment in public education and the fact that Pakistan spends a miserly 2.7pc of its GDP on education. While it is true that a lack of resource allocation and pervasive corruption have created an education crisis in Pakistan, the reality is that spending on education has dramatically increased since 2010. As Nadia Naviwala writes in her excellent report, Pakistan’s Education Crisis: The Real Story, the education budget of $7.5 billion in 2016 is more than double the $3.5bn allocated in 2010. According to the report, Pakistan’s challenge is not lack of spending, “it is misspending”.

To stop failing our children, we need a national education policy and appropriate investments in technology.

To come out of this crisis, creative solutions must be implemented and the political leadership must showcase bold vision and leadership. Pakistan’s human capital can be transformed within the decade, provided the government declare an education emergency and take four critical steps.

Firstly, the syllabi taught at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels should be revised. Schools in Pakistan offer outdated curricula that do little to promote the necessary skill sets needed for succeeding in a knowledge economy. Imparting an education that fosters critical thinking and promotes scientific and computer coding skills will play a key role in enabling future success. By being technologically astute at a young age, students can leverage the massive amount of knowledge on the internet to attain knowledge that cannot be taught in public schools due to structural limitations.

Secondly, efforts should be made to provide free broadband internet in all educational institutions across the country. Retraining teachers and ensuring that public schools are staffed with highly dedicated teachers will take a long period of time. In the pre-internet era, substantial investments were needed to provide students with books and libraries to foster their growth. With internet connectivity at schools, students can take advantage of distant learning opportunities and access information at the click of a button. Technology can also permit remote monitoring of schools to provide oversight and drive some of the structural changes necessary to ensure quality education is provided across the country.

Thirdly, the government should pursue public-private partnerships that seek to provide technology-based solutions in the education sector. Over the years, a number of non-profit and low-cost educational institutions have filled the institutional void left by the government. As Naviwala writes, “almost 40pc of Pakistani students are enrolled in low-cost private schools”. By promoting partnerships between technologists and public and private educational institutions, innovative solutions can be found to Pakistan’s education crisis. Provincial governments are already testing voucher-based programmes to enrol children in private schools; a fund to enable technology-based solutions as part of these programmes could promote further reforms.

Finally, efforts must be made to develop a national strategy for educating Pakistan’s coming generations. The wrangling between political parties, institutional corruption, and lack of political impetus have been the primary drivers of this education crisis. While provincial governments are making efforts to reform their respective education sectors, there is plenty of room for collaboration and cross-pollination of ideas. By combining ideas across the political spectrum, Pakistan’s political leadership can develop and implement a national education programme that seeks to empower the country’s youth.

Countries are already taking measures to be competitive in the coming decades, and Pakistan cannot afford to be left behind. Across the border in India, Google is gearing up to train two million Android developers for free. The Indian government has also launched a number of initiatives to boost the quality of education and is seeking to link access to funding to learning outcomes and the quality of education. This is in line with the country’s goal of becoming a manufacturing and technological hub that can rival China.

The government has long touted that ongoing investments in infrastructure and development will transform Pakistan’s economy. That may be true, but these investments will most definitely fail to provide sustainable growth without a capable workforce that can compete in a knowledge-based global economy. Pakistani policymakers need to showcase bold vision and leadership in order to propel the country forward. Without this, trade and economic corridors will simply be used as an access point for goods manufactured in more competitive economies.

Providing jobs to a young population and dealing with the adverse effects of climate change are two of the most significant challenges Pakistan will have to face in the coming years. Guaranteeing that children today are provided with the skills of tomorrow will ensure that the country meets these challenges head on. Failure to make these investments will inevitably lead to economic stagnation and political upheaval — the result of which will be a continued dependency on others for survival. That is an outcome that Pakistan cannot afford.

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