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Not much in education

Faisal Bari

The PTI government will be completing its third year in about three months. Election talk may start by the end of next year unless the opposition has its way. With two years to go, and large policy initiatives taking a long time to come into effect, we can safely assume that the government is likely to go into the next election with the results of policy initiatives it has introduced since it came to power in 2018.

Economic performance will be important. The government would be hoping, and working, for stability of the economy and some movement towards growth. If there is output and export growth and sufficient job creation, and if the economy appears more robust, the government will have a lot to celebrate. This is probably the most crucial aspect of the PTI’s performance as it moves forward. The changes in the finance team, looking for the right combination for delivering on this goal, should be seen in this perspective.

Given the weak fundamentals of our economy, recovery is unlikely to be large or very robust. But as we move away from the impact of Covid-19, some recovery will take place. If the finance team can boost the economy, the PTI might be able to go into the election season with something to celebrate.

No major new initiatives have been undertaken to address issues such as out-of-school children.

The PTI government came in making a lot of promises about human development in general and education in particular. The prime minister often says that education is a top priority. But three years into its tenure, the PTI government does not have much to celebrate. In the provinces where the PTI is in power, no major new initiatives have been undertaken in education to address issues such as out-of-school children and the poor quality of education, or even equity and inequality. At the federal level, the major initiative has been the drive for a Single National Curriculum (SNC) at the school level.

At the higher education level, there is even less to look at. Higher education funding has been cut over the last three years. Most recently, the government introduced very contested and controversial changes in the governance structure of the Higher Education Commission (HEC) through a presidential ordinance which has been challenged in court. Even if the government’s proposed changes go through, it is unlikely that they will give it anything to showcase over the next two years or so.

The SNC was introduced ostensibly to reduce inequity in the education system and to move towards equality of opportunity for all children. However, the objectives of the SNC are quite large and it is unlikely we will see any impact of the policy in two years even if is implemented effectively from the coming academic year. But there are many issues with the SNC itself that will challenge its efficacy and effective implementation.

Given education was made a provincial subject through the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, the introduction of the SNC is being seen as a clawback by the federal government and has been contested in some provinces on this count. So far Sindh has not agreed to introduce the SNC. This takes away the ‘national’ aspect.

A number of significant criticisms have been made and continue to be made against the initiative. The Minority Commission has argued that the SNC has introduced religious content in non-religious subjects as well. This issue has been raised in the Supreme Court and is being looked at. Others have argued that the increase of religious content through Islamiat is also of concern as it overburdens students and encourages rote learning.

Some critics have argued that the SNC discourages the use of local languages in the provision of education and encourages the use of Urdu and/or English. Others have argued that forcing schools to use a single curriculum without looking at household and school-based differences will not only make the SNC ineffective, it can also turn it into a policy that ends up decreasing educational diversity and forcing schools at the top to reduce quality rather than allowing those lower down to improve. The implementation challenges, as they are being faced by schools in Punjab right now, also show that the fears expressed are not unfounded.

On the higher education side, the government moved injudiciously and hastily to remove the HEC chairperson through an ordinance — it will end up hurting the HEC’s autonomy and institutional integrity. Even if the government succeeds in doing all that it wants and instals a new chairperson of its choice, the new head will have only a couple of years to deliver results in an area where rapid change is not really possible. So, even in the best-case scenario, there will be nothing to take to the public by the time the next general election comes round.

The major wins, if any, will have to come from economic performance: growth, income and employment numbers. There seems to be awareness of this in the government. On the human development and social welfare side, existing initiatives in health, housing and Ehsaas will have to provide the main wins. Though the PTI had promised to give high priority to access, quality and equity in education, the sad part is that it does not seem the government will have anything to show in the area of education in time for the 2023 polls.

Published in Dawn, April 30th, 2021

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